The death of Queen Elizabeth II was expected for years—and presaged by strong rumors on social media. It’s fitting for a woman of her global stature and recognition that the online conversation today has been dominated by discussions of the queen.

For a 96-year-old representing an institution that dates back centuries, the queen was more tech-savvy than many imagine. Defying stereotypes about women of her age, Elizabeth—through her handlers—was an enthusiastic adherent of technology. She sent her first email when visiting the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern, England, in 1976 as part of the early development of Arpanet, the precursor to today’s global internet.

The queen’s username? HME2: Her Majesty, Elizabeth II. “All she had to do was press a couple of buttons,” Peter Kirstein, the man who helped set up the queen’s email account back then, told WIRED in 2012.

She wasn’t just an early adopter of email. In 1997, she launched the first version of the royal family’s website, years before some major UK newspapers decided to go online. Ten years later, she launched the family’s YouTube channel with a rare video of the first televised Christmas Broadcast in 1957. She also sent her first tweet in 2014, and she tapped on an iPad and embraced Zoom meetings as her health failed and Covid lockdowns curtailed many of her in-person public engagements.

“I think the queen has been extremely savvy on the internet,” said Sadie Quinlan, a pro-royal YouTuber who posts under the name Yankee Wally. (Quinlan has been criticized for her anti–Meghan Markle commentary videos.) “I think she knows what’s going on, and I know she knows it’s quite wild, and life continues on the internet more so than real life.”

But in recent years, the queen, whose motto through the royal family was “never complain, never explain,” became more than an early tech adopter. She became a meme, enthusiastically deployed by social media users looking to offer wry commentary on their peers. “The internet loves a little old lady being quirky,” says Idil Galip, who studies memes at the University of Edinburgh and operates the Meme Studies Research Network. That the queen had a love of corgis, at one point owning nine of them, also helped endear her to the online masses. “I think her love of animals has also been an important part of why she has been memefied,” says Galip. “The internet also loves corgis, and so does the queen.”

The endless, listless life of building openings and public events also gave the queen plenty of opportunities to become a meme. From her excitement at seeing cows as part of her 90th birthday celebrations in 2016 to cutting a simple cake with a ceremonial sword in 2021, she showed an ability to play to the masses. “I think many people also enjoy getting a peek behind the facade of royal aloofness and being like, ‘Oh she’s just like us,’” says Galip.

What makes the queen an ideal meme candidate is the disparity between her serious standing and less-than-solemn actions. “It’s the unexpectedness of it,” says Galip, “like when you’re in school and the stern teacher cracks a joke that no one saw coming. It’s surprising that they have a personality, interests, or a sense of humor when they seem so removed from society.” The queen’s willingness to poke fun at herself and puncture the pomposity of her position also endeared her to the public.

One watershed moment in bringing the queen closer to her people occurred in 2012, when she played the straight man to Daniel Craig’s James Bond as part of the launch of the Olympic Games in the country. That video involved the queen—in reality, a stunt person—jumping out of a plane as part of the punch line. It’s a wicked sense of humor she perpetuated a decade later as part of her Diamond Jubilee, hamming it up alongside a computer-generated version of Paddington Bear over a cup of tea inside Buckingham Palace.

It was a surprise to see—not least because throughout her reign she preferred to remain largely inscrutable. “Because she is so silent on so many things, and her face is so expressive, even though she doesn’t look like she’s giving it away, she does,” said Quinlan before her passing. (Such expressiveness was made into the One Is Not Amused meme in 2012.) “You can kind of read into her whatever you want to read. She keeps people guessing. She’s an enigma and a woman of mystery.” For Anastasia Denisova, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Westminster who studies memes, that mystery is what makes the queen an enduring meme. “The queen is a vehicle for adding memetic subjectivity,” she says. “The iconography of the queen is very strong too, which makes her perfect material for remixing, along with Che Guevara, Keanu Reeves, and Willy Wonka.”

That flipping of the norms has helped the queen remain popular online, reckons Galip. “The best jokes are ones that have a surprising or unexpected punch line. In internet memes, the same is true,” she says. “The juxtaposition of the image of a normally aloof person and a relatable caption captures that sort of laughter.”

But her illness and age, coupled with her position as a head of state—she had seen 15 UK prime ministers and US presidents from Harry Truman to Joe Biden—made her health the subject of repeated social media speculation, long before today. Multiple rumors about the queen’s ailing health—and false alarms about her death—were fueled by social media. Her resilience and longevity also made the queen a ripe source for memes, said Jess Maddox, assistant professor of communications and information sciences at the University of Alabama, and an expert in internet culture. “Memes thrive because of communal experience—something we can all share and relate to,” she said. “That being said, sometimes that thing we all relate to is pervasive uncertainty. Queen Elizabeth II has ruled for 70 years, and her death will be a global event that very few people on the planet have lived through. That uncertainty is ripe with meme potential.”

As the queen’s illness progressed, a statement that she had “entered a new phase” of her health became a meme, after her good health during the pandemic had triggered plenty of memes itself. 

Her passing marks a momentous shift in the royal family, in UK society, and also in how the UK head of state and their family members interact with the public. For all the queen’s adoption of tech, she chose to remain remote rather than broadcasting her feelings in public. Her grandchildren’s generation of the royal family—Harry and Meghan, William and Catherine—are more open and willing to share their lives on social media platforms like Instagram. It’s a different way of communicating with the public, but one that remains intrinsically tied to the internet.

“I absolutely adore the queen,” said Quinlan before today’s news. “She’s all I’ve ever known. Even when my life is going upside down, topsy-turvy, there she is, carrying on regardless, no matter what happens in her life.” Quinlan is exactly 30 years younger than the queen. “I don’t think she’s going to die yet,” she said on Thursday afternoon, before the official announcement from Buckingham Palace. “I’m convinced because her mother lived to 104, the queen is going to see at least 100. This news today has absolutely shattered me.”

There will, of course, be as many internet users who joke and poke fun at the death of a 96-year-old woman as those who mourn her passing. But all will remember her, and many will memorialize her through memes. In so doing so, people are helping contextualize the world in which we live and how it changed over her 70-year reign. “The internet may remember Queen Elizabeth II through memes,” says Maddox, “but when we make and share them, we’re really talking about our own uncertainty and reflections on a changing world.”