From meme to you

Steven Jones from the Propeller Club Liverpool on the unique opportunity the grounded Evergreen vessel has given shipping to engage with the general public.

Never in the field of global shipping has one ship Ever Given so much entertainment and laughs. The grounding of the ultra-large container ship made a splash in global news and drew an equally big response online as people rushed to their meme-making apps and cracked open a smile.

For the first time in a long time, here was a casualty that it was ok to titter at. No one was hurt, no sea birds were in need of a Fairy liquid lunch. There was only wounded pride and some fears about the collapse of Western society.

The markets burned while the man in the digger fiddled. Yes, yes we know Bob the Builder was only making way for some kind of giant bucket scoopy dredgy thing, don’t ruin the vibe. Facts wilt in the face of fun, deal with it!

That there has been such unbridled hilarity at the sight of a vessel in trouble could be worrying and troubling, but it is actually a positive and a real opportunity. Let me explain. What we have seen is a tidal wave of memes, as popular culture has taken the ship, canal and a small digger to its collective bosom.

Ships have regained their cultural significance

What is a meme you ask? Well, if we are going to be serious for a moment, they are to culture as genes are to life. They are the ideas, responses, the sharing of stories that spread thoughts, and which capture the way people are thinking and feeling.

That serious moment has passed, memes are just jokes in picture form. Usually, they are well-known images, with some text to capture a new situation. A woman shouts, a cat whispers back. Anyway, you’re online reading this, so you know full well what they are don’t go all coy on us now.

What does it mean to meme? When an event becomes culturally significant there is an almost exponential rise in the number of memes made and shared about it. Harry and Meghan, many memes. Trump, bigly memes. All the things which have an impact, they produce an online outpouring of sharing and laughter, which leads to more sharing and more laughter.

To see Ever Given enter the pantheon of meme greats, was to see shipping emerge back into popular culture in a way that has waned for far too many years. We in the maritime industry rightly bemoan the sea blindness which afflicts society whenever ever something drops over the horizon.

So suddenly ships regained their cultural significance. They were relevant, appreciated and part of the joke in a way that only things we really like ever are. For too long shipping has been invisible, shanties were a thing of the past, no more the paintings of maritime scenes adorn our walls. There was just a sense of ships as part of the dumb pipe that supplies our goods.

Well no more. Covid has fired up the shanty scene again (which may not be a good thing), and ships are back as part of the cultural landscape. Experts in shipping have emerged from their darkened bunkers to appear on TV and radio. Now more than ever shipping is in vogue, to the extent that I have learned that LL Cool J’s full name is Lloyd’s List. It’s not, that was a joke. See, it’s contagious.

There are many problems in our industry, we know them all – and of course, it is hard to smile when hundreds of thousands of seafarers are trapped unable to get home or to return to their jobs.

But, in every meme, in every joke shared, in every tweet the eyes of the world return to the sea. It has taken one gust of wind, allegedly, to blow not just a ship onto the sand, but to propel ships back to the consciousness of the world.

It won’t last, Ever Given has already started to move and will soon be gone. What will be left is just a billion Facebook reminders in a year about the time shipping had some fun. Even my own memes have garnered as many as 6 likes on Twitter, but that says more about me than the concept.

So, let’s not be snooty about the power of humour. Let’s not miss the opportunity to engage. We should talk of our passions, the joys of shipping and the importance of seafarers to the world, with a smile, not a tear.

For the land lubbing public, we need to take the opportunity. I awoke this morning to a shipping meme from my ageing Aunt. That is mad, and finally, it shows we have gotten through, but now what do we do?

Attention is fleeting though, as James Wilkes, also writing for Splash, said, “Shipping has to find a way to cut through the noise”, adding “If we want shipping to feature in the mind of the public, then the public has to feature in the mind of shipping.” This is why jokes are so powerful.

Comedy sticks in the mind, it even gets a physiological reaction. That is why the Suez meme-fest has been such a joy to behold. Let’s face it though, it will take Sir David Attenborough gently touching bottom to really hold the global gaze. Now, that really would be the gif that keeps on giving.


  1. Shiipping is so huge and at the same time so small. Small in the minds of the people who benefits, perhaps the most – the consumers and their cheap goods. How long has there been the call for shipping to be less obscure, to engage with the public. Only when there is a disaster, and look what the great concern was – global trade’ supply chains might collapse – not the seafarers. The approximately 400,000 stranded seafarers did not get this attention. Most of it came from unions, and welfare providers until the shipowners realised it was getting serious and the international organisations jumped in, but has it been solved? The calls have begun again re the vaccination. The Evergreen has been released and is on its way – where are the seafarers?

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