On the first of September 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the East, starting World War II. As you would expect, there was fear and panic throughout Europe. So, to calm the British population down and to prevent widespread panic, the War Ministry released a poster, encouraging citizens to Keep Calm and Carry On.
In the year 2000, more than sixty years after the poster was released, one of the original versions was discovered. And thanks to its simple design and now satirical-sounding message, it was memeified. Spread all across the internet as a message of irony to Keep Calm and Carry On, even in the face of a life-threatening situation.
The Nazis are about to blow up London? Keep Calm and Carry on. World War III is about to break out, on top of dealing with Corona? Keep Calm and Carry On. The message was simple, funny, and a lighthearted way to express deep-seated concern for the situation we collectively found ourselves in.
This is a meme. It has the power to express the collective emotions, feelings, and thoughts of people, and often as a coping mechanism for something that would have otherwise been rather sad.
Memes. We all know about them. They make us laugh, cry, think, smile. But we just can’t quite explain what exactly they are. Are they just funny pictures with text? Or perhaps inside jokes that we turn into running gags? What exactly are memes and how have they taken the world by storm?
The word “meme” is a term that was originally coined by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”. Derived from the Greek word “mimena” which means “imitated”, Dawkins described a meme as a unit of cultural information that’s spread by imitation. The cultural equivalent of a gene.
Tunes, catch-phrases, ideas, ways of building arches and making pots, clothes, and fashion, were all described by Dawkins as memes propagating themselves in the meme pool by moving from brain to brain through a process that can be loosely described as imitation.
Today, the word meme might mean something else in the dictionary, but its use still closely resembles the idea Dawkins expressed in his work.
A meme is considered good when the message in it is concise and relatable, easy to catch on and pass from person to person. When it talks about a shared experience within a group of people, when it says a lot without saying too much. Or when you just take a jpeg and throw it in a deep fryer, those are also good.
Memes are so powerful because as humans, we understand pictures more than words. Before we could write, we could draw. This is why it’s no surprise that a relatable image will pass a message across much faster than say a long Twitter thread.
Memes are so powerful because they are seemingly harmless humorous fun. Because of this, they allow us to express our views about the world and the things that are happening around us without starting some serious debate.
The year 2021 was a rather difficult year for a lot of people. Not for the same reasons as 2020, but because of hope killed. In 2020, we were told that the pandemic would only last for a few weeks if we all stayed inside and “social distanced.” We did, and yet a year later, we were still inside.
So, at the beginning of 2021, the meme “when COVID is over” was created. In it, people described the experience of waiting for something that might never happen using metaphors of everyday experiences like, “when covid is over” is starting to sound like “when I’m all caught up on laundry.” Or pop culture references like, “when covid is over” is beginning to sound like “when One Direction comes back.”
All of which are never happening.
On its surface, these memes are funny, relatable, and interesting expressions of the situation we’re going through. But these memes carry a sense of hopelessness underneath them.
And that’s another thing that makes memes so powerful. They are baked with emotion. From Keanu Reeves sitting on a bench, to a horse standing on the beach, memes can be used to express every form of emotion. From surprise to disappointment, excitement, skepticism, disgust, anger. Memes help us express things that we might not be able to find the right words to explain. They convey our expressions, desires, and deepest darkest pains in a lighthearted and humorous way that many have become coping mechanisms.
A simple Google search and you’ll find a meme for every bad situation you’re going through. From memes that only old people use like disaster girl or grumpy cats, to stuff like whatever this is, there is always an appropriate meme that describes your feelings and whatever situation you’re going through at that point.
Now, “imma let you finish” on how memes are the best thing in the world since sliced bread, but first, there are some things that are not so great about memes and the way we’ve pretty much turned everything into a meme.
Memes are fast food media. Just like fast food, they’re disgustingly delicious when you take a bite. They’re funny and witty and give you bite-sized information of everything that’s going on around you. However, they lack any real nourishment. All you’re seeing are headlines and witty remarks about what’s going on, without fully understanding the depth of the issues.
On the 3rd of January, 2020, Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general, was assassinated by the United States on the order of President Donald Trump. Iran’s leader, President Hassan Rouhani made a statement afterward saying “Iran and the other free nations of the region will take revenge for this gruesome crime from criminal America.” To which Trump then replied, “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation”. And immediately, the internet erupted with memes about World War III. For almost a week, there was an endless supply of witty remarks and bite-sized nuggets about what our lives would look like if there were another world war. Here we are in February 2022, and yet again, the World War III memes are returning.
