“send me memes”: the meme-ification of
lauryn hill a generation
Don’t get me wrong: I like a good meme. I’ve spent my share of time on the internet, and probably more than at least one other person’s share of time on the internet on top of that, so I am no stranger to the joy of some funny words on a silly picture. I also know how fun it is to tag a friend, or be tagged by a friend, in a picture on Facebook (or Twitter, or Snapchat, or Instagram, or anything else the kids are doing that I’m no longer privy to) and know that they were reminded of you or thought you would get a kick out of it. I wanted to make it clear that I’m not against memes as a general rule before I dropped a truth bomb on you: we need to collectively get over memes.
Here’s a little bit of meme history – having typed that, I got a vivid image of someone in the future with a job title of “meme historian” citing the very information I’m about to, and I can only pray the power of that title is wielded appropriately. The term “meme” was coined by, of all people, Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. He essentially defined a meme as an idea that spreads within a culture – ‘memes’ are to culture as ‘genes’ are to DNA. Memes still are, of course, ideas that spread within cultures, but in a web context, it’s taken on a more specific meaning – it must be funny. Online, memes initially floated around forums and message boards, and usually followed a fairly rote format – top text, image, bottom text. Mike Godwin first wrote about the presence of memes specifically for the internet in 1993, but since then, the concept has exploded into its own culture with its own language – a language that’s been spreading faster and faster, especially in the past few years.
Last year, Wil Fulton did some research to find the world’s first meme (Dancing Baby? All Your Base? Banana Phone?) but in the process came up with a handy acronym to determine the four necessary characteristics of a meme in modern culture – M.E.M.E.
- Message: There needs to be a clearly definable, central message or reference that’s understood, and relatable by commonly shared knowledge or experience. The medium of the message isn’t relegated to an image and text; it can be either, or both. Or video, or solely audio.
- Evolution: The meme cannot remain static. It must be adopted and remixed by a community of people that embrace it.
- Malleability: It must aid in its own evolution by having defined characteristics that can be changed while maintaining and preserving some semblance of the original message.
- Effect: It has to reach a certain level of popularity and understanding, or the message won’t matter. Perhaps the most important part of the meme is its virality.
An early breeding ground for memes was the website I Can Haz Cheezburger, a (surprisingly) still functioning page that originally acted as both content creator and aggregator. It was most famous for housing “lolcats” – an early meme that centered around images of cats with captions written as if the cat was writing, broken English and all. At this time, a meme still had that strict text-image format, and while you could share memes and create your own, they were a unique and standalone Thing. They hadn’t evolved into their own subculture just yet – a meme was still something you might have to define to your friend if you wanted to show them a funny cat picture.
But memes have evolved. Memes now take on their own life cycles – take for instance poor Pepe the Frog, above, a character created by cartoonist Matt Furie for his webcomic Boy’s Club. Pepe gained meme status initially for his expressive face and his multi-purpose reactionary line “feels good, man” but was suddenly catapulted into virality in 2015/2016, when people began playfully “collecting” what were called “Rare Pepes” – an image of Pepe that was unknown or rarely used. The playfulness turned sour soon enough, as various alt-right and neo-nazi groups began commandeering Pepe for their own uses, which became prevalent enough for the frog to be recognized as a hate symbol, and lead to Furie killing off the character pointedly in Boy’s Club.
And that’s just one example. Memes have, since then and before, slowly seeped their way from less-popular internet forums into the mainstream social media. It’s hard to go online in any capacity and not be bombarded with memes – and there’s a reason for that. In terms of engagement, memes are a goldmine for content creators. From likes to shares to comments (especially tagging a friend), memes are a surefire way to engage with your audiences. Facebook users in particular may have noticed this trend, despite Facebook’s best efforts. Facebook changed its algorithms a few times to ostensibly discourage point-blank meme sharing pages – it began by lowering the reach of plain images, which meme makers retaliated against by turning their images into a one-frame static video, and then Facebook began lowering the reach of static videos, and so not to be outdone, meme makers began throwing floating translucent shapes over their images. And it worked – meme pages and meme groups are some of the most popular features of the website.
So, great – we know what memes are, we know where they came from, and now we know they’re reaching audiences at a massive scale – and the audiences love them! What’s the problem, then? What’s my big concern? Why did I bother writing over a thousand words on memes for free on my blog I’m paying for?
Y’all, memes are not a personality.
It’s become a growing trend among the young people to define ourselves by what we like, rather than who we are. If you’re a fan of Lady Gaga, your identity is a Little Monster. If you’re into fine dining, your identity is a Foodie. It’s hard to know who you are as a young person, especially when who you are is changing so often, but it’s made easier by having set personalities to fall into that do all the work for you. I get it! I’m not above it! But recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing evolution in this trend – liking memes has not only become an identity, but it’s become a replacement for personality. Memes have become a stand in for a sense of humour.
It’s funny to quote a good meme when the situation calls for it, but the problem is that when there’s nine million people creating memes every day, and there’s memes for nine million situations every day, there’s always an appropriate meme to quote. We’ve forgotten how to respond in any other way. I’ve met and spent extended time with people who speak in memes and Vine quotes almost non-stop, and while it’s not that it’s not funny – it’s not our own funny. It’s someone else’s funny that we’re using to reap the laughs. A lot of the time, it’s not even a laugh that’s earned – it’s just a laugh of recognition. “Oh, I know that one!”
This sense of humour is being hand-fed to us, and we’re becoming meme machines: our conversations are memes, our interactions are memes, our friendships and relationships are defined by memes, our advertising is done through memes, and on, and on, and on, and on. We’re gaining an incredible ability to reproduce content, but we’re losing the ability to create our own. We need to lay off the memes, and start making our own jokes again.
As a young, single person, I’ve had accounts on a couple dating sites, and the phrase I dread the most shows up on profiles across the board – “send me memes!” I get it, but I don’t want to build a relationship of any kind using other people’s jokes, and it feels like that’s the direction the entire world is moving in. I once messaged a girl on tinder a joke I’d come up with about something she said in her bio, and her response was a few laughing emojis, followed by “Holy fuck! Are you a living meme?”
I made one joke. It wasn’t even the funniest joke I’d ever made. I’m not trying to humblebrag and say I’m little miss queen of content creation and the lowly meme lovers are beneath me – it’s the opposite! I have faith that between us, all of us, we have the potential to share our humour, thoughts, personalities, and feelings with each other in more exciting and unique ways than simply repeating jokes, quoting Vines, and filling in text boxes on a meme generator website. Those all have their places, and I love a vine compilation as much as the next guy, but it’s possible to make our own content in our own lives.
We can do it! We are more than just our memes!