life cycles

The 5 Stages of a Meme Challenge

The final nail in the coffin: a Jimmy Fallon segment. Photo: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon/YouTube

The Milk Crate Challenge has been banned from TikTok. Zoomers across the nation are apoplectic. Cancel culture wins again. The Milk Crate Challenge, like planking, or the Harlem Shake, or the countless other challenges that came before it, encouraged young people to violently debase themselves on camera for a small chance to enter Internet Valhalla. In this case, teens were constructing rickety, makeshift pyramids out of loose, plastic milk crates; to complete the challenge one must climb to the pinnacle of that pyramid and return down the other side, risking a total structural collapse with every step. That’s the core appeal here — a successful milk-crate escalade is a lot less exciting than an unsuccessful venture — and the internet quickly filled with videos of people absolutely eating it as the boxes cave in beneath their feet. We can officially confirm that falling six feet and landing directly on a discarded milk crate looks really, really painful.

Naturally, the media quickly swelled up with grave warnings about what the youths are up to, with the Washington Post reporting on the “ACL and meniscus tears, broken wrists and even spinal-cord injuries” that have apparently resulted from various milk-crate debacles. ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, quickly blacklisted all videos of the challenge on August 27, probably to avoid any percolating lawsuits. If kids are going to injure themselves, they must now do it on their own time with no potential clout rewards on the table. A tragedy! But also right in line with the lifespan of the average viral stunt. Social media has a way of accelerating every news cycle to hyperspeed; the Milk Crate Challenge went from birth to death in about three and a half weeks. Blink and you miss it.

I was curious to learn more about the short, brutal existences of this particular genus of “meme challenge.” How does something so doofy, like risking a limb to scale a teetering monolith of milk crates, catch on in the first place? When do these stunts peak in the public arena? How are they rendered officially, canonically cringe? I sought the wisdom of Kalhan Rosenblatt, the internet culture reporter at NBC, who recently gave a seminar on the short half-life of virality, and she offered up a diagnostic protocol that ought to be useful as we track the life spans of the increasingly deranged challenges that are surely on the horizon. Consider it the Five Stages of a Viral Challenge, applicable to ice buckets, Tide pods, and whatever pops up next.

Stage One: The Copycat

According to the scholars at KnowYourMeme, the progenitor of 2021’s Milk Crate Challenge mania is a man named Billy Joe on Facebook. He uploaded a video of a couple friends toppling ingloriously from the summit of plastic, and soaked up a swathe of Likes for his trouble. Thousands of these chaotic stunt posts stay peacefully inert — I’ve watched a group of men throw a piano off a roof without it sparking a “throw a piano off a roof” challenge — but due to some unknowable metaphysical force, the universe naturally selects a few precarious backyard capers to metastasize across the internet. KnowYourMeme notes that two other Facebook users, named Kenneth Waddell and Jordan Browne, uploaded their interpretations of the Milk Crate Challenge to Facebook two weeks after Billy Joe’s brave pioneering. After the first copycat is minted, nobody can put the toothpaste back into the tube.

“It takes someone to say, ‘I wanna try that too,’ and when that happens, it becomes clear that a challenge is becoming a thing,” says Rosenblatt. “That’s when my ears prick up.”

Rosenblatt has some theories as to what challenges best attract the copycats. Accessibility is super-important, she argues. It takes a lot of work to haul a grand piano to the top of an apartment building, but anyone can plank pretty easily. Virality requires a very specific dosage of enticing, approachable stupidity. You know it when you see it.

“It has to be something imitable. The Milk Crate Challenge has a slightly higher bar of entry compared to planking, but not by much,” she says. “That’s when you’re on the path to something taking off.”

Stage Two: The Trend

It’s been a few days, and your challenge has sprung from the lonely pages of local Facebook dudes and into the hot fibers of the internet’s nervous system. Congratulations! The Milk Crate Challenge is officially a trend, laying siege to For You Pages across the globe. As Rosenblatt puts it, this is that brief moment where the internet feels objectively good. Everyone is enjoying this wonderful new Zeitgeist, empowered specifically by society’s innate ability to make each other laugh by risking incredible blunt-force trauma.

