Memes: the internet thrives on them. If you frequent social media, then you’ve almost definitely seen at least one.
Although it’s hard to pin down what exactly a meme is, a basic definition would be, “An image, video, or piece of text, usually humorous, that is copied, altered and spread rapidly.”
Some notable memes include: Harambe, a gorilla shot to his untimely death after harming a child who fell into the ape’s zoo enclosure; “Ain’t nobody got time for that,” a phrase said by Sweet Brown on a news broadcast about her apartment complex’s fire; and the “Rick Roll,” an early internet gag done by sending a friend what seems to be a funny or cute video, only to actually be the music video for the 80s tune “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.
Those are just a couple of the countless memes that roam and seemingly dominate the internet world. Keep these in mind, as I’ll be coming back to them shortly.
Knowing this information, my mind fills with questions. Where do memes come from? And more importantly, why do we have memes at all? Well, to quickly answer the first question, no one really knows. Richard Dawkins coined the word ‘meme’ in his book, “The Selfish Gene,” in 1976, although memes had been made and spread far before that.
To drive this point home, one of the oldest memes can be dated back all the way to 323 B.C. This spectacular piece of history is the “Sator Square,” a Latin palindrome that roughly translates from “Sator arepo tenet opera rotas” to “The Sower is at the plow.”
I’m sure at least a few people reading this are thinking, “She must be crazy; the internet wasn’t a thing in 323 B.C., and this wasn’t humorous at all, so how is it a meme?” Right, you are, dear reader. Old memes weren’t necessarily funny, but they would evolve over time to be the witty, facetious and entertaining memes we have today.
Relatedly, old memes would get spread in what we would consider the ‘old-fashioned way’; people would draw or carve on walls, in floor boards and basically anywhere else they could send out the message they’ve received from a different wall or floorboard. In the more recent past, memes would be spread through wall stickers, t-shirts and bumper stickers.
Now that we understand where memes come from, it can be a bit easier to figure out why we have memes in the first place. If you can believe it, a field of study called ‘memetics’ arose in the ’80s and ’90s to examine the transmissions and concepts of memes in terms of an evolutionary model. To put it simply, social scientists saw parallels between memes and genes. Yes, we’re talking about genetics.
Similar to the theory of evolution, successful memes live and prosper, while fruitless memes halt and grow forgotten. This study goes very deep, reviewing neurological transmissions and other “sciencey” stuff that, honestly, isn’t the answer I was looking for.
Technically speaking, yes, reading about this thorough study is the answer to my question. However, this answer leaves me thirsty and longing for more. I never wanted the scientific reason for why memes are what they are; I want the reason why they work so well in our modern society.
The easy answer for my desired request is that memes work well because they’re usually funny, but I believe they go deeper than that. My personal theory is the “Coping Principle.”
When we look back on everything newsworthy that’s happened this year, debatably we come up pretty short on anything positive. I’ve become exhausted by the many hateful, negative and miserable news stories and occurrences from this year.
Do you remember my telling you to note those memes I discussed earlier? Good, because they come into play now.
A running theme in many memes, including the Harambe and “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” memes, is the harsh reality of the situations. Oftentimes a meme is born out of a negative situation. People use memes to cope without even realizing it! Much like an embarrassing situation you laugh about later in life, memes make bad situations bearable.
We are able to laugh about horrible things that are happening around us, which can be a good thing. Unfortunately, it can be a bad thing too. Laughing about certain situations can cause disruption in another’s healing process. Take the Harambe memes, for example. The zoo he lived in was full of members who cared for and grew bonds with him. The internet memes caused virtually gallons of salt to be poured into their still-healing wounds.
When the zoo’s Twitter addressed this issue, the memes only grew in numbers. It became so harshly spread that the Twitter profile for the zoo was later deleted for good.
Memes are a way of communication; they allow people to connect in a manner that puts a time-stamp on the happenings of today. Although it may seem to be a small piece of information at first, a meme can go a very long way. Be careful where you put them, but have fun with them, too.
From printings on paper to musings in your mind, my name’s Hannah. Thanks for reading.