If I was made to choose one defining feature of my generation, it would be internet memes (avocados come in a close second). Memes have been around since Web 2.0, the very first arguably being Baby Cha-Cha, a 3D animation of a dancing baby. But what is an internet meme anyway? In The Social Media Reader, Patrick Davison coins my favorite definition: “A piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission.”
It could be a photo as in Roll Safe, a video as in Cash Me Ousside, a GIF as in White Guy Blinking, an animal as in Doggo, a person as in Salt Bae, a fictional character as in Mocking Spongebob, a dare game as in Tide POD Challenge, a song as in Chocolate Rain, a dance move as in the Backpack Kid, an action as in the Dab, a symbol as in Dancing Hot Dog or even a misspelling as in Covfefe.
Time after time, meme empires like CHEEZburger, 9GAG and Meme Center have amassed popularity by spreading image macros, demotivational posters and rage comics across the internet. But their true origins lie in the wild wild web. Internet memes organically emerge from the thicket of forums like Something Awful, 4chan, Reddit and Tumblr. Their message boards provide a natural habitat for internet subcultures and anonymous communities, where the dankest of memes are created.
Internet memes deserve more than just a spot in our social media feeds, though. They may make you laugh and temporarily forget your sorrows, but they also hold a mirror up to society. A legit anthropological study of memes is in order. But until then, we’ll take a stab at understanding and dissecting this ever-elusive online phenomenon.
Memes spread extremely rapidly because of the nature of both the internet and the meme. The internet is communal and interconnected by design, which allows us to find even the most obscure memes through search engines. The meme is crafted in a way that’s easy to digest and instantly obvious. As opposed to books or movies, they take only a few seconds to understand and just a click to share with millions of people at once.
Literature student Aneeq Ejaz reckons that “the novel is a reflection of Capitalism in literature.” The text in novels is standardized, cannot be altered and is always credited to an author. He says that memes are more like fables than novels because they are created by community and passed on by word-of-mouth. They operate within a more fluid structure, where image attribution is hardly practiced, anonymity is encouraged and the same meme is subject to countless interpretations.
Anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise: The six basic emotions cutting across all cultures are also the reason behind the success of internet memes. When our online banter is fueled by memes, emoticons and GIFs, we’re back to primitive modes of communication. These innocent pixels could pave the way for universal expression and eliminate the need for sophisticated language.
Because the meme lives on the internet, it leaves behind digital footprints that make it discoverable and easy to analyze. If art historians can look at cave paintings to study early man, why not have social scientists formally document the proliferation of memes?
Brands aren’t strangers to memetic marketing and the creation of viral campaigns. Memes are easy-to-execute, low-risk investments, since all a company has to do is align with the zeitgeist, find a meme, co-opt it, circulate it and watch it gain popularity fairly quickly. Gucci achieved this through the #TFWGucci campaign, a collaborative meme project where it commissioned meme artists to promote its new timepieces.
Internet memes have already left the digital realm and entered political consciousness through protest signs, clothes and accessories. For every Nasty Woman T-shirt, there is a Basket of Deplorables hat. But somewhere between Donald Trump’s Small Hands and The Best Eclipse Ever, something changed. This new kind of language took a dark turn and started evolving into meme warfare.
In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election, the internet has been littered with disposable, exploitable and constantly evolving memes. Political propaganda has been uncovered in this online debris – questionable political ads peddled by Russian nationals through fraudulent social media accounts. They all share a curious aesthetic, mimicking the visual language of Tumblr posts and macro images.
ThoughtMatter’s Executive Director of Strategy Jessie McGuire asks: “What does visual literacy mean in 2018? Is there such a thing as a meme aesthetic? And is it powerful enough to influence thinking?”
The all-pervading red trucker hat was just as much an emblem of 2017 as the bright pink pussyhat, and it offers clues to President Trump’s victory. “Make America Great Again” was a strong call to action, as simple and instantly obvious as any other meme. It was designed to look undesigned, and scrappy enough to appeal to the everyman sensibility. While his entire campaign serves as an annoying reminder to branding experts that good design isn’t always effective design, it’s also the wake-up call we need to revisit – and potentially establish – new principles of communication design. On to the next round of elections!