Anticipated for years, the passing of Queen Elizabeth II was foreshadowed by persistent speculations circulating through the digital corridors of social media.
As befits a figure of her global eminence and distinction, the prevailing online discourse of the day has been unequivocally dominated by deliberations concerning the queen.
As a venerable 96-year-old embodiment of an institution tracing its roots back across the ages, the queen defied conventional expectations regarding her technological acumen. Disrupting stereotypes surrounding individuals of her vintage, Elizabeth—albeit facilitated by her associates—embraced technology with an enthusiasm that rivaled contemporaries. Her inaugural foray into electronic communication transpired during her visit to the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern, England, in 1976, coinciding with the nascent stages of ARPANET, the precursor to today’s interconnected cyberspace.
Her digital moniker? HME2: an abbreviation encapsulating the essence of her regal identity, Her Majesty, Elizabeth II. “A mere press of a few buttons,” recounted Peter Kirstein, the architect behind the queen’s inaugural email account, in a 2012 interview with WIRED.
Yet, her technological fluency transcended the realm of emails. Back in 1997, she inaugurated the maiden iteration of the royal family’s website, pre-dating the online migration of several prominent UK newspapers. A decade later, she spearheaded the family’s venture onto YouTube, gracing the platform with a rare recording of her inaugural televised Christmas Broadcast in 1957. Even her first tweet materialized in 2014. As her health waned and the throes of Covid-enforced lockdowns curtailed her physical engagements, she seamlessly pivoted to the digital milieu, effortlessly navigating iPads and embracing virtual gatherings on Zoom.
“I’m of the belief that the queen has exhibited remarkable acumen in traversing the digital realm,” asserted Sadie Quinlan, a fervent pro-royalist content creator who operates under the pseudonym Yankee Wally. (Quinlan’s critique-heavy videos on Meghan Markle have attracted their share of criticism.) “I am convinced she possesses an acute awareness of the digital landscape’s dynamism, acknowledging its propensity for the extraordinary and recognizing its enduring impact, transcending the boundaries of the physical.”
However, in recent years, the queen—a paragon of the “never complain, never explain” ethos that defines the royal lineage—evolved beyond a mere early adopter of technological trends. She metamorphosed into a veritable meme, embraced with ardor by denizens of the digital realm seeking to interject sagacious commentary into the virtual discourse. “The online domain exhibits a distinct fondness for endearing portrayals of the elderly,” elucidated Idil Galip, a scholar specializing in meme culture at the University of Edinburgh, and curator of the Meme Studies Research Network. The queen’s professed affinity for corgis, a breed to which she once played caretaker, also endeared her to the denizens of the digital sphere. “Her fondness for creatures has assuredly been instrumental in her memetic resonance,” contended Galip. “The online universe harbors a shared adoration for corgis, a sentiment that unites both the queen and the netizens.”
The ceaseless procession of ceremonial events and public appearances further provided the queen ample moments for memetic genesis. Whether her exuberance during the encounter with bovines as part of her 90th birthday celebrations in 2016 or the unpretentious act of slicing a cake with a ceremonial sword in 2021, she demonstrated an innate knack for resonating with the masses. “The veneer of regal detachment, when momentarily peeled away, offers an enchanting glimpse of her relatability,” Galip mused, underscoring the appeal.
The queen’s seamless alignment with the contours of meme candidacy stems from the stark dissonance between her gravity-laden stature and her ventures into the realm of lightheartedness. “It’s the element of unexpectedness,” Galip remarked, elucidating the phenomenon. “Imagine a stern schoolteacher cracking an unforeseen joke. The element of surprise arises from the revelation of their personality, their interests, their humor—attributes that appear incongruent with their ostensibly distant societal role.” The queen’s predilection for jesting at her own expense and puncturing the veneer of her exalted position further cemented her rapport with the masses.
