As 2020 continues to throw curveballs, at many points the expression ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ has seemed apt. With this, we have seen a rise of political content on social media to help the general public make sense of major global crisis after major global crisis. Internet memes make a joke, a point, or a connection and can operate to affirm and shape today’s politics through participation by reappropriation. But are they actually helpful?
As the best part of any group chat, memes are fundamentally fun. However, when used within a political context they enable a new kind of participatory conversation which complicates the traditional political structure. Internet memes are defined as “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated and transformed by Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience.” For young people, who do a great deal of their communicating online, memes have become a significant practice for political engagement. A far cry from the cat memes of 2010, 2020 sees the internet taking on politicians and the established elite through the medium of memes.
Humour is inherently critical and functions to challenge social norms dating all the way back to Ancient Greece. In a way, memes are a continuation of caricatures, which were popularised in the 1700s as a form of satire. Political memes create and spread satire, allowing them to actively question politics rather than passively consume through more traditional news sources. Logan Callen, creator of the Instagram account @quarantined_political_memes, which is well known for its political compass memes, told Screen Shot, “When I first started my page back in March, the amount of engagement on political pages was much lower than it is now. My page has grown a lot recently, especially among younger people. I attribute this growing interest in politics to the popularisation of politics on social media.”
With few socioeconomic barriers to the internet, access to political content has never been easier, arming the younger generation with a powerful tool. However, the meme’s biggest strengths, speed and lack of gatekeepers can also prove its biggest flaws.
At their crux, memes are supposed to be funny, whether that humour is light-hearted or macabre. However, at the intersection of politics and humour, there is a very fine line to be balanced. Bigoted hostility, harassment and dangerous propaganda are often overlooked as ‘just a joke’, as extremists hide behind irony to make their bigotry seem more palatable. A 2015 study by the Texas University found that individuals who were socially isolated and more likely to be characterised as ‘on the fringe’ have a greater chance at creating a successful meme, lending weight to the idea of memes being an effective tool for extremists.
“Social media giving everyone a voice for their opinions is a double-edged sword,” explains Callen. “While it allows for every opinion to be heard, it also grants the opportunity for ‘trolls’ to spread misinformation. I have seen this a lot while on the political side of Instagram. While most memes I have come across aren’t dangerous in spreading misinformation or propaganda, I have seen a few that almost tricked me, and would definitely trick younger people.”
Memes thrive on a lack of information, the faster you can understand the point the higher the chance of it going viral. Seemingly well-intentioned memes can still dehumanise others through fetishisation, as when everything is reduced to an Instagram graphic it’s easy to forget the very real human experiences behind the content. One particularly disturbing example is the recent murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. An article in Vox stated that “as soon as Taylor’s name went viral, the call to action became something closer to a meme-fied catchphrase, with many social media users turning calls to arrest Taylor’s killers into a kind of structural gimmick.”
The tools we use to communicate are in danger of becoming counterproductive to actual communication. The term ‘slacktivism’ describes the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media, involving very little effort or with the main purpose of boosting the participant’s ego.
And then there’s the concern that memes can very easily become our own personal echo chambers. Tatton Spiller, creator of the Instagram account @SimplePolitics and author of The Breakdown, explains, “The echo chamber effect is pretty awful. You follow people with whom you agree. You share those posts. You don’t interact with friends you follow but don’t share values with, they drop off your timeline, you see more of the stuff with which you do agree. You hear nothing, ever, of the other side. You forget that people with other views really exist. How can anyone believe that nonsense? You completely lose the ability to chat or engage with anyone who doesn’t hold your points of view.”
Memes aren’t going anywhere. They are a part of public conversation and shape the way we interact with events and debates. Even deepfake memes are on the rise. Activist and author of Millennial Black and Anti-Racist Ally, Sophie Williams, tells Screen Shot, “I think people spend so much time on social media, consciously and unconsciously absorbing the information they see, that it can be a really good starting point for people. What I think is essential to emphasise every time, is that posting or sharing on social media is not activism in itself. It’s not the end, it’s just the start. People have to take the information and apply it in their everyday lives, offline, through their actions.”
Social media is a powerful tool. It’s hard to imagine a major pop cultural or political moment that doesn’t generate an influx of internet memes. But with that comes a breeding ground for lies, indifference and optical allyship. Proceed with caution.
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.