Memes: Where do they come from? Why do we care?

By Caitlin Allard

Memes reached unprecedented levels in 2016, dominating social media, advertising campaigns and even the news. Their spread is unpredictable, with little to no financial backing, and their meanings often ambiguous. How have such seemingly nonsensical pieces of humour come to be so prevalent in our society, to the extent of manifesting in their very own ‘meme culture’? Is our current interest in them at all healthy?

Surprisingly, the term ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his in 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It is derived from the Ancient Greek ‘mimeme,’ meaning ‘imitated thing.’ Although, of course, he was not referring to the style of internet memes today – instead, an idea that spreads from person to person within a culture. This includes fashion, catchphrases and the technology behind arch-building.

Memes have moved from being abstract into tangible images and actions. Susan Blackmore, writer of The Meme Machine (2000), referred to this as ‘temes’, memes living in technological artifacts instead of the human mind.

They have evolved to become heavily diverse and, at their most popular, inescapable. They have emerged from captioned still images into planking, Rick Rolling, animated frogs on unicycles, mourning the death of a gorilla, videos of people suspended mid-action, Kermit in a dark hood, a miniature Drake being edited onto different locations and CBBC’s Arthur clenching his fist.

Why have these seemingly miscellaneous concepts become so prominent and diverse in 2016?  Although the rise of social media plays a large part, it is also perhaps also due to the bleak nature of 2016. They provide a distraction from reality, offering solidarity in the face of political travesty. They are, therefore, a kind of coping mechanism.

How healthy is this, and can they cause harm? Through distancing us from reality, there is a danger that the public will become dislocated from current events, reducing our ability to take seriously events with global impact. The rise of memes about Donald Trump, including ‘Trump Pepe’, softens his image and clouds the reality of his status of power over the US, accompanied by scandal and sexual assault allegations. The dangers are also evident in the recently viral Obama and Biden ‘bromance’ memes: the end of Obama’s presidency has ended with a focus on their ‘friendship’ rather than reviewing their political actions taken over the past 8 years, thereby reducing their accountability.

Memes simultaneously soften politics and have the ability to influence it. They spread ideas, with potential to go far beyond the humorous tag of a friend. The contentions that Ted Cruz, Republican Presidential Candidate 2016, was the ‘Zodiac Killer’ of the 60s was just one of these such instances. On the platform of a Facebook page with 47,000 likes, this became a meme. Although seeming absurd to some, it was not so much to the 38% of Floridians who voted that they believed it was possible for him to be the genuine Zodiac Killer, with 10% for sure and the remaining 28% unsure. Taking into consideration the influence of this in Florida alone, this meme could have had an influence over the American Presidential election. The presence of a pro-Trump meme page on Facebook with over 30,000 likes also points to the fact that memes can dangerously sway the uninformed. Without further investigation, memes can shape political standpoints, and for democracy to remain functional, the public should not be being influenced by fairly nonsensical pieces of entertainment.

Memes may also warp the future generations. The more niche end of ‘meme culture’ can be incredibly offensive, encouraging sexism and racial and disability abuse. This perpetuates ideas of inequality in society through turning them into a format which others could deem ‘acceptable’ and spread further. These are easily accessible for children, teaching them to find humour in demeaning others, with no attention to their humanity. Memes may appear to be a modern development, yet if we are not careful could assist in transporting our values backwards.

They also harm individuals who are made into memes. Veerender Jubbal is a Sikh Canadian writer who advocates better treatment of LGBT+ people and other minorities in video games. He was targeted after the Paris attacks by someone photoshopping an image of him to show him holding a Quran and wearing a suicide vest. It reached international news; he cannot escape his association with it. Two-year-old Mariah Anderson who suffers from Chromosone Duplication Syndrome had an image of her shared thousands of times calling her ‘Leprechaun Girl.’ Narrator of the ‘Damn Daniel’ videos was faced with a SWAT raid in his home after anonymous callers to the police described a fake shooting at his home. The internet is a harsh place, and being the unfortunate subject of a meme is a sentence for unmediated abuse. Empathy for the person at the heart of its abuse is cast aside in place of the opportunity for comic relief.

In spite of their harmful potential, memes can have a positive impact. They are inclusive, creating a shared joke across the entirety of the internet (acceptable provided no individual is harmed as a result). This means they also act as an example of neurotypical humour for people with autism to understand. They make politics more accessible and present in young peoples’ lives, boosting political education as people desire to learn more about what they are seeing. The growth of ‘wholesome memes’ increases their positivity further, celebrating love amongst friends, in relationships and families, as well as even promoting self-care.

The meme trend has made already made the transition into 2017’s; already, changing the Hollywood sign to different words, assigning different movie titles to screenshots of generally cult TV shows had the potential, and the man sprinkling salt have risen to popularity. Memes have the potential to distance us from reality and humanity, therefore we should be careful to balance our appreciation of their humour with an awareness of the real people and situations inspiring them to retain a functioning democracy, as well as society in general.

Photograph: Ted Cruz Is The Zodiac Killer via Facebook.

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