Memes. What about ‘em?
I dread them, that’s what. Luckily for me, my hate for the concept only boils up on a very superficial level, namely most of the stuff you go through on your social media feed: captioned pictures, short clips, inside jokes and puns that revolve around certain formulas and themes. However, the origin of what a “meme” is lies elsewhere—a place that has fairly little to do with the internet. The word “meme” can be seen as a prime example of a word being used out of context, but still being widely popular regardless. An ever-growing spectrum of jokes is fabricated (often forcefully) each day, and the internet has baptized these assorted jokes as “memes”. And by “the internet”, I mean no one in particular; there is no specific group that could be held accountable for attributing the term to the phenomenon. This makes determining why the word is used all the more difficult, since there is seemingly no motivation behind it. And yet, it happened. The average Joe in the street will probably answer the question “what are memes?” with an internet-related response; the definition is shifting. But from what exactly is the definition shifting? A short bit of history:
The word meme originally appeared as a newly coined term in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976). Simply put, his definition was “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. Dawkins, being a biologist, modeled the word after the word gene + mimeme (Ancient Greek for “imitated thing”, crudely translated), and thus tried to emphasize the evolutionary nature of the word, as well as the element of mimicry. Dawkins’ meme is related to the idea of a gene in the sense that it is a cultural analogue which self-replicates, mutates and responds to selective pressures. In short, without all the technical stuff: a meme is a scientific unit that could contain any culture-related idea. Any.
Let’s do a quick list of things that are, by this definition, memes:
- Writing and speech? Check.
- A fist-bump? Meme.
- Religion? Most definitely.
- An inside-joke between you and your friends regarding that one thing X once did on a wild night in location Y while under the influence of substance Z? It’s quite probably a meme (and a dirty one, at that).
- Clear-knee mom jeans? Expensive, trendy memes.
- Ideologies? All of ‘em.
- A picture of a chubby cat with a puzzled facial expression asking for a cheeseburger in crude English? You betcha. (No matter how oddly specific, this is quite probably the most recognizable meme on this list)
As you see, Dawkins’ memes can go from ordinary, everyday practices to pretty obnoxious random stuff. Sky’s the limit. The way in which memes develop and work can be so convoluted that there’s a scientific field dedicated to it, memetics, which aims to explain patterns in cultural ideas. Just goes to show how difficult it is to pinpoint exactly what a meme is, or can be.
And that’s exactly the problem: what exactly is made significant by a term this broad? Several of Dawkins’ critics note that the idea of “memes” verge more on philosophy instead of science. Moreover, it begs the question whether or not the idea of a meme is even relevant in any way; it has all the characteristics of linguistic bureaucracy, meaning that it expresses a simple concept through unnecessarily complex means, all for the sake of making it a scientifically researchable subject. Memetics are thus often dismissed by the critics as pseudo-science, a notion I could get behind. So is Dawkins’ original idea of a meme redundant? Until memetics show any significant results, I’d be inclined to say yes.
Now, let us consider the internet.
With Dawkin’s definition being so easily applicable to anything and everything, you’d be right to assume that internet memes became a thing as soon as the internet was born. However, while they technically do adhere to the original meaning of “meme” (then again, what doesn’t?), that’s not what internet memes are known for these days.
Internet memes feed mainly off humor, or attempts at it. They used to be funny pictures or clips sent via e-mails and all that old stuff. As the internet progressed, forums and message boards quickly became breeding grounds for all internet-related jokes. These early memes (photoshopped images, absurd GIFs, prank e-mail chains) formed the templates for modern memes, and were very original at the time (think late 90s to early 00s). The amount of people involved in the actual creation of the inside jokes were relatively scarce, unlike now. Sites such as 9GAG soon provided easy ways for the masses to partake in the creation of memes, and the results turned out to be devastating. Today, memes run rampant, and the face of the internet has never been the same again.
A short list of internet memes, old or new:
- Image macro’s such as “Bad Luck Brian” and “Scumbag Steve”, amongst a plethora of others
- The Harlem Shake
- Shrek (along with the song which shall not be named)
- Obama, Biden, Trump, politics in general
- Freek Vonk (if you’re Dutch)
- “Yasss queen slay slay yaaaass”
You’ll see these things appear on Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, 4chan, and other popular sites and internet media like BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, etc… It could be argued that these sites all run on memes, as all of them produce memes which are made to appeal to the audience which the site wants to attract. In short, the internet meme has become a medium in itself. And that’s all fine and dandy, except for one thing: the originality is easily drained once commercialism gets its grubby paws on it. Sadly, it’s not often that an original joke is produced based on an established formula.
These formulas are often not too hard to figure out, and the memes then often devolve instead of evolve. Let’s check out a recent meme that went viral:
I’ll say that I thought it was kind of funny when it first popped up. But if you frequent the internet enough, you’d know at least 5 different takes on this “shooting stars” meme. And while they do follow the exact same pattern as the original, it’s just never as funny (says me, wanna fight about it?). And the humor is depleted with every subsequent new one that pops up, the reason being fairly self-explanatory: it’s the same thing in a different jacket. Of the hundreds of variants that appear, only one had the original element of surprise that perhaps made you chuckle like the first one you saw. The other 99 are as redundant as the word meme in itself, which prompts me to believe that in a twisted way, it was all meant to be.
This leads me to a final, alarming issue: the redundancy of this joke-repetition that floods the popular internet these days has not gone unnoticed. I’m not too sure whether it is by a process of evolution or devolution, but the word “meme” in itself has started to become a meme. A lot of people seem to recognize the dread that comes from a deluge of memes, and are entertained not by the memes themselves but rather by the situation as a whole. It is because memes are generally lazy, stupid and childish that these people find it funny. The response is a sarcastic usage of internet slang and general meme formulas. And this is what really gets my gears a-grinding.
A phrase you’ll often see pop up is “dank memes”. You’ll see pictures of self-aware memes pop up on Facebook, with phrases like “that one friend you only communicate with through memes”. You’ll even see people going post-ironic, making memes about people who sarcastically spout shitty memes. There is no end to the mundanity, the predictability and the unoriginality which proliferates in this part of the internet, and its influence is growing bigger by the day.
To all these people and “memers” I’d like to say: shame on you. Even if you are creating or spreading memes ironically, you’re still adding to the cesspool of obnoxious, childish humor and behavior that springs on the internet. I won’t dictate what you should think of as humorous, but I will say that you shouldn’t be surprised if I mentally spit on you as you pass. Consume your garbage anyway you like, but keep it the hell away from me.
So let’s summarize.
The origin of the word “meme” is a fairly redundant one, in the same way that the shifted definition of “meme” (on the internet) is redundant. Seeing memes being wiped from the face of the earth would take away many of my restless nights, in which I ponder, who? Who likes this garbage?, until I cringe myself to sleep at 5:30 in the morning. I will further inquiries with medical instances in order to reaffirm my condition, but until that time, I know that I am not alone. And for the sake of people like me, please, keep your memes to yourself. The very least that I would ask of you is the following: if you must dabble in memes, be it about Harry Potter, videogames, being a student, being a cat lover, being into sports, PLEASE:
Keep memes out of real life.
Keep them on the internet.
Contain this plague.