A watershed juncture that served to intimately connect the queen with her subjects transpired in 2012. As a part of the Olympic Games’ inauguration in her nation, she embraced the role of the “straight man” opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond. The standout moment in this scenario featured the queen—portrayed by a stunt double—leaping from an aircraft, a twist designed to evoke amusement. This puckish sense of humor endured a decade later, evidenced during her Diamond Jubilee when she engaged in a playful tête-à-tête with a computer-generated incarnation of Paddington Bear, while sipping tea within the confines of Buckingham Palace.
The revelation was a delightful surprise, not least because over her reign, she had adhered to an inclination towards inscrutability. “Her proclivity for reticence on various matters, coupled with her remarkably expressive countenance, creates an intriguing dynamic,” affirmed Quinlan, expressing her thoughts prior to the queen’s demise. (This expressiveness notably birthed the “One is Not Amused” meme in 2012.) “While her exterior might appear unyielding, there are subtle clues she inadvertently divulges. She is a puzzle, a figure of intrigue and mystique.” For Anastasia Denisova, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Westminster whose focus encompasses memes, this very enigma encapsulates the queen’s lasting memetic appeal. “The queen serves as a conduit for introducing memetic subjectivity,” Denisova elaborated. “Her iconography is undeniably potent, rendering her a prime canvas for creative reinterpretation, joining the ranks of Che Guevara, Keanu Reeves, and Willy Wonka.”
The inversion of norms has been a linchpin in upholding the queen’s online popularity, according to Galip’s discernment. “The most resonant jokes are those that culminate in an unforeseen or astonishing punchline. Internet memes adhere to the same principle,” she expounded. “The fusion of an image portraying a character typically characterized by detachment, juxtaposed with a relatable caption, encapsulates the essence of such humor.”
Yet, her advanced age and health predicament, compounded by her role as a sovereign—having borne witness to 15 UK prime ministers and a succession of US presidents spanning from Harry Truman to Joe Biden—cast her well-being as a recurring theme in the realm of social media discourse, long before the present day. A slew of conjectures concerning the queen’s frailty and unwarranted alarms concerning her demise found propulsion via the channels of social media. Jess Maddox, an assistant professor specializing in communications and information sciences at the University of Alabama, and an authority on digital culture, observed how the queen’s enduring resilience and longevity effectively transformed her into a wellspring for memes. “Memes flourish within the context of communal experience—something universally shared and relatable,” Maddox noted. “Yet, in some instances, that shared experience is epitomized by pervasive uncertainty. Queen Elizabeth II’s reign spans seven decades, and her eventual passing will constitute a global occurrence that only a handful of individuals on this planet have directly encountered. This aura of uncertainty lays fertile ground for the cultivation of memes.”
As the queen’s health condition evolved, the pronouncement that she had embarked on a “new phase” in her well-being attained meme status, particularly as her robust health during the pandemic had already spurred its own wave of memes.
The queen’s passing signifies a seismic transformation not only within the royal family and UK society but also in the dynamics governing interactions between the UK’s head of state and their kin with the general populace. Despite her adeptness in embracing technology, the queen consciously opted for a degree of remoteness, abstaining from publicly airing her emotions. In contrast, the succeeding generation of the royal family—exemplified by figures like Harry and Meghan, William and Catherine—exhibits a greater willingness to openly share facets of their lives via platforms such as Instagram. This shift reflects a distinct mode of public communication, albeit one that remains intrinsically intertwined with the digital landscape.
“I have an immense fondness for the queen,” Quinlan reflected in the period preceding the present news. “She’s been a constant presence throughout my existence. Even in the midst of my personal upheavals and tumults, there she stands, resolute, undeterred by the challenges life throws her way.” Quinlan’s age, exactly three decades junior to the queen, contributes to this perspective. Speaking prior to the formal announcement from Buckingham Palace, Quinlan voiced her conviction: “I’m of the belief that her time is not yet due.” She continued, “Given that her mother lived to the ripe age of 104, I hold that the queen is destined for at least a centenary. The news that unfolded today has left me utterly shattered.”