Memes, which were once concealed in the fringes of the Internet, have broken into public consciousness. The Internet phenomenon has found life outside of image boards, and is often presented in mainstream news outlets, television shows, and even university lectures.
The word “meme” was first formally defined by Richard Dawkins as a “self replicating unit of culture.” In the context of the Internet, a meme is vernacular, colloquial, and a form of jargon. It references and is contextualized within the growing phenomena of online communication and non-traditional media. The meme is subversive yet universal; niche yet entirely accessible; democratic, but at times unsophisticated; and material and ephemeral.
The success of a meme can be associated to its relatability—which is one of the key aspects of comedy. Comedians like Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Amy Schumer, to name a few—incorporate strategies to gain their audience’s trust and sympathy with phrases like, “You know what I mean?” and “Does this ever happen to you?” One of the easiest ways to connect with someone is to relate a shared experience. When performers bring those experiences to the stage, popular comedy is born.
While memes come from a similar comedic root, they have transcended the genre of comedy. Meme formats have evolved over time, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish between what is a meme and what is not. Notable early memes were comics, recognizable emotional caricatures, and combinations of images and text. Lolcats—images of cats in quirky situations superimposed with intentionally grammatically incorrect text—is an example of image macro, a type of meme. An image macro is a picture superimposed with a text, meant to convey a funny message. Simple and easily digestible humour forms the basis for Internet memes.
Today, memes often take the form of image macros, which are widely shared on social media such as Instagram and Facebook. Like live comedy, memes emphasize relatability, focusing on modern issues and trends of all kinds.They often source images and tropes from media, such as television shows, movies and celebrity gossip.
Allusions have historically been used to make works more accessible and engaging; even Shakespeare used pop culture references to draw in his audience hundreds of years ago. Ruby Lewis, a visual artist living in Vancouver, reflected on how future generations might look back on memes, as we now look back on Twelfth Night and Hamlet, trying to discover its possible hidden meanings and allusions.
“People are trying to figure out what [some of Shakespeare’s references] mean [even today],” she said. “The thing about memes is that you don’t see the actual original thing that it came from, but we still understand what it means [from the context]. That’s really interesting that [memes alone don’t exist as] anything solid—it’s a collective knowledge.”
The idea that memes are a form of collective knowledge is illustrated by their production process: With ubiquitous accessibility to the Internet, like-minded communities are crowd-sourcing memes as their own unique comedic genre. People use memes to express their ideas, beliefs, experiences and perceptions around stereotypes, complaints, and failures. Though the use of personal computers is a solitary and perhaps isolating task, meme culture has introduced another level of social connection through the online experience. To this end, memes are a part of the internet’s vernacular, as it connects people and contributes to the formation of meme-specific communities.
In an email to The McGill Tribune, Casey McCormick, a McGill PhD candidate in Cultural Studies, wrote that the growing popularity of memes is based on the technological advancements of the modern era.
“The prevalence of memes is, of course, dependent on Internet technology and our ability to share content quickly and easily across multiple platforms,” she wrote. “Memes are vehicles through which culture spreads, virally. Because culture is constantly shifting, certain memes will lose impact and dissipate, while new memes are created everyday.”
Yet, for all of the openness and communal creativity it allows, it is clear that the Internet often lacks an atmosphere of equity. As a consequence, some groups are unable to accurately and safely present their cultures. Difficulties in adequately and respectfully representing women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ are reiterated and even exacerbated on online platforms such as Instagram. Just as mainstream entertainment marginalizes certain experiences, some meme sharing platforms have hierarchies that limit the visibility and accessibility of memes. Dre, known by her Instagram handle @gothshakira, is combating this trend with subversive memes.
Dre makes intersectional feminist memes for herself and her friends’ lived experiences, often speaking to the experience of dating in Montreal. One of @gothshakira’s most recent memes is a downloadable invoice to bill your almost-man for your emotional labour, with itemized subsections such as “endless advice about that girl you were in love with” and “spiritual guidance through a period of troubling dependency on psychoactive substances.” Another meme describes the frustration of removing and reinserting a DivaCup while trying to keep your cool, “As if u didn’t just have uterine lining all over urself mere moments ago.” Dre said that her memes are an integral aspect of her work towards encouraging inclusivity and visibility for women on the Internet.
greetings fellow ladies/femmes. in response to this grave crisis of remuneration when it comes to the expense of emotional labor directed towards the frighteningly less self-aware sector of humanity, i have created this easy-to-use emotional labor invoice for you to repurpose. know the worth of the energy you expend. as the great western philospher kimberly denise jones once advised, "ladies if he ain't paying for your weave and bills, leave him." dropbox link in bio
“[I’m] really carving out my own space on the Internet, a space where people can talk about things that aren’t usually talked about,” she said. “[I want to present] a space where people who aren’t usually included feel they can relate to the ideas that are being expressed there.”
In the context of feminism, sharing microaggressions and everyday instances of misogyny are part of exposing and validating the spectrum of gender-based violence. Memes do this with a touch of humour and cynicism, creating a therapeutic form of entertainment.
“Sharing experiences is almost a way to expand your feminism, by listening [...] you can learn a lot without having to judge anyone’s experience as worse or better,” said Lewis.
