The meme is one of the most beleaguered and pervasive aspects of internet culture. It has been criticized as the lowest common denominator of humor, yet some memes have become recognizable in mainstream culture (e.g. LOLCATS, Rick Astley, Rule 34). But what is it that makes memes so powerful? For that matter, what makes a meme?
An internet meme is, in its purest form, just an idea that is represented by an image or phrase. These ideas and their respective representations can vary wildly, in terms of vulgarity, complexity, or really any quality that can be attributed to an idea. For lack of a better term, internet memes are codified symbols. There is an understood meaning to memes that have lasted long enough to embed themselves in internet culture.
While I understand that many probably view internet culture as an oxymoron, I submit that the internet does have its own distinct and coherent culture, with its own history, etiquette, and social circles. While there are people who use the power of anonymity on the internet to abuse others, every culture has an equivalent to internet trolls. Trolls make the most noise, and as such, are heard the most. In reality, they are the minority, the bad kids who ruin things for the whole class. They are what Westboro Plains Baptists are to Christians, or Snooki is to the state of New Jersey. For the purposes of this essay, it is important to understand that they are not representative of the internet or of its culture.
To return to the topic of memes, perhaps it would be best to look at what purpose a meme serves. Surely something with a reach as extensive as the internet meme has a use. That use is this: A means to communicate through ideas. Much in the way a filmmaker would communicate through symbolism, or a person would rely on an adage to communicate an idea, people on the internet can use memes. Not every meme does this, and even those that do don’t do so all the time. But they do help to share ideas. Perhaps an example is the best way to demonstrate this. Earlier in the essay, I stated that a meme is an idea represented by an image or phrase. One such example is the philosoraptor. The idea represented by the philosoraptor is that of the idiosyncrasies of the English language, and it is represented by a picture of a velociraptor stroking its chin, captioned with an example of the strangeness in our language. People use the philosoraptor to share the aforementioned idiosyncrasies that they have found. But you may ask: Why do we need the symbol? Couldn’t they just tell each other their ideas? The fact is, it’s not necessary, but it is a helpful tool. We don’t need to use symbolism to tell a story, or to communicate a thought. In real life, we use phrases that represent more than just what they say. We call them adages. Why say, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” when there are a million more literal ways to get the same idea across? Why use a snake as a symbol for evil? It’s because phrases and images get new meaning and power through repetition. A snake doesn’t naturally represent evil any more than a gray wolf on a yellow background represents courage, but through repeated usage as symbols, they have acquired new meaning.
Now that I’ve covered what a meme is and what it’s for, the big question is how is a meme created. There are infinitely many ideas, yet there isn’t a meme for each one, so why do only some ideas become memes? Let’s start at the beginning. Step one is someone coming up with an idea and a way to represent it. Sometimes this happens independently of existing media, and sometimes it is the result of something that happens in the world news or in pop culture (e.g. “How do magnets work” came about after The Insane Clown Posse include the line “Magnets, how the f**k do they work, and I don’t wanna talk to no scientist” in one of their songs.) A meme can then be spread various ways. Either among friends or distributed to sites like memebase, quickmeme, or reddit. If enough people see it and like it, they will start making their own variations. This is actually encouraged, as they are sharing their own interpretations of the initial idea. Most memes are just a flash in the pan. They spread quickly, but move on to self parody just as fast, before finally disappearing. The downfall of these memes is often that the subject is too topical, or the meme doesn’t have a chance to become refined. That is to say, it doesn’t come to fruition in regards to developing an established meaning and terms of usage. One of the most important things for a meme’s survival is that the community knows exactly what it means and how and where to use it. There is no formal discussion, just a consensus achieved through action. People will use a meme in a certain way, and that is what dictates its meaning and usage. The “Magnets” meme that was mentioned before started out as a representation of the stupidity of the Insane Clown Posse (an extremely topical idea) but adapted to represent the willful ignorance of science in favor of religion. The usage of the meme changed, and its meaning changed with it. A stronger meme is one that will outlast its original context. Even after the situation that such a meme arose from is forgotten, a strong meme will be so intrinsically linked with its meaning, that it will be self-sufficient. The Rick Roll is a good example. It represents not only the cheesiness of ‘80s pop music, but it representative of viral videos and memes. But how many of you know how it originated? How many of you aware of the Rick Roll and what it means, despite never having heard of the Duck Roll? That is because a meme is an idea incarnate. An idea can survive without context as long as it is shared and adapted.