As cultural artifacts, Internet memes are fascinating things. They are at once rich with meaning but when pressed to explain their humor, somehow suddenly mystifying. Their definition is difficult to put into words and anything but narrow. Simply put, Internet memes are just ideas memorialized. They exist in the form of images hijacked from television shows, from the unlucky (or lucky?) social media profiles of completely random people on the Internet, and even from medieval paintings.
Sometimes the memes are digitally altered, papered over with other images in a kind of rudimentary children’s activity of cut-and-paste. The unsophistication of it is perfectly intentional, however, a testament to the early Internet as unrefined and amateur. But memes don’t just show up in static image form: They also thrive in video format as well as plain text — for example, as tweets that gain a cult following and subsequently proliferate.
Internet memes have proved to be a trailblazing form of communication in the 21st century and are poised to continue growing in clout and quantity. But there’s a lot to make sense of. Does their popularity follow a particular logic? What makes a certain meme ‘cool’ and another one not? How is the modern meme different from the ways people used to interact in the past? And, most fascinating of all, what does this shift say about us as humans in 2020?
Think communication, comedy, the currency of relatability, the rise of dark humor and more.
Memes are older than we think
Contrary to what most people automatically assume, the concept of a “meme” dates further back than the birth of the Web. The well-known evolutionary psychologist Richard Dawkins claims credit for coining the term in his 1976 opus The Selfish Gene. Memes, he decided, were containers of ideas in about the same manner that genes were containers of DNA. He believed a meme to be any idea that curiously persisted and proliferated, even if there didn’t seem to be a clear logic behind it.
Despite not always possessing a rationale that made sense, Dawkins concluded that memes still survived for a reason — in the same manner that natural selection carried particular sets of genes on to new generations.
Dawkins considered martyrdom and silly fashion fads memes. He also threw into the pot catchy melodies and the widespread, enduring belief in God. In his own words, a meme was “a unit of cultural transmission”. Funnily enough, he was also fond of labeling them “mind viruses” seeing as virality was an essential component of the meme.
That said, Dawkins doesn’t appear to be super pleased with the Internet’s appropriation of the original scientific intent of his concept; a concept now in the service of snarky digital craft projects made by adolescents but that’s almost besides the point: the Internet meme is here to stay.
Memes as a form of bonding
Since its early days, social media was heralded as the sacred architecture of “connection”. Post about your life and follow all your friends and you’ll have social bonding in a way you never had it before, or so went the scripted promise. In the past I’ve likened social media to one-way glass: “Social media is mostly about display — not connection. It is a museum wherein one traipses through a profusion of viewing material — and it’s all a bit lifeless and one-sided.”
That said, if we want to parse Internet “connection,” memes are where it’s at. In this article, I’m mainly referencing the classic image meme: it consists of an existing image scrounged for somewhere in the jungle of the Internet with a short bit of text attached, sometimes in all-lowercase, with intentional grammatical mistakes, perhaps very dry in tone, designed to perfectly encapsulate said image.
Memes are intended to express certain feelings that people of a particular culture all share. A feeling so basic you register it deep in your bones. Memes can be a way of saying the unsaid, but at the same time, sometimes what is “said” is actually not said at all, but rather, might consist of the interplay between an image and its caption that the observer must intuit. Sometimes, most of the work comes from the image, other times from the text. Regardless, together, they work. But separate them (the image and text, that is) and no magic happens — they can’t survive on their own.
If anything, memes are relatable. They capture our, anxieties, quirks, frustrations, and small joys. And they package it into a format that is easily transferrable. If the sentiment resonates with people (or they otherwise find it especially funny) off it will run and replicate on the Internet circuit.
Memes are also a powerful way to solidify the niche identities that people consider themselves a part of. There are memes based on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, a republican or a democrat, or even a cat-owner or a dog-owner. Memes are bridges — they can be surprisingly skillful agents in bringing people together in the online ecosystem.
A new form of communication
The Internet meme is unique as a communication device. Whether embodied in image-format or not, encountering a meme involves a protocol entirely different from other aesthetic forms. A meme’s success is determined by its instant comprehension. You either “get it” or you don’t.