However, a lot of people who joined in the memes did not understand why they were being created in the first place, and what purpose they served. People looked at those memes and felt they knew enough about the issue, without bothering to find out what had just happened and the true repercussions of the actions of the US government, if any.
They binged on the fast-food, without taking time to eat a proper meal in the form of a full news article on the subject, which even then, are rarely full of all the true information.
Memes can also be a tool of misinformation. It’s easiest to tell a person a lie when they’re feeling good and vulnerable, which is why it’s so easy to propagate lies and misinformation through memes.
Memes are more powerful than we give them credit for. Laugh through one, two, three memes on a subject, and before you know it, you’ve unconsciously accepted some of the ideas that the memes present.
“Netflix and Chill” first started out as a meme, but today it’s now a cultural phenomenon that describes unironically, something completely different that it did before the meme existed. This is one of the many times when a meme transcends the internet and becomes a truly cultural phenomenon.
Netflix and chill is well, chill.
But there are some other memes that have become stereotypical tools, used offensively to describe an activity or a person, but aren't seen as negative as regular stereotypes because they’re memes.
Take the “Nigerian Prince” meme, for example. It labels an entire country as a bunch of fraudsters. If the memes have taught us anything, it’s that labels like this can completely transform how people view and relate with people of a particular nationality.
When Trump called it the Chinese virus, people of East Asian descent began getting attacked for something they really knew nothing about. Chinese restaurants all over the country were affected, with many having to close down.
Even the beer Corona was abandoned on shelves for a long time at the beginning of the pandemic, just because of its name.
So we see and understand the dangers of a single story, but yet with the Nigerian Prince, we let it slide because it’s a funny meme. It looks relatively harmless, but yet there are millions of people who will never work with Nigerians because they believe they are inherently fraudsters.
The truth is that memes, just like every other joke, are embedded in cultural context. It’s derived by our views and thoughts about the world, some of which might be problematic. However, unlike with a joke that’s tied to the comedian, memes spread so quickly and have such a far-reaching impact that it’s often difficult to know who to hold accountable, or whether it’s possible to even do so in the first place.
The YouTube channel Buzzfeed has an entire section of videos of people who have accidentally become memes. And while many of the people in these videos claim to be happy with their memefication, there are many other people out there whose pictures have been turned into memes that are not happy about it. But sadly, there’s really nothing they can do about it.
Memes often capture you when you’re least flattering. Whether it’s Keanu Reeves sitting on a bench sad, or the Kindergarten boy who couldn’t get his words together, or the thousands of people whose pictures or videos of emotional breakdowns have been turned into memes.
How would you feel if your least flattering picture was turned into a meme, immortalized forever on the internet? It’s a sad reality that if the internet deems your photo meme-worthy, you have no say on how far the picture travels and whether or not it ever stops traveling.
Think about people with body dysmorphia issues, fear of judgment, and a lack of self esteem. Think about the pictures we’ll never see and the emotions that will never be expressed, for the fear of being turned into a meme.
If you don’t agree with anything I’ve said so far, a simple meme like “ratio’d” or “ok, boomer” can be used to end the argument, which I guess is good for damage control, but is yet another problem with memes. In a bid to be the funniest person in the discussion, we often don’t listen to the other party, and instead just try to get the last laugh.
Once someone says something we don’t agree with, and we don’t feel like arguing, we quickly hit them with a meme and just move on without acknowledging their point or even trying to understand it. So, we don’t learn anything new, and just keep holding on to our ideas and beliefs, at least until another meme rolls around that we can use to start or end another argument.
The truth is, memes are both good and bad, and understanding the two sides of the coin is important in making progress. There have been some incredible achievements and great examples of community building through memes.
This is just one of the many beautiful things that memes have given us. In 2010, a Japanese kindergarten teacher uploaded a picture of her 2-year-old Shiba Inu with a peculiarly round emotionless face.
12 years later, and that one picture has given us many memes, created an entirely new genre of entertainment with pets speaking broken English, and even created two cryptocurrencies, Dogecoin and Shiba Inu, that at their peak, were combined both worth a total of nearly $100 billion dollars.
$100 billion dollars, all from a meme.
When you sit back and really look at it, the power of a single meme is so incredible and far-reaching. It has the ability to make you feel part of a collective, yet still uniquely individual.
- EE, MM