It’s a familiar sight for many of us. You’re mindlessly scrolling through your phone, sifting through the endless content stream of your social media platform of choice. You see something that catches your eye — a quick video, a captioned image, something short and snappy you can understand the context of, and you acknowledge that it’s funny, or supposed to be funny at least. You probably just keep scrolling after seeing it, but you might chuckle, and perhaps it’s even good enough to show to a friend. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve just been the recipient of the transfer of a cultural micro artifact from one individual to another. These days, that cultural micro artifact is often labeled as a meme.
The term “meme” was initially coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, defining a meme as an “idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Dawkins was the first to bring the idea of memes into academia, essentially proposing that memes are to culture what genes are to biology, in the sense that both are a means of spreading from one individual to another via replication — memes are elements of human culture that get reproduced upon people sharing them.
In the age of the Internet, we often think of memes as a concept native to the digital world and our 21st century mass communication tools, like computers and smartphones. But by Dawkins’ definition memes are not exclusive to the Internet, and they are a form of communication that has existed for as long as civilization has. At their root, memes can be anything, from an image, to a phrase, to an event, so long as the context of what they represent can be understood by their target audience. When a person sees a meme for the first time, it doesn’t mean anything to them unless they can make a connection from the meme to something they already know.
One prominent pre-Internet example of a phenomenon that spread similar to how a meme might today was a symbol known as “Kilroy was here.” As described by James J. Hodge, an associate professor of English at Northwestern University, “It’s a little cartoon guy with his nose sticking over the edge of a table or something like that and it just says ‘Kilroy Was Here’. World War II planes have this, it’s more like graffiti. He just pops up everywhere in streets, painted on trash cans, bookstore windows, and it’s sort of like, ‘where does this come from?’”
As people saw “Kilroy was here” in various places, it allowed the joke to become widely recognized, making it increasingly relevant. This is exactly how memes capture our attention. Memes particularly play into the psychological phenomenon of the mere exposure effect, according to a 2018 paper from Front Psychology; that is, people developing preference for some things over others simply out of having more familiarity with one thing over another. Repetition allows for memes to catch on — someone might see a meme for the first time and dismiss it, but if they see something similar again they’ll be more familiar and more likely to understand its context. In the same sense that repetition and being able to make a connection allows us to appreciate humor, we enjoy memes on a psychological level. Memes are also efficient methods of storage of certain concepts — they allow us to pack complex ideas into a single image or phrase.. However, it took a fundamental shift in communication and culture for the term “meme” to become what it is today.
The Internet marked a huge change in the definition of the word “meme”, so much so that it’s important to distinguish between memes that are products of the Internet and memes that aren’t. At the surface, the only difference between an Internet meme and a meme in Dawkins’ sense of the term is that the former spreads over the Internet, often through social media platforms in particular.The often perceived definition of a meme is an image with bold, white text at its top and bottom, but as the Internet grew to be more widely used, its culture changed and the definition of an Internet meme expanded to include anything from images, to videos and GIFs, to simple phrases.
Sophomore Albert Portnoy describes an Internet meme as “some content, whether it be an image, video, GIF, text, any of that, that has some inner meaning, or different meaning,” and that “most times, they’ve got some comedy aspect to them.”
The key to an Internet meme solidifying itself in the Internet’s collective consciousness was less about the form it could take and more about how much it could be passed along. “Memes are really defined by their circulation and their replicability. They can be easily tweaked and changed, and you can see lots of variations on one kind of meme,” Hodge adds.
When I first became active on the Internet and began to understand its culture, I didn’t think much of memes. I first started to become familiar with them during my middle school years, and I saw them mostly as just forms of entertainment, and can recall spending a lot of time watching compilations of memes in video form, particularly on platforms like Vine.
Portnoy describes a similar first experience with memes.
“I remember, I think it was around 7th grade, there was a meme day for spirit week at middle school, and I made a little ‘costume’ that was basically just a picture with a bunch of memes on it that I wore around my neck. Those were all kind of older memes at the time. Since then memes have been a pretty big part of my life. Part of this year I ran an ETHS meme account [on Instagram] that I’m no longer active on,” he explains.
The idea of memes devoted exclusively to ETHS touches on another key aspect of Internet memes. They serve a unique purpose among a smaller group of people, falling closer to the definition of an inside joke.
“Internet memes didn’t exist when I was in high school, but I had in-jokes with my best friends, and those in-jokes were often quotations from movies or TV shows, or something somebody said, and we would use them in a lot of the ways memes are often used right now,” Hodge says.
The nature of the way Internet memes can be spread allows them to be a way for members of specific communities to communicate and identify with one another. As Portnoy adds, “If you were to show [an ETHS meme Instagram account] to someone from a different high school, they wouldn’t get it. That brings the school together.”
For my own experience, it wasn’t until I actively participated in specific online communities that I began to see firsthand the value memes have in bringing people together. For example, in a community centered around a college football simulation game that I administer, which I went into more detail about in an Evanstonian article last year, it took a long time for this space to develop a sense of community.
