Why care about Peppa Pig or Pepe the Frog?
Memes embody culture. And culture is our operating system. Or for a more humanistic metaphor, culture is our social DNA — our shared set of rules, beliefs and conventions that we live within, or in many cases rebel against. It’s our ever-evolving foundation which all behavior is built upon.
And if we’re to create a more equitable, ethical, diverse and sustainable society, then we need to understand exactly what’s happening all around us... so we can then respond accordingly.
We can’t alter our narrative if we first don’t understand it.
Or in other words, we can’t write culture if we can’t read it.
And because culture is constantly evolving, it requires perpetual analysis. Inquiry informed by prior learnings. Culture is living and breathing, after all. We’re altering it with just these words.
We’re presented with quite the quandary.
Memes today speak quick, but rich collective truths. And in our current complicated climate, time-crunched society, and on our visual-first platforms, memes have become the easiest way of saying, “I feel that too.” They’re a co-created snapshot of our zeitgeist.
Memes are fossils of our moment, which we can hold and study. They’re also dynamic vessels for communication, expression, connection, and organization. And these artifacts don’t just spawn and die online. They spill over into our very physical streets... and even Wall Street. Oh, elections too.
If we’re to comprehend culture to then author our preferred futures, there’s no better place to start our analysis than with memes.
They reveal our sentiment, desires, fears, moods, and perspectives. And for anyone invested in our collective, emerging ideologies, memes are too often overlooked and under-utilized.
Analyzing the meaning within memes allows us to discern the nuances of societal truths. Without grasping these truths, we can’t course-correct.
Observe the bizarre. Respect the fringe. Validate the weird.
The Internet Is Magic
Broderick of Garbage Day asserts that the internet is magic, and our online occult is made of three branches: “Witches and goth stuff,” “Crystals,” and “Manifesting.”
“Add them all together and you get Grimes.”
What began with goths and JO crystals on Craigslist (Google if you wish) in the late aughts turned into otherkin and bronies in the early 10’s. Fast forward some more and we get #Boneghazi on Tumblr, and Crystal Girlbosses on Insta. Stolen grave bones and all.
But circa 2015, content finally manifested its magical powers. The .jpeg ascended. Cursed images, Kek and Twitter hexes filled feeds. Psychic powers were decisively embedded within the 0’s and 1’s. Today, the magic is captured within the post. WitchTok is just the latest in this trend.
Magic is timeless.
It’s the “answer” in our time of uncertainty, and the “inexplicable” in our time of predictive algorithms. Mysticism works both ways. Techno-paganism is immortal, solving for all.
And as Broderick concludes, every social site needs its own human remains drama. So, beware. It’ll happen like clockwork.
Dr. Jamie Cohen
We Live in a Derivative World
As the creator of a Meme Studies course, Dr. Cohen notes that early internet memes began as images all could understand. Or rather, there was actually nothing to understand. A bunny with a pancake on its head was, well, exactly that.
Then things became derivative.
“[Now] you need to understand a massive amount of media to understand how meaning makes sense [...] Everything is downstream from another piece of mass culture.”
To interpret memes today, all of its layers of source material must be known. It’s a feat which is only becoming more difficult as “source material” is published and remixed exponentially. Miss just one layer, and you’re too far behind. For this reason, meme literacy is invaluable.
If we define language fluency as one’s proficiency to read, write and speak, then there’s a new need for the Rosetta Stone of the digital age.
But the wild thing that Dr. Cohen reminds us: oftentimes memes manifest reality. That is, while memes are frequently informed by reality, reality too is informed by the memes we create.
And if we can’t grasp what our memes are or where they’ve come from, “we’re going to be lost in that future.”
The Life Cycle of TikTok Memes
When we discuss memes, we employ the word “collective.” But collective shouldn’t just be interpreted in the representative sense. Memes are collective in the participatory sense as well. There’s actually an order here. Only once is the content participatory does it then become representative.
“TikTok is all about adding components to a meme”
Participation is iterative. Constant remixing. Remixing the remix. However, take it a step too far, such as using the “Here comes the boy” sound to show your boyfriend, and TikTok will not be pleased.
Unconditional welcomeness cannot be implied when considering global meme participation.
When analyzing the Adult Swim [as] meme, according to Rosenblatt, what drove its success (i.e. participation) was nostalgia and an invitation for creativity. Infinite iterations were available when the format was as experimental and illogical as the OG [as] bumper. In this case, [as] just died because of over-saturation. Too many iterations.
But that’s not to say all memes die on TikTok. For example, filming and calling teachers by their first names are already making a comeback. “Hey, Susan.”
So while TikTok trends rise and fall rapidly, it’s never to say the phoenix can’t rise from its ashes.
Jenny Chang + Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel
Please Meme Responsibly
To meme responsibly we first need to start with the concept of Linguistic Competence — or the unconscious understanding of the grammatical framework of a language. When we’re fluent in a language, we know when something makes sense, or when it doesn’t.
“‘BIG, red dog’ makes sense and ‘RED, big dog’ doesn’t.”
Nuanced ordering matters.
Which brings us to Linguistic Relativity:
“The language that you speak influences your understanding of your perception of the world.”
Ordering or the definitions of words are not easily translatable across languages, or even cultures.
So add Linguistic Competence + Linguistic Relativity and we recognize...
“Memes are just an abstract form of language. And like any other language, it takes a certain amount of cultural competency and cultural context to understand.”
We can see memes as “Speech Acts.”
“So if we accept the premise that memes are ‘Speech Acts,’ they’re a part of our language, we inevitably are left with the question of ethics of language.”
As history and first hand experience reminds us: language hurts. It governs. It oppresses. It controls. Memes are no different.
If we’re to lean upon memes as everyday “Speech Acts,” we must therefore remain hyper-cognizant of their embedded meanings and how we may be implicated.
PSA: Please meme responsibly.
They Don’t Know Generations Aren’t Real
“Ok, Boomer” is intergenerational shaming and blaming fueled by social crises, but is just one signal within the larger movement of generational conflict. But how legitimate is this conflict?
Jennings of Vox points out, it wasn’t until the TikTok comments of the summer of 2020 that Millennials started to get burned by those younger than them as well:
“They’re worried about their harry potter house but live in a 1 bedroom apartment... y’all worried about the wrong houses.”
But a few jokes can easily turn into a FOX News segment on “The Generational Culture Wars.” We love outrage. But is there actually bloody battle amongst significant factions of our population? Jennings doesn’t believe so.
“Obviously generational wars don’t exist. But generations don’t exist either.”
What we’re actually witnessing here is a deeper cultural force of a desire to align ourselves to identity markers.
From generational stereotypes to mental illness traits. “OMG, I’m so OCD.” BuzzFeed quizzes wouldn’t be a thing without our craves for labels.
After all, what generation doesn’t hate working?