Unless you live under a rock, you’ve encountered a meme. You’re probably heard about them endlessly, too, since “it’s a meme” almost seems to have transmuted into a meme itself, popping forth from the mouths of cultural commentators in every media front.
Sociologists use the mashup word meme (ancient Greek “to imitate” mimesis + gene) to explain cultural diffusion, i.e., the way culture spreads and changes over time. Evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkings coined the term in 1979. A whole line of study argues that social information can behave like human genes, replicating, mutating and evolving, and that culture gets copied and transmitted through songs, catchphrases, fashions and a host of other “idea” tools. The word meme lived in its happy academic world for 40 years.
And then came the web.
Along with Pepe the Frog, Grumpy Cat, Ice Bucket Challenge, Distracted Boyfriend, First World Problems, covfefe, Honey Badger Don’t Care, and — of course — Tide Pods. Plus, many many more. So many more. If you haven’t seen the trending dog and pony show meme featuring the video clip of the corgi and the pony, well, you just have to Google it to experience it … and share in the cultural moment.
Not surprisingly, multiple websites devote full-time energy to tracking them. In communities such as Reddit and on sites such as Know Your Meme you can get your daily dose of trending memes, along with updates on well-known ones such as #takeaknee and #metoo.
The idea of memes by any other name has been around for a millennium. Informational packages such as proverbs, nursery rhymes, jokes and epic poems pass along cultural nuggets from person to person, reshaping to adapt to and in turn retransmit cultural messages.
Think about these: the Big Bad Wolf. The house made of straw. The early bird gets the worm. These provided cautionary tales and catchphrases to warn about wild beasts, war enemies, leering and exploitative men, sloppy building, lazy actions, or sleeping in. They came packed with unspoken assumptions about cultural actions and cultural values. Their meanings evolved over time with new villains reflecting current cultural fears.
Sociologists say memes share three features: They are easy to copy, they get shared quickly and they last for more than a nanosecond. Some internet memes are apropos of nothing more than a collective shared smile, but more often they, at some level, reflect social and cultural issues, fears or longings. They offer a vehicle for commentary or a quick, familiar and communal nod of agreement. For example:
• “Let us Reaccommodate You” arose from a United Airlines statement that the forcible removal of a passenger was simply a need to reaccommodate travel plans. The meme poked fun at that absurd use of words … but the meme’s humor also acted as a proxy for expressing our queasiness about the relative power of individual vs. corporation and the way we find ourselves treated in everyday situations.
• The long-standing Grumpy Cat (yes, a real cat named Tardar Sauce whose underbite makes her look like a pouting kitty) meme provides a vehicle for expressing sarcasm without actually complaining ourselves. She even spawned an industry (grumpycat.com).
• The 2017 “Distracted Boyfriend” meme features a photo of a guy looking at a girl while with another girl who glares at him in disgust. It rides the meme train as a statement of short-term distraction by something meaningless.
Memes mutate endlessly, inspired either by intentional creativity or by organic forces reflecting shifting culture. And then, there’s appropriation. On the ugly side of appropriation, nothing comes to mind more quickly than Pepe the Frog. This 2005 online cartoon character morphed from a harmless pizza-eating, video-game-playing creature into a symbol of hate as the alt-right appropriated and mutated the hapless green amphibian slacker by applying swastikas and other hate symbols. Poor Pepe morphed from a meme relaying the frustrations of living in your parents' garage to become a carrier for the culture of hate and intolerance.
Memes connect us to a larger whole. They offer an insider's wink wink nudge nudge. In the digital age, we seek that feeling more than ever; maybe that’s why memes prove so inescapable. When we joke about Tide Pods and post pictures of Tide Pod pizza, we don’t really think Tide Pods equal food. (Well, most sane people don’t, anyway.) We’re just in on the joke that the squishy detergent looks like it should be candy. When we add rhyming on-a-shelf variations to Elf on a Shelf (Shreck on deck, cat on a mat, etc.) we’re just playing along with the group. Memes act a bit like watercooler chatter, defining “us.”
Of course, thinking too hard about memes sort of misses the point. Once you dissect a meme, it goes limp and cold. Why exactly did people laugh with Snapchat’s dancing hot dog filter? Why don’t honey badger care? Why was dumping ice water over someone’s head a good tool for charitable giving?
The world may never know. We only know that at this moment in time we laugh at Tide Pods, snark with Grumpy Cat and watch the corgi and pony show. And then we get on with our day.
— Teresa Martin lives, breathes and writes about the intersection of technology, business and humanity. Read more of her recent columns at www.capecodtimes.com/teresamartin.