I’ve just spent the last several hours scouring the Internet for silly images, but unlike the rest of you who have a passion for digital culture, I get to claim this time spent in the name of research.
Most of you know what a “meme” (pronounced like team) is, you’ve been bombarded with them online, and even though you may not recognize the term—you’ve seen the phenomenon. A “meme” is a socially transmitted cultural symbol or idea. It can appear as an image, phrase, video, or some combination of those—they criticize, highlight, or generally represent an element of our culture that is passed from one individual to another by means of imitation. With the success of the web and social networking as an information dissemination tool over the last twenty years, memes have become a commonality on the Internet, but they’ve existed for decades even without the help of Willy Wonka, the Grumpy Cat, or Ryan Gosling.
A meme behaves kind of like a virus; it travels quickly from person to person but transmits an idea or an opinion rather than a living organism. That is where we arrive at the term “viral” when describing a video, image, or story that receives a lot of attention online, in a short amount of time.
Memes can either create new trends in social media, or highlight existing trends in order to mock them. Historically, memes were more discrete. Usually traveling by word of mouth, a meme could manifest as a mesmerizing story, an anecdote, a joke, or an expression of speech. With the aid of email, instant messaging, link sharing, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. memes now travel instantly via social networking. The Internet, by sheer virtue of its instant communication, has brought new life to the way we spread modern memes.
Generally, the concept behind a meme is either really deep, or ridiculously clear. They function to make us think, make us laugh, to help voice our sarcasms, our concerns, our judgments, beliefs, and fears in a popular, accessible, and safe way. Tracking the development, distribution, and transformation of memes, it is obvious that they directly influence modern society and recreate the way Internet users view their lives; memes affect everyone who interacts with social media.
I can send a link to a YouTube video of the “Harlem Shake” to my boss, and the next day, we are in production to create our own version of the wacky dance. If I’m assigned an article with no time to prepare, and look across my office and shout, “Ain’t Nobody got Time for that” everyone in earshot will understand to which video I’m referring. And if I were to show you an image of the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World,” you would read the words surrounding his head using his accent, his inflections, and it would make perfect sense that, “I don’t always write articles explaining the significance of memes, but when I do, they’re fascinating.”
Memes have become so ubiquitous that they no longer simply exist on the web– they follow us through our daily interactions. It is hard to be a part of mass culture and not encounter a meme. Any given situation can evoke a preexisting image or video—take this Willy Wonka meme, or the Monday Blues as expressed by this grumpy looking cat.
Humorous memes yield the most reach, they are hilarious, and they transmit sentiments that are familiar to most of us. But other memes exist to shed light on cultural feelings that are deep; these memes function as social commentary, and can quickly become controversial which only helps their distribution time.
On November 18, 2011 during an Occupy movement demonstration at the University of California, Davis, campus police officers asked students to leave the school and when they refused, Lieutenant John Pike began to pepper spray the peaceful protesters. A photograph of the UC Davis officer in the act of spraying students in the face spread like wild fire across news channels, social media networks, blogs, and websites. Within the week students, protesters, Internet trolls, and people around the world inserted the pepper spray photo into famous works of art and images of popular culture—and just like that, in a matter of days Lt. Pike became one of the most well known memes in 2011.
Following the incident, and the subsequent attention his actions received online, the police
chief and two officers were placed on administrative leave. Had there been no one present to take the picture, or had the idea to alter images, like the version of the Creation of Man painting modified to show Pike spraying God in the eyes, never surfaced—would these men have been properly chastised for their extreme abuse of power?
It is only in the past several years that memes have been growing at an exponential rate, which makes them an unmistakably relevant piece of our culture. They are no longer seen as silly images, but rather as templates for creativity. They are easy to create, and even easier to share; they encourage people to consume information and then reproduce it in new and innovative ways. They can work as advertisements, sarcastic musings, or snarky tips on life. Some memes fight to unveil injustices, to open dialogues about sensitive subjects, or simply to make someone smile on a wearisome Wednesday afternoon.
By: Sasha Novikov, Creatine Marketing