Share this story...
Latest News

What it was like hunting memes outside Area 51

A group of people "Naruto Run" towards the gates of Area 51 on Sept. 20, 2019 Photo: Colby Walker

For all but a very few select individuals, everyone who’s ever lived on earth has spent their entire existence has on this small blue speck hurtling around the inky blackness of the universe at nearly 70,000 miles an hour. Every morning, the sun comes up in the east, and every night, we look at the same moon and the same stars that our ancestors did — and sometimes we wonder whether or not we’re alone.

British sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, who among other things helped co-write the screenplay “2001: A Space Odyssey,” said that there are only two possibilities about whether we have any galactic neighbors.

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying,” Clarke wrote.

So are we alone? That’s at least part of the reason that I ended up standing outside a top-secret government base just after 3 am on a random Friday in September.

The Storm Area 51 event

Nearly 100 people gathered at what’s known as the “back gate” of Area 51, 10 miles outside the small Nevada town of Rachel, on September 20, 2019. They were there because of a viral Facebook post that went live on the internet 85 days earlier.

People came from as far away as France and as close as Las Vegas, hoping to “see them aliens.”

Some were dressed up as astronauts, others as aliens. Many held signs calling for the freedom of imprisoned extraterrestrials or hopes to find an alien girlfriend.

“We’re trying to find aliens,” Brennan Streader told me. He, along with a few of his friends, had made the drive to Rachel from Provo, a distance of 385 miles.

From those I talked to, very few of them had any hopes of seeing any aliens or actually storming the base, though. Most of them were just there for the memes.

For the memes

In a lot of ways, memes are like germs. They start out when one person gets infected by some sort of idea. Then, it can spread from person to person and from timeline to timeline. For the most part, those memes stay on people’s timelines and don’t make it past the screen.

But this Storm Area 51 meme didn’t just stay behind a screen. It passed, person to person, until thousands of people drove out into the remote Nevada desert — and around a hundred or so of them gathered to chant “Set E.T. free” at 3 in the morning.

“It looks like the whole internet showed up,” Ashley Rookstool, a student from Utah, said.

“It’s definitely not been something that I expected,” she continued. “It’s just funny to see the different kinds of people that are here and how different and weird everybody is. It’s fun.”

That’s really the thing that I took away from the whole raid. Those who decided to brave the cold desert night weren’t just the conspiracy theory people or the anti-government crowd. They were meme-ers, and the whole reason they rolled out of their sleeping bags that early to end up at the end of a partially paved road outside the gates of a top-secret military base some over 50 miles away from the closest gas station was because someone got bored at 2 am.

So those 100 stalwart meme-ers showed up in the desert to be a part of that inside joke and live the meme. People want to be included. Over the last few months, the internet has churned out Area 51 memes in bulk. It was a shared joke, and it made people happy.

The bright side of the Internet and social media

Far too often, we hear about the dangers of social media and how it tends to bring out the worst in us. It leads us to compare highlights or say nasty things while we can hide behind a keyboard, critics argue. The anonymity we gain can lead us to forget about our shared humanity. But for that weekend in late September, there were just a bunch of meme fans that showed up to make memories.

“Why would you want to miss this?” one of the stormers said, wearing a bright orange spacesuit. “A bunch of random people in weird costumes standing outside a government base. That’s a once in a lifetime experience. It’s like Halloween but we are just annoying people.”

Even if there weren’t any aliens found or government bases raided, one Reddit user summed up the weekend well: while they didn’t actually raid Area 51, “at least we got 3 months of good memes.”