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.
Mental health has a lot of stigmas attached to it, and for many of us, speaking out freely about our struggles can be difficult. Somehow, over the years, young people started looking for comfort through memes on social media, which allow them to speak about their concerns with a little more ease. But why is it that, for many of us, it is easier to share our issues through jokes and humour?
Instagram is a paradoxical place. It is no secret that social media platforms are immensely harmful to our wellbeing, and, surprise, surprise—according to a study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health in 2017, Instagram was proven to be the worst social media platform for our mental wellbeing. There are endless reasons for this, be that the constant anxieties of ‘keeping up’ or comparing ourselves to others.
But users on Instagram are slowly changing the scene, all the while trying to make the platform a better place—whether it’s influencers taking a pledge to be more transparent, or people advocating for Instagram to remove the ‘like’ feature. The platform also serves as a home to an ever-growing online meme community, one that is driving the conversation around mental health, and de-stigmatizing it one meme at a time.
Mental health is a heavy topic, but it doesn’t have to be. “I think there is a lot of great support and conversation, but it is on a more serious tone. And while I think that is necessary, I also think that the seriousness and the weight of it sometimes add to the pressure and the stigma of the illness itself,” @thementallytrillest told Screen Shot. @thementallytrillest is one of the few Instagram accounts prompting the conversation around mental health, through funny, witty and self-loathing memes.
Cori, perhaps better known as @manicpixiememequeen, started her meme account as a way to cope with her own struggles. In 2017, she was experiencing some mental health issues, and her uncle had just tried to commit suicide. “I did what any other person would do: I made an anonymous ‘finsta’ to shout my personal problems out to the void of the internet in the form of memes. The creation process made me feel productive, rather than feeling like I was wallowing or pitying myself,” she told Screen Shot. “@manicpixiememequeen has given me so many incredible opportunities to generate discussion about mental health,” Cori added. She went on to speak at Stanford University, and she even had several therapists message her, thanking her for posting the memes. “Some of their patients have used my memes to start a conversation in private sessions,” Cori explained.
For some members of the older generations, memes do not carry as much cultural significance as they do for the new gen. Of course, depicting our personal struggles through memes may seem like an unconventional coping mechanism, but when it comes to mental health, our generation is the most outspoken one. Memes make difficult conversations easier to have—somehow seeing somebody go through the same struggles as you, and still be able to laugh about it makes you feel like you can relate to people, and in the end, it makes you feel a bit better.
“Mental health issues can feel and be incredibly alienating, and memes that address these issues help people feel less alone and may even encourage them to speak and seek help,” Alia, also known as @memesturbationation on Instagram, shared with Screen Shot. She explained that memes not only help her process her feelings, but help her acknowledge them as well. And this ability to feel less isolated, and to relate to other people online is what creates such a wonderful community, one that is safe and welcoming, and one that uses memes as a unique language for today’s century, driving the growing conversation around mental health.
Odie, known as @not.yr.boyfriend online, has been ‘meming’ since early 2016, and has built a helpful community since then. The purpose of their work is to “embody the work I am doing on myself and in my community.” They explain that they wouldn’t describe their account as a mental health page, but instead as a project of self-work that aims to shift humanity towards a culture of accountability. Memes have the potential to drive a conversation and shift opinions, be that for political or social reasons, meaning that disregarding them or the work that meme creators do would be unfair.
And yet, memes about mental health are still met with a lot of criticism. For example, @memesturbationnation previously received some criticism for her work, accusing her of romanticising and trivialising mental health, to which she responds “I think that’s bullshit. It’s just more people trying to shame and silence those who experience mental health issues. I’ve received way more messages thanking me for sharing my experience with mental illness through memes.” Is it really fair to silence creators who predominantly create a safe space as a coping mechanism of their own, and who are helping so many people online?
Mental health is a sensitive subject, and it is understandable why some people don’t engage with memes depicting subjects of their personal struggles. But Instagram can be used as a tool that many people use to reach out to others who are experiencing the same thing, to let them know that they are not alone, and to show and receive support. The beautiful thing about meme pages on Instagram is how many of them there are. Be it astrology memes, political memes, art memes or mental health memes—there is content for everyone, and a community for all. Mental health meme pages on Instagram are a reminder that it’s okay not to be okay, and they’re accessible for everyone, at any time.