We turn to memes to help make sense of our chaotic existence, taking comfort in the shared experience of internet culture.

Though not all jokes are memes, all memes are jokes. Good ones. Like traditional jokes, a meme is built on a pre-established structure – an image, a diagram, a sequence of images or diagrams. This base layer makes the image instantly recognisable by a particular group of internet-dwellers (of varying size, depending on the meme in question), and also provides scope for infinite interpretation. The next layer – the process of turning this image into a new meme, to express whatever view the user is trying to convey – brings it into the present. 

Memes, then, are ways of interpreting or expressing something new, yet are at the same time usually supremely familiar. It makes sense that they have become objects of comfort for times of crisis – including, yes, the pandemic. 

Given that this particular crisis has meant we are all spending more time than usual staring at screens, I have found myself thinking a lot about memes. They are familiar and funny; they are also intensely self-contained and self-referential, to the extent that even what I have written so far could be seen to be lessening their impact by intellectualising something fun and self-explanatory, or to be so far removed from the culture they inhabit that it’s completely irrelevant. But I’ll soldier on, because this – their intrinsic, specific and delicate cultural impact – is precisely why they are so fascinating.

The term “meme” was coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe the spread of ideas in society: a meme functions like a gene on an ideological level. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the term was used to describe something similar to our modern conception of internet memes, when the journalist Mike Godwin (of Godwin’s Law fame) wrote in Wired of a tendency by users on early online message forums to compare ideas they didn’t like to the Nazis. 

Now, memes are second nature; an online dialect. A 2019 US survey showed 75 per cent of 13- to 36-year-olds share memes on social media.

I am not the only one who thinks about memes beyond the reactionary response of “that’s funny, haha”. If you think reducing the wit and vibrancy of meme culture to a percentage statistic is boring, try reading thinkpieces on sea shanty TikTok. When, in January, the trend peaked and hot takes proliferated, Rebecca Jennings wrote in an article …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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Memes and meaning: Why our online habits are more than just distractions

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