I recently had an experience that most millennials should relate to. My mom, sitting across from me at the kitchen table, asked the generation-defining question, “What are memes?”
As a meme aficionado myself, I thought I could come up with a concise response. However, my reply was an incoherent smorgasbord of words. Having grown up entrenched in meme culture, it bothered me that I couldn’t articulate a meaningful answer to my mom’s simple question. I left the dinner table disappointed but determined. What you are about to read is what I refer to mockingly as Meme Theory but I believe it fully encapsulates and answers the question, “what are memes.”
The word ‘meme’ was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene, written in 1976. Dawkins defines memes as an element of human culture that gets reproduced by people sharing it. A meme is not something unique to the internet and there are examples of memes dating all the way back to the earliest civilizations. Take for example the American troops raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
You may find yourself asking the question, “Why is this a meme? I don’t see any witty text on the image!” Well, memes are much more than just images or gifs with witty text. Memes are packaged ideas that, once we are exposed to, penetrate deeper levels of meaning than the image taken at face value. What does the previous image mean to you? Is it simply a picture of soldiers raising a flag after winning a battle over enemy territory? Of course not.
A meme can be anything and they can come from anywhere. Memes can be words, events, people, or characters. This then begs the obvious question, “so if memes can be anything, how do we know what is and isn’t a meme”
THE MARKETPLACE DECIDES
People decide what is and isn’t a meme, and we do it subconsciously. The two indicators for gauging what we can consider a meme or not would be exposure and repetition. If the image of soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima is just that, an image of soldiers raising a flag after a hard won battle, why then are you familiar with it? How come it appears so often in popular imagery? Because the image communicates to us complex ideas that exist in the back of our minds that we don’t naturally articulate.
Everything has the potential to become a meme. The popular meme of the week is a seemingly random phenomenon. However, one of the easiest ways to understand why something becomes a popular meme is to quantify their prior exposure and repetition through mass media.
If you have ever dealt seriously with branding I’m sure you're familiar with the idea of “mere exposure effect.” Mere exposure is a psychological condition that makes us positively receptive to things that we see on a frequent basis. This phenomena has far reaching implications and can be used to explain things like why US investors have a bias to overweight their portfolios with American based companies. This same rationale can be applied to why and how memes grow and spread like wildfire.
We understand concepts better by packaging them into similar things we already know. This is defined scientifically by the concepts of heuristics and chunking. Our brains do this automatically to efficiently store information. Through a meme, you can process a complex issue, narrative, or emotion into a single image or phrase.
A meme is the fastest way to put an idea into someone’s head.*
At their core, memes are conceptual viruses. We all have incredibly complex ideas and emotions that our brains keep stored in the back of our minds. When we then come across a meme, the meme will bring those concepts our brain has stored away to the forefront of our minds. Like a virus, memes will spread from person to person as they use it in their daily lives. Suddenly, everyone you know is now using this meme until you yourself have been infected.
Let’s examine how this process works in real life. Below is my rough timeline for how something evolves into a meme.
Random Event Occurs → Mass Coverage → Cultural Significance → Infection
Let me use Harambe, may he rest in peace, as my example to illustrate this process.
An “event” occurs, in this instance, the tragic death of Harambe. The events that trigger the viral process are random, but that’s where the next step comes into play, coverage.
The more people that are aware of that event, the more likely that event will become a meme. Every news outlet mentioned the Harambe story ensuring that as many people as possible were aware of the event. Now comes the tricky part, ‘memeification.’
Does the event in question have a connection to a deeper cultural phenomenon. For instance, is the Harambe event just a story about a child and a gorilla who were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Of course not, it can be a story about media’s moral grandstanding, bad parenting, ethics of animal captivity, parallels of species evolutions, etc. It’s in this stage of the process that you start seeing memes take shape.
The emergent theme of the meme appears. The examples showcase the memeific
ation of the Harambe story. ‘Mourning’ Harambe became a way to critique the absurdity of our cultures initial reaction to the story. People became infected with the idea that our media blows things out of proportion. This complex concept, that lingered in the back of most people's minds, found an outlet in the shape of the Harambe meme.
This is what memes are all about, a way to express complicated ideas in the simplest way possible.
While I take this stuff light heartedly, I do believe we are still very early in the stages of meme understanding and development. This medium will take over more and more of our overall dialogue and I think it’s cool to think about why that is the case. I hope this piece gave you some insight, and at the very least, something you can send your mom when she asks you, “what are memes.”
*Concept comes from EmperorLemon's YouTube videos: https://www.youtube.com/user/EmperorLemon