The 2011 introduction of Meme Studies, an actual academic course on memes, at Northwestern University in the US state of Illinois has long been used as a marker of how much of an impact the internet has had on society, from shaping language, to culture, and even beliefs.
Memes serve many purposes and functions, but at a fundamental level, they serve as an expression of people’s opinions and emotions. Memes can be formed by appropriating scenes or lines from TV shows and movies, which are then taken out of context, remixed with other content and have new meanings attributed to them in a funny and relatable manner. Meme content can range from complaining about the hardships of being a college student, to expressing embarrassment felt during an encounter in a person’s daily life – something that everyone is able to sympathise with.
Memes are simple, succinct and explicit in their messages, and this cultural paradigm is a reflection of the mentality of modern society – one that values entertainment, champions materialism, and reinforces the need felt by people to remain relevant. Their accessibility and ability to reach a huge audience within minutes (and within days, become part of the internet lexicon) means that memes can also be used as propaganda tools that can easily instil, and cement, beliefs that quickly become popular among cybernauts (a habitual user of the internet).
Nevertheless, the rise of memes in our everyday online vocabulary has had people asking how they affect one’s ability to communicate. On one hand, memes (made up of very concise messages in a short text or image format) are widely understood by a lot of people across the world regardless of their native language, and they help to foster strong relationships within the cyber community.
Memes don’t just cross languages either – their relatableness also forges a feeling of belonging among certain internet users in particular age groups. Whether they’re used to vent their feelings over certain socio-political issues, or to reinforce their obsessions with prominent celebrities, memes are an easy and funny way for teenagers to communication with their friends. Indeed, the very process of propagating memes, sharing them on their social media platforms, and tagging their friends under specific meme pages has enhanced communication across the world, and has contributed to the success of globalisation.
On the other hand, there are people in certain circles who believe that memes, having become many a teen’s vernacular language, have had the opposite effect. Memes are, they would argue, hindering communication in more ways than stripping everything down to one-liners and pictures. They can be used to aggravate hostile and prejudicial attitudes against certain races, against a particular gender, a religion, or a sexuality, thus widening the schism between people rather than bridging them.
A meme’s ability to be shared with millions online instantly can only further promote a certain way of thinking within our culture. And while many people may think they have anonymity while on the internet, it’s been made abundantly clear many times over that inappropriate action online can impact a person’s life in very real ways – like when US-based university Harvard, in June, revoked the admissions offers of at least 10 students for sharing sexually explicit, racist, and offensive memes in a private Facebook group chat. Meme-browsing can encourage, it can be argued, unhealthy value systems among people (teens in particular, and people who remain ignorant of the power of the internet) and help breed a future full of discriminatory supremacists and racial bigots.
Memes are very simple to make – there are apps specifically for this purpose. As a result, memes have become an easy way for people to quickly and effectively disseminate false information online, and helping to reinforce fake news. During Hillary Clinton’s presidential election campaign last year, many memes were created implying Clinton was weak, or sick and tired. Pictures of her using lumbar support pillows in seated interviews, falling down stairs, having to lean or hold on to people, or pulling weird facial expressions were circulated, leading to speculation on her health and if she’d be up to leading a country at all. This was despite no professional medical diagnosis, but the veracity of her health was lost in the plethora of memes suggesting she “doesn’t have the stamina” and was “not strong enough to cope with the job” – something further compounded by her political opponent Donald Trump. Memes, and the transmission of false information through them, played a part in her losing the election.
Whether it’s good or bad, there’s no denying that memes have revolutionised the way we communicate. But what sort of impact will that have, as we move further into the digital age, on more traditional mediums of communication? Will poetry cease to exist in the form of words? What does it say for our future literature students and English professors if academic pieces are to be replaced by memes? And perhaps most importantly of all, how will memes affect interpersonal relationships among the teenagers of now?
Or maybe – just maybe – memes are nothing more than a product of creativity. Perhaps at the end of the day they’re nothing more than a fun example of people using humour as a way of coping with all the tragedies and misery that life can offer.