Which Came First, Inflation or the Egg Meme?

The chicken is crossing the road, and she is doing so glamorously, touting a Louis Vuitton bag, rocking a Derby-style bowler hat and avoiding the paparazzi in sunglasses. In the eyes of frustrated grocery shoppers equipped with Photoshop and social media accounts, chickens have become the misers of a valuable asset: eggs.

Across Facebook and Instagram and Reddit and Twitter and TikTok, consumers fed up with soaring egg prices are coping the modern way: They’re making memes.

Some posts compare cartons of eggs to stacks of gold and cold, hard cash. On TikTok, there are more than 14.2 million videos listed under #eggshortage. Among them, there’s a recurring joke: a person, often wearing a fur coat, weighs, inspects and doles out eggs like a drug dealer. Rick Ross’s “Hustlin’” is the soundtrack to really drive home the gag.

But the videos going viral aren’t always staged. One TikTok filmed at a Costco shows a line of people snaking through the store to buy eggs. It’s a scene familiar to those who remember the toilet paper shortage early in the pandemic.

Don Caldwell, the general manager and editor in chief of the internet archive site Know Your Meme, traces the origin of several egg price jokes circulating online to a tweet posted on Dec. 23 that suggested chickens had unionized. It quickly inspired jokes about chickens “staging some chicken revolution,” he said.

“We’ve seen similar memes around inflationary market pressures,” Mr. Caldwell said, noting the deluge of internet humor in response to the spike in gas prices last spring.

There are several explanations for rising egg prices. A highly contagious bird flu has been going around for almost a year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that at least 57 million chickens have been affected, making it the deadliest bout of avian influenza to date. Another, potentially more impactful factor is inflation. Costs are rising for many components of consumer egg production including fuel, chicken feed, packaging and labor. Other food prices are increasing, too, but the average cost of eggs has nearly doubled.

Eggs are, as the New York Times columnist and egg enthusiast Eric Kim elegantly put it, “a blank canvas for flavor and sustenance, in both form and content.”

As “eggs are this cornerstone of so many other foods,” it’s no wonder egg memes are something that not only “chronically online” people are participating in, said Amanda Brennan, the senior director of trends at XX Artists. “When it hits the local suburban Facebook groups, that’s when you know it’s serious.”

Online searches for “egg substitutes” are up by 16,000 compared with last year. Home cooks and influencers are seizing on the opportunity to share recipes for eggless breakfasts and cupcakes (next, the eggless omelet?).

This isn’t the first time eggs have been spotlighted on social media. In 2019, the @world_record_egg became a beloved Instagram stunt as the account attempted to make a stock photo of an egg the most-liked picture on the platform. (It was successful, beating out Kylie Jenner’s baby announcement, until it was bested by a Leo Messi post after Argentina won the World Cup last month.)

It’s unclear when, or if, consumers can expect prices to fall. In the meantime, there’s not much to do but post through it.

“When people meme things, they’re not necessarily saying they’re not serious or important,” Mr. Caldwell said. “It’s a very social game to play online, to be more connected to people about an issue. It makes people feel less alone.”

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