That’s not to say that every woman will benefit from feminist memes, but only that they are an avenue for group conversation and advocacy. Emma Chambers, U1 Gender, Sexuality, Feminist, and Social Justice Studies student explained that memes don’t necessarily speak for all members of a related group.
“We don’t all have shared experiences just because we’re women,” said Chambers. “Specific memes for specific groups, though, are really powerful for people who also relate [to the subject matter being presented].”
The nature of some of the topics explored by memes can lead to polarized reactions. With over 35,000 followers on her Instagram account, and content that deals with feminism, Dre has experience with online harassment. Dre compares her experience to that of the abuse faced by women in the Gamergate controversy, one of the most prominent incidences of Internet harassment in which females in the video game industry were threatened with rape, murder, and cyber attacks. Gamergate exposed some of the extreme misogyny that occurs both behind and on screen.
“[The Internet] parallels real life in almost an exaggerated degree to how women are unfairly treated or excluded from certain spaces, and how intimidation and making them feel unsafe is a tactic that is still used in order to drive them out of [those] spaces,” Dre said.
Dre’s memes are unique in that they are immediately recognizable as her own creations, but this isn’t usually the case. A meme is essentially a symbol of an experience. Variations of that symbol develop and branch off organically, receiving embellishments and additions based on the ideas of the people they reach. This informal network of content development is made possible by the lack of formal authorship.
“In most cases, it is nearly impossible to determine the “author” of a meme, and this is essential to how memes move through a cultural landscape,” wrote McCormick. “In a way, memes are collectively authored through the process of viral sharing—meaning arises and morphs as a meme is deployed in different contexts.”
The fact that anyone can freely alter or repost an image sometimes results in corruption of its message. As an example, Dre referenced the burgeoning genre of memes that capitalize on African-American stereotypes.
“It’s really hard to determine ownership of things that are made anonymously and are able to be disseminated so quickly, and rapidly, and easily,” Dre said. “That calls in questions of appropriation, like, ‘Is it ok if I, a white kid on his computer, makes a meme in African-American vernacular English, or use a black person in a reaction image?’”
In late September, one of the most recognizable memes, Pepe the Frog, was labelled a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). In the statement published on Sept. 27, the ADL said Pepe the Frog originally did not have anti-Semitic connotations, but, “As the meme proliferated in online venues such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, a subset of memes came into existence promoting anti-Jewish, bigoted, and offensive ideas.”
Pepe the Frog is not the only meme that has been exploited for the purpose of sexism or racialization. Caveman Spongebob, otherwise known as SpongeGar or Primitive Sponge, is a reaction image of the cartoon character Spongebob dressed up and acting as a Neanderthal. The meme was popularized on Twitter and gained more traction on Reddit in May 2016. As the image proliferated, it has suffered some similarly racialized affects of ambiguous authorship as Pepe the Frog.
The issue of racially charged memes underlines the wide spreading impact of Internet culture. While memes mainly thrive and spread on the Internet, they interact with real-world commentary that ranges from dating experiences to political satire. For example, Ken Bone, an undecided American voter who asked a question during the second U.S. Presidential debate, quickly gained popularity on social media and was featured in numerous memes. Bone captured the hearts of politically frustrated people across America, becoming a harmless symbol for the everyman.
It is not rare to see stories about memes and their influence make headlines on news networks. Chambers mused about the political impact of memes like Ken Bone and Pepe.
“Memes have entered the political arena,” she said. “Even beyond Ken Bone, like the Pepe meme [...] a meme was put into the position of having major political sway, having influence that we never thought would have happened with ‘I haz cheezburger!’”
Ultimately, memes can be personal as well as an expression of a collective experience. Memes can be formatted to fit various perspectives and interests. Because they are based on free online platforms, memes may be interpreted as ‘low culture,’ a derogatory conception of popular culture that has mass appeal. In her memes Dre approaches complex social concepts with humour, which dispels some of the classism of academia that comes with complicated feminist ideas such as emotional labour, the lingering effects of colonialism, and eugenics.
“It is the lowest common denominator-type thing,” Dre said. “I think that a lot of ideas regarding accessibility are very classist, and that’s what I try to combat with my memes. Low culture is a really important and powerful thing that’s not given enough attention.”
While memes are sequestered online, they also respond to physical communities. Dre commented specifically on why she enjoys making memes about life in Montreal.
“You have this mishmash of culture,” she said. “It’s such a transient city, such a young city—so many students—so I think that it attracts a lot of like-minded young people, who have developed their own patterns of relating to each other and figuring out what they want from each other emotionally and spiritually, which can be comical in certain ways.”
McCormick believes that memes are an important tool that encourages critique and engagement with the world around us.
“I think the most important aspect [of memes] is the way that they invite collective authorship and encourage creative making,” she wrote. “The digital literacy bar for meme making is pretty low, and I think user-friendly platforms that encourage digital creativity are an essential element of participatory culture.”
As an engaging visual genre, memes transcend traditional boundaries of art and communication. Technology-specific subsets of language, like memes, will continue to push the boundaries of interpersonal connection—memes will always exist, though not as we know them today.