The term meme was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He referred to a meme as an organism-like creature capable of spreading and being replicated with different changes, much like internet memes are today. In essence, a meme is a joke or humorous spin on… just about anything. Pictures, videos, GIFs, and even Tweets (often accompanied by comic captions) all qualify as memes. Some even become templates for replication, spawning memes like Trump memes or Pepe memes.
Memes bank on relatibility, and the more relatable and funny a meme, the more quickly it spreads (read: goes viral). Memes have become an indispensable part of the lifestyle the youth enjoys today. Internet memes became a sensation in the late 2000’s, and an integral part of the lives of many a millennial who grew up in a world where memes are all the rage. Several social media pages are dedicated to the sole task of creating and sharing memes. A meme’s ability to make a joke out of any situation or event, no matter how dire, is one of the reasons memes have become so popular today.
Memes also come in different forms. The recent surge in “dank memes” expresses the millennial generation’s appreciation of and collective feigned exasperation at memes themselves. The emergence of these dank memes clearly showcases the evolving nature of memes in themselves. The online community’s experience with memes over nearly a decade now has had interesting effects on memes being produced everyday – the memes of 2017 are notably different than the ones being shared in 2012.
While memes may be particularly useful in portraying complex ideas and concepts to an otherwise unwilling audience, there exists a darker side to memes as well. For every meme which ridicules homophobes and encourages a culture of tolerance, there exists a racist and xenophobic meme which takes discriminatory potshots at the minorities. For every meme condemning violence, there exists one which lampoons non-violence as something only a “snowflake” engages in.
At the same time, memes can often be misused for cyber bullying. The last few years have seen a drastic increase in the number of reported incidents of people’s photos being turned into memes of a malicious nature. With the tools to make memes easily available to everyone (and one of the main reasons memes have proliferated at a pace as rapid as the one they currently grow at), doctoring images and making memes has become easy.
Many fear that memes also de-sensitize certain issues by making a mockery of them, and deprive them of the gravitas and solemnity they are due. Issues like feminism are frequently the subject of memes, which try to parody the concept and its supporters. Moreover, the algorithm of most social media websites is such that people are usually shown more content of the same nature as they already like. Facebook, for example, tracks one’s activity history, and if one has liked and followed a page called about cars, Facebook is likely to show you suggestions for more car pages, pepper your news feed with posts from these pages, and even put you in touch with like-minded people. Facebook, and other social media portals like it, therefore inadvertently lead to the creation of closed echo chambers where similar ideologies are bounced around – even those like intolerance.
While it may be difficult to overlook the many ways in which memes can often be misused, the recent surge in the number of “wholesome memes” provides a silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud. Wholesome memes focus on feel-good emotions, and revolve around familial and friendly relations, encouraging unprecedented niceness and understanding. The sheer number of people who claim that wholesome memes helped them combat depression and anxiety is one of the possible reasons these memes have become a favorite of the internet today.
Wholesome memes take meme templates that would otherwise have been irreverently mocked, and turn them into symbols of hope and love. More importantly, wholesome memes champion causes like empowerment and inclusivity, spreading messages of togetherness in a world which is already torn apart by hatred and bigotry. Whether or not wholesome memes, and the spirit of what they stand for will still be popular a few years from now is a question no one can answer, but their existence and popularity in the present gives one hope.
-Contributed by Prithviraj
Picture Credits: huffingtonpost.com