Cafeteria Cartoon Goes Viral Amid a Rush of Cultural Tribalism

Vectortoons-Cafeteria-Publicity-H 2019

"Where y'all sitting?" goes the meme, which divides fandom up among 10 lunchroom tables, offering social media users "a sense of belonging and reaffirmation of their sense of individualism," according to one expert.

Where y'all sitting?

That's the question on Twitter's mind lately, accompanied by a simple visual metaphor that helps divvy up the many strains of fan culture at constant odds on the Internet.

The meme, which has exploded over the last 48 hours, employs the notion of cafeteria tribes — popularized in high school comedies like Mean Girls and Freaks and Geeks — to give fandom an easy way to "stan" (stalk/fan) their chosen teams.

It began, according to Sophie Dickinson of the website Know Your Meme, with a July 30 tweet featuring a photo of a high school cafeteria, over which the names of Justin Bieber songs had been superimposed over three tables. "Where are you sitting," asked the Twitter user

"I did an advanced search in English and Korean (lots of K-Pop fans using this meme) on Twitter using words like 'sitting' and 'table' between a certain time frame and that's what I came up with," explains Dickinson via email of her methodology.

The following day, the photo was replaced with a cartoon drawing of a cafeteria — this one with 10 tables, each featuring the photo of a different K-Pop star — and the question was tweaked to poll fans of Korean pop music, "Where y'all sitting?"

That wording stuck.

From there, the highly adaptable meme has exploded to incorporate things like fashion designers, NFL players, rap stars, ABBA songs, movie directors, Hollywood actresses, video games titles, popular Twitter accounts and more.

No one is more delighted, if mildly mystified, at the meme's popularity than Brad Gosse, the 45-year-old founder of Vector Toons, the clip art site where the cafeteria image originated. 

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday from the company's headquarters in Toronto, Gosse says he's OK with the mass proliferation of the image, which has the Vector Toons watermark on it.

"We're not going to be policing people’s use of an image like that," Gosse says. "But under the guise of satire or parody I’m happy to let that happen because it does increase awareness in our branding and an uptick in sales and traffic." 

A non-watermarked version is available for $25.

The image was originally uploaded to the site March 20, 2017, where it became one of over 3 million such drawings in a database. Gosse won't reveal the name of the artist; the company uses six designers plus a "graphics robot named Higgins" to create its images, and pays its human artists up front for full ownership of their work. He did say the artist is a woman. 

As Monday was a civic holiday in Canada, Gosse was startled to return Tuesday and see a tsunami of interest around the unassuming background drawing. "RuPaul's Drag Race even posted it on Instagram!" Gosse notes. (That version divides the cafeteria into various drag queen catchphrases like "Oppalance" and "Twerking is a blessing.")

According to Dickinson, the past year has seen a sharp uptick in fan Twitter accounts going viral with "participatory Twitter games" like the cafeteria meme and the "Summoning Circle" meme that emerged last spring. 

"Participating in tweet queries like this give the user both a sense of belonging and reaffirms their sense of individualism," Dickinson says.

As for the future of "where y'all sitting," Dickinson predicts it could flicker out by the end of this week, "unless it were to be picked up by someone who changes the format in a way that makes the game more interesting or if a celebrity were to participate."

The Mean Girls cafeteria map scene that may have inspired the meme is below.

Versions of the "where y'all sitting?" meme: