Why is it that motivational memes are encountered daily on our social media feeds? Made up of quotes that famous influencers, philosophers, and CEOs may or may not have said, the source of them doesn’t seem to matter, and it looks like we don’t have to understand them either for them to make an impact. This begs the question: what do motivational memes truly say about us?
We all have that one person on our socials who will post passive-aggressive digs at whoever is currently pissing them off. Ex partners seem to be the most common target, and this kind of post is usually followed by a cringey Instagram Story plastered with quotes such as “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” by Dr Suess. We get it, that person has not reached the ‘moving the fuck on’ phase just yet, but it’s unnecessary nonetheless.
Motivational quotes and memes remind us of what we should probably already know. Here’s a prime example: “If you know you can do better … then do better.” The source remains unknown—thankfully. If you truly want to do better, just do it, right? There also seems to be a lot of the same thing being said in countless different ways, from “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them,” said, apparently, by Walt Disney, to “The secret of getting ahead is getting started,” beautifully put by Mark Twain.
Another common quote we reach for when we don’t get our way is “Everything happens for a reason.” Let’s just think about this one for a moment. You did something, and something happened as a result. Things happen, that’s a fact. This particular quote has been morphed into a delusional insinuation that what happened was created by something else—but the reason is simply multiple choice. You or your subconscious did something that led to something else down the line. It’s a chain of effect. Reaction. But hey, whatever makes you feel better.
There is some role these quotes have to play in public self-justification and validation too. Post a quote that the Buddha apparently once said, and now you’re ‘spiritual’. This weird, one-dimensional depiction we try to make of ourselves is slowly turning us into mindless copies of each other.
An interesting aspect of this debate is the age or mental state we are in when our interest in these motivational quotes peaks. We arguably all go through a stage in our lives where our brains and opinions are still developing around specific ideas. Then, as our views expand, one would hope that we begin to face the world as it is or begin to realise that we are not at the centre of it. And yet, some people will continue to feed on them. A Canadian study based on the “reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” argues that actually, those that are impressed by these seemingly profound quotes, have a lower intelligence—ouch.
In four different studies, participants were presented with a series of bullshit, and non-bullshit quotes derived from collected buzzwords, such as “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty,” and asked to react to them by rating their profoundness on a scale of one to five. Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of these buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure. They concluded that those who stated quotes as profound, were less likely to engage in reflective thinking, and more likely to hold conspiratorial or paranormal beliefs.
At the risk of sounding hypocritical, I will quote social and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber who once said that “all too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp.” In other words; it must be clever because it makes absolutely no sense at all. That’s exactly why motivational memes and quotes are so problematic.
It seems we’ve been as brainwashed as members of the Church of Scientology on this one; we believe anything we’re being fed and can’t live our lives without the help of some made-up nonsense. So, do yourself a favour next time you’re itching to repost that fake Dalai Lama quote, don’t, just don’t.
We all love memes—they make us feel good, they make us laugh, and they can make us feel like we are part of a community. However, navigating through memes and internet culture can also be extremely overwhelming. I can testify personally as I recently wrote a dissertation on memes, a whole 9420 words to be precise, and it was not as easy as I expected it to be.
The truth is, internet culture is complex. Memes and internet phenomena spread so fast that it is difficult to keep up with each trend, let alone understand what half of the internet is talking about. Do not worry if you ever feel meme illiterate, we have all been there: here is everything you need to know in order to understand memes and internet culture better.
The term ‘meme’ was first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, in his book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins identified memes as passing cultural concepts that spread quickly, were replicated, and eventually forgotten—such as songs or art styles.
Today, our understanding of memes is slightly different, as we see them as humorous cultural references that exist online. Contemporary memes also spread faster than ever before because of social media, and most commonly take the form of images with captions (also known as image macros), GIFs, videos, as well as other internet phenomena in forms of hashtags or challenges.
These can also get out of hand pretty quickly—remember when half of the internet was eating cinnamon powder, tide pods, and most recently, planning to storm Area 51? This was all a product of the internet and meme culture.
It is difficult to pinpoint the first-ever meme. In 2018, Twitter user @YoRHaw posted the following comic, which comes from a 1921 issue of The Judge magazine. Internet users were quick to speculate on whether this was actually the first-ever pre-internet meme to exist.
Internet scholars and historians, however, argue that memes, as we know them, did not come about in mass culture until the mid-1990s. This is when internet users began gathering on the web and populating various messaging panels and Usenet newsgroups with images and concepts that they found funny. The first notable and viral internet meme was actually a 3D-rendered animation of a baby dancing to a song by the Swedish rock group Blue Suede. It was created by web developer John Woodell who was working on demonstrating the movie-to-gif process, but like any viral meme, it got taken out of context and was quickly turned into a viral joke.
The Hampster Dance followed shortly thereafter in 1998. Purposely misspelled, the Hampster Dance was one of the earliest single-purpose websites that featured rows of animated GIFs of hamsters and other rodents dancing to sped-up music. The site was created by Canadian art student Deidre LeCarte when she was in competition with her sister to see which one of them can generate the most website traffic, and, needless to say, she was the most successful. In fact, the meme became so viral that it led to the release of ‘The Hampsterdance song’ by The Bootmang Boys in 2000, and at one point, there were plans to create an animated series based on the hamster.
As the internet developed, meme-sharing destinations like eBaum’s World and 4chan gained momentum, and soon, image macros memes were developed. The first recorded viral image macro was actually the LOLcats meme, popularized by 4chan, which consisted of various images of cats and kittens accompanied by captions written in their own special grammar. The LOLcats meme paved the way for many memes as we know them today, as it was the first to reinforce unrelated captions to an unrelated image.
Regardless of when exactly the first-ever meme was created, the defining decade for memes and internet culture was the 2010s, as sites like YouTube, Tumblr and Facebook became extremely popularised and gave regular internet users an opportunity to mass-share different images, GIFs and videos.
You probably still remember Nyan Cat, Doge, the Gangnam Style music video, Rebeca Black’s ‘Friday’ or the ‘Harlem Shake’ challenge—these are only some of the most notable memes of the decade.
Today, meme culture is as messy and as fast-paced as ever. As internet culture evolves, memes become more nuanced and layered, and less surface-level, meaning that it might take a deeper level of understanding to get the joke—which is where websites like Know Your Meme come in handy.
Contemporary memes are also about more than just humour—memes can be used to discuss mental health, influence politics, and even make money. Memes burn out as fast as they spread, but one thing is for certain: they are not going anywhere anytime soon.