Have you ever had someone thrust their phone in your face, eager for you to assess their newest meme discovery so that you can laugh as much as they did? And if you don’t get it, it’s an awfully fast tumble down the slope of your own doom. And everyone knows: if you have to explain a meme, it sucks the comic air out fast and suddenly it’s not so funny anymore.
If you have to explain it in word, lay it out in linear terms, the effect is lost and the magic evaporates. If your audience adopts an expression of bewilderment, then game over. Its appeal can quickly tarnish if the instantaneous expectation is not met. To take a longer view, meme comprehension is a test to a person’s adaptability to the changing comic flux of the Internet.
Here’s something else: memes are part of a newer tradition of media, one that breaks away from establishment producers such as TV networks and broadcast television. As we know, the Internet began as a fabulously decentralized project. It morphed into a place for laypeople to congregate and create what they wanted. There were few rules and the Internet was an anarchic playground.
YouTube began in this tradition, as did other platforms that later came alive. Instead of higher-ups dictating the kind of media and digital content we were able to have, the 2000s and beyond unleashed new varieties of platforms that were purposely constructed on a bottom-up dynamic rather than a top-down one. This is a vital characteristic of meme culture.
In effect, the power was bequeathed to the masses. Creative license was in the hands of the people. As a result, we are now able to witness the organic quality of memes, as the homemade projects of individual (and collective!) genius that they are. They are supremely authentic, in part because they are “voted on” by the democratic masses, thus their popularity is a straightforward signal of their value. After all, what survives survives for a reason…
The life-cycle of a meme
On that note, memes have a peculiar, if not intriguing life-cycle. They depend upon either virality or timelessness in order to survive. The life-cycle of the meme can be jarringly short, and sometimes for no readily apparent reason. To sustain itself, the meme needs to maintain constant circulation and a rapid velocity.
If the joke grows old, the meme was derived from a short-lived trend, or if something new and better just happened to come trotting along, the meme may be forgotten, first by one person, then by two more, until the effect is exponential and the meme is left to rot along the path of Internet relevance. But don’t worry, it’s in good company with a whole collection of other such relics. This is the harsh law of the Internet — death can come fast. (But a reminder: so too can popularity.)
A necessary disclaimer: the emotional intelligence that has become such a hot topic (and interestingly, such an absorbing interest of the corporate sector) is not the emotional intelligence that I am referencing here in relation to memes. As it is, the classic definition of EI is something along the lines of self-awareness, healthy expression of one’s feelings, and smooth, well-handled interpersonal interactions.
Instead, the “emotional intelligence” that I am wildly speculating applies to meme culture has something to do with the precision of knowing what makes something highly relatable or extremely funny. It has to do with the correct selection of words — even, and most likely — if those words are simple and few. It has to do with selecting an image that so seamlessly fits with its description that everything clicks — the finished product both causes stabs of relatability and identification and convulsions of laughter (or a chuckle-grunt hybrid if you’re that type of person).
Granted, plenty of memes die off and the world is not populated entirely by meme connoisseurs that have full knowledge of “meme chemistry”. And that’s the point: few profess to knowing the science of the best meme; rather, the good ones left in the sieve of popular culture come by way of a strong intuitive grasp. Meme creation and consumption isn’t explicit, it’s intuitive.
Furthermore, memes have to do with viewers intuitively understanding the intricacies of facial expressions and being able to rapidly decode the highly specific sentiment encased within them. It’s a little bit like the art of emojis that we’ve all learned the language of. When sending a text, our thumbs pause, hovering over our phone screens, weighing our options: how do we feel? what emoji conveys the mood we’re trying to communicate to the recipient? Memes operate similarly; indeed, just as our culture has become fluent in emojis, so too have we achieved fluency in memes.
Internet memes are the cultural containers of our time. They fashion dark humor out of what’s happening in the news, taunt us about our irrational thoughts and foibles, poke fun at celebrities, and capture the very essence of what it means to be human. They’ve introduced both new ways to bond and new ways to communicate. We collect them not only for the gift of their humor but also because we identify with them. Contrary to popular belief, memes aren’t dumb excess but rather, meaningful social artifacts of our present era in all their weird, wonderful glory.