Boys Don’t Cry: Analyzing The MJ Cry-Face Meme

Another post in my long line of school-papers turned blog posts. At this point in my academic career I pretty much go out of my way to troll serious topics, and write about stuff that actually interests me. The goal of this paper was to analyze a popular internet meme, so of course I had to choose the GOAT (and his meme). The teacher wanted to fail me for not using enough sources, but then remembered that J. Cole went platinum with no features, so she gave me an 85 instead; feelsgood.

Read up on the exceptional history of the Michael Jordan cry-face meme, and be on the look-out for the Eminem content analysis that I’m currently working on, soon.


Boys Don’t Cry: An Analysis of The Michael Jordan “Cry-Face” Meme

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The actual cover photo to my report – and yes, it was due the first day back after a long weekend.

Miss a game-winning shot in basketball? Cry-face. Get indicted on criminal charges? Cry-face. Line up for hours to score an exclusive shoe, but don’t end up with a pair anyways? Cry-face. How about a cry-face for winning an award that you’ve worked for your entire life, seemingly appropriate right? Well that’s what NBA legend and sports icon Michael Jordan thought back in 2009 while accepting his admission as a first ballot hall-of-famer into the basketball Hall of Fame. Little did he know, almost 7 years later, the meme that is now literally known simply as the “Michael Jordan Crying Face meme” or “Crying Michael Jordan” still dominates nearly all failures that occur on the internet.1 The viral success of this meme has been widespread across all corners of the web, now extending from what was a mere sports reference to a now variety of pop-culture moments; MJ belongs to the internet now. To unpack the secret of the tears, I’ll explain exactly what an internet meme is, before delving into the history and impact of this particular meme, and why it’s been so successful.

A meme, as defined by its coiner, Richard Dawkins in his 1967 book The Selfish Gene, is “an information pattern, held in an individual’s memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual’s memory”2. This includes anything that can be learned or remembered: ideas, knowledge, habits, beliefs, skills, images, etc. Memetics, the actual name for the study of meme’s, is known “as the theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes”, which is a smooth transition into the world of internet memes.3 Internet memes are the digital age iteration of what Dawkins first described. Person-to-person sharing has been made infinitely easier thanks to the power of the internet, making virality possible. Viral media is measured by how quickly said piece of media gains traction & popularity via sharing on social media.4 A few notable examples of different typed of viral media/internet memes include “Rickrolling” and “LOLcats”.5

Picture meme’s have swiftly taken over the internet in recent history with the rise of micro-blog based social media platforms like Twitter & Instagram, as well as meme generators like Imgur and other web applications. Around 2012 when the potential of internet memes was finally coming into fruition, a 3 year old photograph of Michael Jordan tearing up while being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, resurfaced on prevalent generator “Meme Crunch”, being dubbed as “sad Michael Jordan”.6 Gaining popularity by being copied over by many online individuals for a few years, popular sneaker forum NikeTalk has been credited by many for kick starting what is now more commonly known as the “Michael Jordan cry” meme on a mass level, in early 2015.7  The rise of the cry-face finally peaked on March 2015 when online culture curator and magazine Complex posted an article titled “The Definitive Guide To Using The Michael Jordan Crying Meme”, thus cementing its place in meme stardom.8 Best described by NPR, the MJ Cry-face is now used to express “to express disappointment, mock opponents, gloat — and, increasingly, not just regarding sports”, as exampled in the aforementioned Complex article.9 Copied and pasted on nearly anything that you can think of, the Arizona Cardinals organization of the National Football League even “trolled” themselves after an embarrassing loss to the Carolina Panthers in the 2015 season by tweeting out the meme. Trolling, in an internet setting at least, is the act of posting something with the intentions of “upsetting or provoking (other users) by posting such messages or comments”10 – this has become the main use for the meme, on various levels.

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The meme itself usually features a cutout of Jordan’s emotional, tearful face, plastered onto the subject of the trolling, whether it be another person (athlete, celebrity, etc), or even sometimes inanimate objects. Further representations including GIFs, videos, and even products such as custom sneakers have followed suit in what is one of the most popular meme’s in recent memory.

What makes the Jordan cry-face so hilariously shareable are 2 very important things – how versatile & often relatable the meme is, and the subject of the initial meme. Following closely with a few of the factors noted in Berger & Milkman’s six P’s, the Jordan cry-face utilizes positivity (humour), packaging, and of course, participation. Simply put, the cry-face is humorous to many because of its content.11 As Berger & Milkman explain, “people are more likely to share positive than negative stories”12; the cry-face adds a lighter side to often cringe-worthy happenings like a playoff loss or a celebrity’s public embarrassment. Packaging is also crucial here – the Jordan cry-face is simple & versatile. Even without prior knowledge of the background history of the meme, or even who Michael Jordan is, the context of the meme is usually enough to create the gutty reaction expected as the meme is extremely easy to decode. Finally, participation seems to hold the highest enhancement powers in this case. What started as the reposting of a single image repeatedly, quickly became a participatory game of “pin-the-cry-face-to-the-donkey”. With more and more people joining in on the fun, including notables such as entire sports organizations & other celebrities, social network users began to feel encouraged to “carry out other activities related to it.”13 Coincidentally, “simplicity”, “humour”, and “participation tools” are all noted as being where the overlap between virality & memetic success lie, all of which “crying Michael Jordan” embodies.14

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The ease of access related to the Michael Jordan cry-face meme means everything. The simple, clean humour of a grown man (not to mention a distinguished public figure) crying surpasses most feelings of online angst, proving to be key in eliciting participation. Virality ensues, and furthermore what Dawkins would have defined as memetic success occurs. It has now been 7 years since Michael Jordan cried on stage, 4 years since the meme hit the internet, and almost 2 years since going completely viral with little sign of slowing down. If research indicates anything, the cry-face is here to stay.

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