“People are now actively seeking out the challenge. It’s fresh,” she says. “People can’t get enough of it. It’s an ephemeral, intangible magic. Like, ‘Oh, I wanna see more of that.’ It’s a singular feeling, you’re enjoying it, and you can tell everyone else is enjoying it.”

This is why we keep logging on to social media, despite its rampant misinformation, callous cyberbullying, and the very real chance that a single tweet will permanently ruin your life. Civility is alive and well when everyone is watching people fall off of milk crates. Why can’t it always be this way?

Stage Three: The Good Celebrities

It’s been about two weeks. All the prominent YouTubers and TikTokkers have fallen off of milk crates, and the chronic clout chasers are hard at work cranking out eccentric permutations of the core source material. (Here, for instance, is a Milk Crate Challenge–themed music video.) Hollywood awaits! The challenge has fully crossed over into a genuine mainstream phenomenon, spurring takes from the most chronically online journalists in media. (Guilty.) But before the normies get their hands on our little slice of heaven, it’s first filtered through the celebrities who hold a certain internet-y credo. In particular, Rosenblatt cites Charli XCX, the British singer who’s been an early and eager adopter to zillions of memes throughout her career. Charli runs a TikTok that possesses a zoomer fluency to rival Addison Rae. If she jumps on a trend, we at least know her heart is in the right place.

“When [a celebrity like Charli] is catching onto these challenges, they do it well because they’re ingrained in internet culture,” says Rosenblatt. “They’ve seen the genesis of a from the original incarnation to now.”

No, unfortunately Charli XCX hasn’t attempted the Milk Crate Challenge herself, but she’s also responsible for one of the greatest viral videos of all time. Call it a draw.

Stage Four: The Bad Celebrities (Or, More Specifically, Jimmy Fallon)

Oh no! Your challenge has officially entered the tomb of late-night television! It’s never going to escape. Obviously ByteDance’s outright ban was the final nail in the coffin, but you could argue that the ultimate annihilation of the Milk Crate Challenge occurred a few days earlier, when Jimmy Fallon cited it in his “Thank You Notes” sketch. Yes, talk-show hosts are the harbinger of doom for anything cool or funny happening online. James Corden, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel are the four horsemen of the meme apocalypse; once they do the proverbial Harlem Shake, says Rosenblatt, you know that it’s time to move on.

“It’s like regurgitating the motions of a trend to gain bona fides with Gen-Z,” she continues. “These talk show hosts aren’t even enjoying it. It feels completely inauthentic, and inauthenticity is the antithesis of being extremely online. It’s a huge red flag.”

Rosenblatt is 100 percent right. There is a stark, inarticulable difference between someone stomping up a milk-crate pyramid because they saw someone do it on TikTok, and someone stomping up a milk-crate pyramid because the writers’ room thought it would be a good idea. Late-night TV has been behind the curve for decades, but we’re always reminded of its withering presence in the culture by its insatiable, flailing attempts at bargain-bin virality. I suppose that makes it a helpful barometer for our purposes. Do you want to verify if a meme is over? Tune into CBS at 11:35 p.m. and find out!

Stage Five: The Graveyard

At last, we’ve reached the place where all challenges go to die. The plastic crates take up residence next to the ice buckets, the Tide pods, and that photo of Hugh Hefner planking, never to be seen again. The Milk Crate Challenge will forever be associated with its distinct place in time — the absurdly hallucinogenic summer of 2021 — as a signifier for how weird we’re all feeling on month 16 (!) of the pandemic.

“There’s this accelerated nostalgia, because time on the internet seems like it moves incredibly fast and incredibly slow at the same time,” says Rosenblatt. “In a year, we might see the Milk Crate Challenge again totally sardonically, to say, ‘Remember 2021?’”

That is the fate of every trend in our culture; they stand as a microcosm of the human condition — shorthand for an entire era. When the alien archivists uncover the videos of us writhing in agony following yet another inexplicable milk-crate wipeout, they’ll conclude that the Earthlings were very much not okay in 2021. They will be absolutely correct.

The 5 Stages of a Meme Challenge