On a recent car ride with my family, I attempted to do the impossible. I tried to explain memes to my mother.
This quest was hampered by two things. The first: My mom does not have any sort of social media, despite her well-guided attempts to spy on her good Asian children 24/7. The second: My sister spent a majority of the car ride telling me how stupid memes are as a column topic and that I should get back to school before I ruin the last shred of normalcy left in the family.
Ah, memes. From classics like Pepe to Doge all the way to new discoveries (this paragraph, by the way, is dedicated to my man Harambe), these cultural icons are embedded in the heart of 21st century online communication. A seemingly humorous combination of words and pictures, memes permeate Facebook and Reddit, Twitter and 4chan, all on their way to cultural dominance of youthful discourse.
It’s funny; despite the fact that memes largely circulate around millennials, the word itself is much older. “Memes” was first coined in Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.” He describes memes as cultural ideas that spread through a social class with their own agency. Like viruses, memes evolve and undergo natural selection in the mind space of the human populace, with surviving ideas representing “dominant species.” There’s nothing as dystopian as referring to your own thoughts as crazed survivalists.
With the advent of social media and the Internet, it became much easier for these ideas to emerge and grow on a more rapid scale. Today, an Internet meme is considered a concept that goes viral, usually for some ironic or inconsequential humor developed with pictures and words. Memes thrive and evolve, as they should, in communities with fast content turnaround and a cycle of anonymity. Anything on message boards can quickly be picked up and spread throughout the web.
Memes can be stupid (“Damn, Daniel, back at it again with the white Vans”) or annoying (does anyone here even remember “Nyan Cat” anymore?). Content is pulled from stock images and pop culture, from SpongeBob to Lord of the Rings to the recently deceased Gene Wilder. Pull up a funny photo, slap on some funny words, and you’ve got yourself an idea. If people start re-tweeting and making their own content with the same concept, you’ve got yourself a meme. Memes thrive on creativity, a certain sense of irreverence and the act of handing nearly every prepubescent teen an iPhone.
But there’s one thing that memes are not. Memes are never insignificant. I say this to anyone over the age of 35 who happens to be reading this in a college newspaper. That includes you, Mom.
While memes can discuss literally anything, the most popular ones are concepts dealing with issues very real to the average millennial. Existentialism and fatalism are the theme of the “This Is Fine” dog (personally one of my favorites), who sits quasi-contently in a house burning to the ground. The one percent and big government are also popular topics for this kind of content. Memes can also be used as instruments of trolling and abuse (such as the comparisons of the gorilla Harambe to actress Leslie Jones). There is literally a meme whose name is “Mr. TROLOLOLOLOL.” He has his own theme music. Look it up.
Memes start dialogues, and oftentimes, fights. People use memes to push for #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter, usually because of the content’s potential to reach users. Memes can be reclaimed, destroyed and transformed. It’s an odd paradox; Reddit users, annoyed by the seriousness given to some of their original memes, have even repurposed content with a new “TRIGGERED” meme to make fun of the “neofeminists, social justice warriors, and alt-left” that can’t seem to take the joke of the original and who, consequently, use memes for their own agendas. It’s an endless cycle of frogs and block lettering.
If anything, memes point to the limitations current channels of communication impose on our generation. Our generation, like all generations before us, lives in a world with real, complex issues. But our choices for communicating rely heavily on small chunks of shock content and superficiality. In a world of Buzzfeed, anonymous Tumblr posts and 140 characters, how is it possible for us to develop real dialogue and critiques of the human experience? Well, largely with memes. Millennials have developed our own lexicons and linguistics to express ourselves in this field, even if that means pairing up a picture of a baby and a Stalin quote.
I end with two pieces of advice for my mother and sister — two generations with more in common than they think. For the older generations: Please don’t disrespect our memes. Self-expression manifests itself in organic ways, and memes provide more fodder for introspection than you think. We KNOW the pictures of “Dat Boi” and cartoon figures look irrelevant and stupid; that’s why we love them. And to my Generation X or Y or Z or ABC or whatever the elders end up calling us — be careful the next time you share or re-tweet a meme, even the most inconsequential ones. You’d be surprised by how quickly carnivores can evolve.
Mark Liang ’19 doesn’t believe this is any of his business — sips Lipton tea — and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send me responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.