What Do You Meme By That?

What is a meme, exactly? And what do memes tell us about the evolution of human communication?
what is a meme

What is a meme? To the average internet user, it’s a conveniently Instagram-shaped snippet that combines images and text in order to make you laugh.

In the collective imagination, this Platonic ideal of a meme amounts to something like a digital trading card you can collect on your phone, curate in increasingly selective ways and pass around to your friends. They’re often on the low-brow side of contemporary culture, and there’s an undeniable democratic quality to the way they originate and proliferate throughout the internet, usually through a participatory process that encourages the audience to tweak and elaborate on the original joke.

Unless you’re a major nerd or you’ve been to a liberal arts college recently, you probably weren’t aware of the fact that memes have garnered an entire academic subdivision unto themselves. Memes are indeed dank, and they’re also complex and meaningful enough to inspire serious discussions about human culture and communication  — moreover, the way human culture and communication has a tendency to take on a life of its own, and across scores of human languages, too.

Thinking guy The “thinking guy” meme, which features a screenshot of actor Kayode Ewumi from Hood Documentary, presents “sage advice” and “exercises in critical thinking.”

The word “meme” actually originated in 1976 — way before the average consumer was spending time on the internet — when evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene. He adopted the word from the Greek mimēma, or “that which is imitated,” which was a deliberate attempt on his part to liken cultural propagation to genetics.

Per Dawkins, memes “are to culture what genes are to life. Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes.”

In this sense, a meme is a cultural symbol, idea or behavior that is passed from person to person through a process of self-replication and gradual evolution. It could be a conversational expression, like “I can’t even” or “LOL.” It could be a learned behavior that doesn’t even require a spoken language, like starting a fire or using tools. It could be a cultural trope passed down through a spoken tradition, like “big bad wolf” or “fairy godmother.” Human language itself is a meme, if you think about it. And of course, a meme could be a concept, image or hashtag you see repeated on the internet, like #MeToo and Evil Kermit.

Doge Ah, the infinite Doge. Here, you can witness some of the many iterations of the doge meme, which sprang from a picture of a shiba inu looking rather impressed (or, more appropriately, “very amaze”). The doge canon is united by an adherence to doge grammar.

In the Internet Age, memes can behave more like viruses than genes thanks to their ability to spread like wildfire through social media. They’re also more tangible in a sense, often taking the form of an image, hashtag, GIF or recognizable character (like Doge or Grumpy Cat). Internet memes also lend themselves more easily to mutation, because the format encourages people to add their own twist, punchline or variation.

In Ryan M. Milner’s The World Made Meme, Milner writes about a time that a student in one of his classes defined a meme as a “nationwide inside joke.”

“Like inside jokes between friends, internet memes are at once universal and particular; they allow creative play based on established phrasal, image, video and performative tropes,” he writes. “The difference, of course, is the scale of the inside jokes.”

Milner also focuses a lot on the multimodality of memes, which is to say that they can be expressed through a wide variety of media: words, images, audio, video, behaviors and more.

Exploding brain The “exploding brain” meme is usually an ironic take on evolved thinking or behaviors. You get the idea.

But if memes are a force of cultural transmission — of speaking to the current reality of our times — it makes sense that they would reflect all the baggage and problems of our present culture. To speak briefly of one example, internet memes are one of the latest frontiers of cultural appropriation, given how frequently memes originate in marginalized communities and become co-opted by the mainstream, often couched in the language of black vernacular speech or queer slang.

For better or for worse, memes are a reflection of collective consciousness and groupthink. They’re not only an indicator of cultural trends and humor — they’re also a reaction to the ongoing issues and realities of our time, whether they’re overtly political or not. According to Dawkins, the most successful memes are the ones that respond to the current conditions of the world and create a sense of social solidarity among the people who view, share and resonate with them.

More often than not, memes spread because they’re relatable, and because they say something about the people who share them. Sometimes this is overt (think: “it me” or “same“), and sometimes it’s more implied (“this piece of cultural satire is a reflection of how I think”).

In this sense, memes are truly a language unto themselves, or a kind of lingua franca for the internet — but perhaps one that has a much lower barrier to entry than, say, Russian or Chinese.

Language is vast; it contains multitudes.
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