What do you meme?

By Nicola Eardley

As a generation of millennials, we do have a few things in common. You may have fallen out with your best mate over their Brexit vote, or even in disagreement over the best Christmas movie of all time (Love Actually, naturally), but there are some things which bind us all together no matter what, a kind of understanding that truly will stand the test of time. These, invariably, include: a distaste at the rising cost of university, the dread of filling out graduate scheme application forms, and, most importantly, an absolute adoration-come-obsession with internet memes.

If you’ve been living anywhere but under a rock, you’ll have come across memes. Memes are everywhere. Scattered across our Facebook feeds and spiralling out of control on Reddit and Tumblr, they have surely captured the imagination of our generation in a way that our degree subjects never could. For those of you less in the know, it’s vitally important you catch up, so here’s a quick lowdown. According to the Oxford Dictionary, an internet meme is “an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations”.[1] It’s basically a massive cultural in-joke, being a reference to something enough people know of, understand or can relate to that it can be shared from one person to another with astonishing speed.

The term ’meme’ was originally coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. His meme resembled a piece of culture of type of behaviour which was passed from person to person through imitation or other non-genetic means, and it is easy to see how this laid the foundations for what we associate with the word meme today. With some of the first internet memes, such as Pepe the Frog, cropping up as early as 2008, they have only grown in popularity; websites such as ‘knowyourmeme.com’ provide an extensive library of the internet meme cult, and the topic has spawned numerous academic studies. As a generation hooked on social media, it is pretty unsurprising that this has become the breeding ground for the specific type culture sharing a meme involves. But there are a number of more specific reasons as to why they have become such a hit.

Internet memes are highly adaptable; anyone can make a meme, and, just like the common cold, they mutate as they pass from screen to screen, with people changing taglines or morphing memes together as they go. This broadens their appeal, as they can be adapted to fit a whole plethora of humour, cultural understandings and ages. Internet memes are a way to feel connected with others in our increasingly computerised world, which, in turn, is what makes them able to spread so fast. They also fit with our increasingly short attention spans; many memes have a shockingly short shelf-life, as their virality catapults them to fame before they are quickly adapted and then forgotten about altogether, drifting into the abyss of forgotten memes somewhere deep in the heart of the internet.

2016 in particular was a boom for the meme industry, often regarded as ‘The Year of the Meme’. But why did memes take off with such force last year in particular? Well, the answer is indeed hardly surprising. Given the year we were dealt, we collectively really needed a good laugh. The value of the pound plummeted as we voted in a poorly planned Brexit, and we saw the deaths of many much-loved celebrities and cultural icons. Floods swept the continent and we faced the prospect of irreversible global warming with the hottest year on record. The number of people killed in terrorist attacks rose, and the election of Donald Trump was the icing on the cake to many. Even the Queen got ill. In a year of loss and devastation, protests and strikes became the order of the day. End-of-year quizzes were brimming with the sorrow and loss we’d faced in the year just passed, and with these global events often so far out of our control, we often felt helpless, powerless.

So how did we cope? We memed it of course. We took everything bad from the year and turned it into a meme, and laughed until we could cry no more. Harambe, Evil Kermit, Melania, and the Biden-Obama memes hit our screens and we jumped at the chance to join in in whatever way we could. We shared them and linked them and modified and tagged them ’til our fingers were sore. And thus, the reach of the meme world spread.

Sadly, as with any good thing, it cannot last forever. One of the strengths of memes are that there are no rules; anybody can make anything, and provided they catch people’s eye or make them laugh, they will be shared. They defy control and are often frustratingly hard to track. As a result, Pepe the Frog, an innocent green cartoon animal, has been the first victim of a somewhat more sinister turn in meme history.

The alt-right, a loose collection of people with extremely right-wing views, have claimed Pepe as their own, exploiting the popular meme to propagate their own twisted ideologies. Many of these include White-supremacists or neo-Nazis, and as a result, Pepe has been seen in a variety of anti-sematic and racist depictions. He has since been placed on the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbols database, and despite campaigns to #SavePepe, his future isn’t looking so bright.

Memes can be used for good as well as evil; they are just as fallible as we are. It is important to bear in mind that any cultural phenomenon will inevitably leak into all corners of society, and we must be careful of how we use them. Brighten up each other’s days, by all means, and spread a little happiness. But remember, kids; meme responsibly.

[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/meme

Photograph: Evil Kermit via Facebook.

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