Back at it again with the white Vans!
Doge. Pepe. Bad Luck Brian. The whole white/gold vs blue/black dress fiasco.
The Ice Bucket Challenge. Charlie Bit My Finger. Hitting the dab.
Without explanation, you know exactly what these things are and what they entail. But how the fuck do you explain something like Damn Daniel? Why was Pepe the Frog one of the most popular Google Image searches in 2015? Where does this stuff even come from?
And most importantly: What do these things say about us?
Let’s talk memes.
A Quick History
In 1976, famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” as a way to describe how ideas and behaviors spread and evolve within a culture: sort of an explanation for the “genetics” of our cultural customs and oddities.
But the notion of a meme has been around long before it was defined. Words, phrases, stories, jokes, folk songs, dances; they’re all concepts that have been passed along within cultures for hundreds of years.
Even during World War II, soliders were meme-ing; according to many reports, troops would graffiti “Kilroy was here” alongside the picture of a bald man in their stations and encampments. To an outsider this might seem trivial or unremarkable. But it soon grew to represent a sort of unspoken message of optimism and understanding to future troops that might pass through the area. In countries they’d never seen with languages they’d never heard, soldiers found a sense of familiarity in this recurring graffiti. Before long, Kilroy was everywhere across war-torn Europe. He had become a meme.
But recently, things have changed a little. Today’s world is a very different place for memes thanks to the Internet. And in some ways, it’s shaping the very identity of our generation.
The Modern Meme
The creation of the web opened up a new door for sharing information. We might take it for granted now, but since the turn of the century, people have been given the power to share everything from vacation pictures to banking deposits. And let’s not forget… memes.
In recent years, researchers everywhere from MIT to leading marketing firms have tried to identify and isolate exactly what makes something spread on the Internet. Intense studies have been conducted, arguments have been made, and entire books have even been written on the subject. Though some minor patterns may have been discovered along the way, this research has generally failed to make any meaningful conclusions about the behavior of memes. At the end of the day, a lot of it is just random – a reflection of the eccentricities of our generation.
That being said, there is one undeniable vein that runs through every single meme, catchphrase, and viral video that’s come along in the last ten years: they’re emotionally relatable on some level. A meme only spreads when different individuals have the same response to it. Through online sharing and word-of-mouth, a group begins to form around this response. When that group grows and reaches a certain threshold, a meme is born.
It’s sort of like a massive inside joke. When you tag a friend in an Instagram post or send someone a meme, you’re unconsciously telling that person that you “get it” and that you know they will too. I mean that not in an exclusive or condescending way – it’s just a new way of sharing and communicating with other people.
And there’s something really dope about that.
On top of that, though memes might seem like an Internet-driven fad, they’re actually a unique reflection of our generation. I’ve stopped showing a lot of memes and videos to my parents because I’m usually met with the same confused response: “Wait… this is supposed to be funny?”
In this sense, the meme/viral subculture that’s emerged belongs to our generation. It’s part of the cultural narrative that defines this specific period in time. In the future, sociologists will study how memes impacted the 2016 Presidential Election, or how the Harlem Shake transcended boundaries between vastly different cultures around the world.
Just like music, art, movies, and every other medium we consume, memes ultimately play some role in the progression of our culture.
And that’s pretty dope too.
Pros and Cons of the Meme World
Memes manifest in lots of different ways: catchphrases, pictures, jokes, whatever. And on an individual basis, they don’t really represent anything special. But collectively, the sea of memes propagated by the Internet is significant.
In some ways, they might not be entirely good for us. For starters, memes reflect and maybe even encourage our ever-shortening attention spans. They’re easily absorbed and can convey information with only a few words or a picture; it takes a lot less effort to scroll through Instagram than read a book.
Beyond that, memes also say something about our increasing need to feel included. Sure, our evolution as humans has hard-wired the desire for social interaction into our DNA. But sometimes this biological need gets forced into overdrive by the presence of social media. Facebook and Twitter have somewhat replaced traditional “communities” of people, thus altering the way we seek out social interaction with others. Memes are a reflection of this. They provide that communal “inside joke” feeling without the necessity of a real interaction between two people.
There isn’t necessarily anything inherently bad about this change, but I think it’s something to consider. Does sharing a Bernie Sanders meme help fulfill our need to relate with other people? Is that feeling real, or are we slowly losing part of what makes us human? Don’t think too hard about it, but don’t entirely ignore it either.
On the other hand, memes can stand for something good. They represent a different form of cultural transmission, a new way of communicating with others. And perhaps most importantly, the meme phenomenon exemplifies the possibility of a large group of people coming together through a shared concept. It’s incredibly hard to bring people together on such a large level, which is why it’s important to take a step back and just appreciate what the meme subculture represents.
Think of Damn Daniel. What started as a simple Vine evolved into something much greater than the sum of its parts. It became a collective joke among friends, and eventually reached a massive audience through social media, news publications, and even the Ellen Degeneres Show. The two kids responsible for the video were even able to use their new fame to raise money for Children’s Hospital through t-shirt sales.
The phrase “Damn Daniel” held no cultural meaning six months ago. But its newfound status as a meme allowed it to have an impact on the world, no matter how brief.
In writing this article, I don’t really have some big conclusion or theory that I’m building up to. But as humans, the little things we do accumulate over time, and ultimately shape who we are. So I think it’s worth taking a look at something as everyday and familiar as memes, and appreciating what they signify in the big picture.
Don’t overanalyze all of this or take everything I’ve said as a defined fact. But the next time you tag a friend in an Instagram or repost a video, think about what that represents. Remember that, in some small way, you’re contributing to an aspect of our cultural evolution.
Just something to think about.