This is a part of my series on pop culture. Part 1 can be read here.
Herein lies the eternal paradox: any discussion of pop culture would be woefully incomplete without acknowledging the existence and importance of memes. On the other hand, any discussion of memes outside of a reference to a meme itself certifies the speaker or author as a bona fide boomer, someone who is hopelessly out of touch with content that resides on the edge between humour and relevancy, thus stripping them of all legitimacy to speak to memes. This is why a university degree in memes from a second tier college is so laughable, and any attempt by the New York Times to explain memes lands so flatly. But in the name of writing improvement, for the sake of my blog, and upon consideration of my readership, I will embark on this discussion of memes. For other denizens of the internet, perhaps it’s worth avoiding this week’s piece to avoid some potential cringe.
I’m not going to delve deeply into the history of memes, because it’s been done many times, and would take more words than I want to spare. But a bit of history is never amiss. Dawkins coined it to refer to a self-propagating idea that gains and maintains traction within a group. The term was then co-opted by the internet in the late aughts to describe any of a series of electronic images, usually with a picture on a black background, with text that lends the image humour underneath. Subsequently, the identical image would be paired with different words, but when interpreted within the context of the first image, lends deeper meaning to the second. This is the modern meme.
From this point onwards, meme has been used as it has in the modern context to refer to two things simultaneously: both an image macro shared across the internet to convey an idea, as well as the specific template of that image macro being shared. For obvious reasons, this makes discussions of memes challenging at times, and the second of these meanings is often referred to as a meme template. I remember a time when I felt awkward even saying the word “meme” out loud, because it marked me as a resident in some of the unsavoury parts of the internet. But we are now at the point in history where there is the best understanding of what a meme is, any idea that can lend increased meaning and instant comprehension to an idea amongst the initiated.
Like any joke, explanation of what makes a meme funny will strip it of all comedic value. But the general idea is simple: the meme template has a specific meaning ascribed to it, and application of the idea to a specific case is humorous and insightful. This one conveys someone or a group’s tendency to forgo something tightly held for an alternative; the textual equivalent would be “isn’t it funny that this group always gives up X in favour of Y?” Similarly, this popular meme expresses the male tendency to talk the ear off their uninterested female counterparts; the textual equivalent would be “isn’t it funny that men love to talk at length about X, but the women they’re speaking with couldn’t care less about it?”
Like each of their textual equivalents, each meme is an assertion framed as a question. It demands collaboration in that both viewers must not only understand the meme, but also agree with the assertion being expressed. Thus, sharing memes is an intimate form of joke telling. Its semi-exclusive nature creates an ingroup and an outgroup, instantly elevating the joke. It is also a much faster form of information transfer if both parties are knowledgeable about the meme, because a picture does convey many words.
We are in a golden age of memes. Templates that had to previously originate from movie screenshots and silly animal pictures now come in the form of internet comics, edited tweets, and shoddily drawn line art. With technological improvements, memes now come in video formats. The advent of TikTok has allowed memetic meaning to be conveyed solely through sounds. The exclusivity of the term “meme” has further degenerated and started to mean any sort of comedic content shared over the internet, because it has become increasingly likely that any quality content will quickly be replicated and self-iterate. Posting tongue-in-check film reviews on a film social media website? Meme. Iterations of the “man talking to uninterested woman” meme? Meme. Soundless TikTok stills? Also a meme. Very concepts can also become memes. Internet tenants bombing naming polls? Meme. British accents? Meme. Iterations of a comic on miscarriage? Unfortunately, meme.
So, to bring culture back into this. The culture of the internet has few borders these days, mostly separated by language. Those languages whose speakers speak the most English, and whose cultures align closest to those of the West, also share memes of a similar type. This isn’t to say that the Chinese and Russian internets don’t have memes, but they’ve developed quite differently than ours in the West. Even memes shared by those in Latin America or South Africa differ from those in developed Western countries, perhaps in accordance to the Darwin’s birds of the Galapagos’. But political memes from Western Europe and fashion memes from North America are mutually intelligible, as are gaming memes from South America and gaming memes from Eastern Europe. Memes transcend borders and languages, because their pictographic and audiovisual aspects can continue to be understood.
How are memes to be categorized? Many are excited about the prospect of memes as the newest unappreciated art form, sure that they’ll be seen in museums in their lifetime. Though some are reminiscent of Magritte paintings, I doubt that’ll be the case. Memes are probably the lowest of low art, and even that gives them the designation of art, of which I am a bit reluctant to attribute. How about as a pure tool of communication, to convey meaning deeper and quicker than what would be possible with words alone? A new iconographic language, a modern hieroglyphics of sorts. Also a stretch, and I don’t think it takes an etymologist to explain why. But regardless of their artistic merit or whichever hole they should be pigeoned in, memes undoubtedly make up a crucial part of the Millennial and Gen Z cultural consciousness.
If someone had no understanding of Western memes, they would find it challenging to not only understanding Western humour, but Western culture as a whole. Memes facilitate the rapid dissemination of ideas across the internet, faster than an essay such as this could, because they have a low barrier to entry, and they’re funny. It was the internet that created memes, but increasingly, it is memes that are creating the internet, filling the electronic highways with self-propagating and easily consumable content. As internet use continues to grow, memes are starting to increasingly spilling into real life. I hear statements like “this is like that meme” all the time these days, a far cry from the days when it was a major faux pas to discuss.
Will memes remain an integral part of pop culture for the years, decades, and centuries to come? The first is all but a certainty, the second is a probability, and the third is questionable. For this generation and the next, memes will undoubtedly live on, and continue to not only be reflective of culture, but also help shape culture. Though memes are likely not going to be looked back upon as an art form, and certainly not a language, they will definitely be noted as a sign of our times and culture.