The death of Queen Elizabeth II has been expected for years—and was 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, years before most people had, 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 set live 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 stopped many of her in-person public engagements.
“I think the queen has been extremely savvy on the internet,” says 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 has long been “never complain, never explain,” has become something more than an early tech adopter. She’s become a meme, enthusiastically deployed by social media users looking to pass wry comments 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 simultaneously, 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 has shown the 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.