This type of online community brings random people that could be from all around the world together, people that know nothing about each other, aside from the fact that they all have a certain common interest. For an online space to truly be a community, something needs to bring the diverse range of participants together, and in my experience with this specific community, it was memes. We quoted memorable moments and broadcasts from real college football, something understood by enough of the community to effectively be our own memes. Eventually, there were enough experiences exclusive to the community that we had memes that acted more as inside jokes. My experience here is only a microscopic example of the impact of memes, but a similar effect can be seen for memes meant to be understood by a more mainstream public consciousness — a sense of cultural understanding and belonging.
Given the effect memes have on culture, it’s not surprising that businesses have started to catch on. Businesses have long used the concept of memes to their advantage, through the creation of brands. In fact, a brand and a meme are functionally identical — they both condense large concepts into a single smaller idea. The particular concept that memes of the Internet era exploit, however, is viral marketing.
“I’ve seen this a little bit with marketers using meme aesthetics, I’ll be interested to see if this can actually work. Corporations have been trying to do this for a little while, they’ve been trying to use strategies like viral marketing strategies, [which is] stuff you really can’t control,” adds Hodge.
Viral marketing is generally defined as any business strategy that uses social media to promote a product, often in a way to exploit social media by encouraging potential customers to share the information they see, according to a 2014 report from L.M. Lekhanya of Durban University of Technology in South Africa. As these strategies use Internet meme-like tendencies, they often involve the use of Internet memes themselves. It’s hard for a corporation to do this in a successful manner, however, if they’re not perceived to be honoring the original context of a meme by their audience.
“[Viral marketing] sometimes backfires hilariously because memes and people who circulate memes are often ‘trickster’ figures; they want to play jokes on corporations. Not because they’re corporations and because they have power and money, but because corporations often take themselves too seriously,” Hodge adds.
Another group of people that can take themselves too seriously, and thus can often be exploited by memes, are politicians. For as long as memes have existed, there have been the memes about the most serious and divisive topics, such as politics. And given that memes are only gaining a more prominent foothold in our society, it has been argued that they played a significant role in the 2016 presidential election process and the eventual victory of Donald Trump.
Trump has been noted for his heavy use of Twitter to communicate ideas, and it just so happens that Twitter is perhaps the quintessential platform for the spread of memes. A 280 character limit restricts its content to only short and snappy messages, images, or videos, and the retweet function allows content to spread across the website in an instant. While not all of the ideas Trump conveys on Twitter are well received, his ability to use the platform to generate controversy attracts attention, in a way no other presidential candidate in 2016 was able to do. It’s led to a claim that memes played a heavy role in electing the 45th president.
“As Hodge adds, “The claim that [President Trump] was elected, or at least his election was in large part due to memes, seems like a very weird kind of claim, but when you hear someone, like when Dave Chappelle hosted Saturday Night Live the night after the election, and he said, ‘We elected an Internet troll’… he’s tapping into a similar idea, which is like, that’s who this guy is. He’s a troll.”
An Internet troll is usually defined as a person who intentionally upsets people by posting inflammatory and provoking messages. Their main intent is to provoke a reaction, whether positive or negative, and much of Trump’s strategy to rising to fame was just that. No matter what one’s opinion of him is, he undeniably generates attention and controversy. His troll-like habits included giving derogatory nicknames to his political peers, from “Lyin’ Ted” for Texas senator and 2016 Republican candidate Ted Cruz to “Crooked Hillary” for his Democratic opponent in the 2016 election. Short, snappy, and sure to attract controversy, these nicknames were just a microcosm of the memes circulated on large social media platforms throughout the 2016 election. While memes that attracted attention to the 2016 election in other forms, such as images and videos, were perhaps more common, something like a disparaging nickname will in essence create a divide between those who support Trump, who might spread the use of the nickname in the usual way a meme spreads, and those who don’t, who might use the nickname as a source of criticism and reason to defend the individual being attacked by the nickname. This is one of the ways that memes can divide us, just as much as they bring groups of people together.
“Even though communication is seen as inherent good, it can also create divisions. We can disagree, we can hate each other. Memes do both these things,” adds Hodge.
For as long as memes and politics are attached to one another, the use of short and easily provoking statements such as derogatory nicknames, as unprofessional as they may seem, won’t go away, though there may not always be a politician willing to use them enough to facilitate their spread. But it seems Trump is sticking to them, as plenty of candidates for the 2020 election have Trump nicknames attached to them — “Sleepy Joe” for Joe Biden and “Mini Mike” for Mike Bloomberg, among others.
Taking into consideration all their many purposes, memes have become a cultural linchpin of the Internet age.
““[Memes] can definitely change someone’s life. Like if you have a meme that could help someone from a hard time or make them feel better about something,” says Portnoy.”
Even if we don’t take them as seriously as we perhaps should now, it’s hard to picture a world moving forward where memes don’t play a vital role in communication, culture, business, politics, and society as a whole.
As Hodge says, “I don’t know, but I suspect there are some librarians who are archiving memes somewhere, and if they aren’t, they ought to be.”