How memes went from strange internet subculture to language of the world

Phil Jones /
Aug 25, 2017 / Opinion

We all love a good meme.

Memes are the emotional and entertainment based currency of the internet. Friendships are forged over shared meme interests. Meme sub-cultures are created on a daily basis by every corner of the internet, ranging from topics such as an ironic (or maybe genuine) admiration for the Star Wars prequels, to a tongue-in-cheek yet sincere love of socialism in its sassiest forms. But how did we get here? Where did memes come from? And have we reached a point of no return from their grip over society?

The meme was a concept first devised by anti-religion figurehead Richard Dawkins way back in 1976
to describe the way that society shares common traits and ideas. Soon, this idea made its way onto the internet in the form of popular jokes. A meme would form organically as like-minded online dwellers shared a similar sense of meta-humour, with jokes often revolving around image macros or comment threads. Some of these early memes have reached long-term infamy, such as the ever annoying Rickrolling. The important distinction between early memes and the memes of today was that they had to earn the right to be a meme: in order to be called as such the joke or picture had to have already been shared amongst a large group of people. It was not a meme simply by being a jokey picture.

Since the coming of age of memes into the mainstream world, which coincided with the growth of Twitter and Facebook from the realms of the youth to being for all ages, memes have become altered through unintentional misuse. The mis-usage of memes by people, particularly of non-Millennial generations, is what created this instant meme condition that we live in today. A picture posted with writing over the top of it became a ‘meme’. People would say to their friends, ‘look at this meme I made’. The very point of the meme in the first place was that it wasn’t something that could be made by one person and had to come about organically by a particular group of people. This new form of meme cannibalised the original and created the short-hand way of talking about internet jokes and funny videos that we have today.

But why does this matter? This matters because of the power that memes can have over the way we approach certain things. The most striking example of this is the way in which memes have changed people’s approach and appreciation of certain films. A common trend in post-2012 memes is the lambasting of particular movies, picking their scenes apart to find the funnies moments and then having those moments become more important cultural touchstones than the original films. The most prominent recent example of this is The Bee Movie. The ridiculousness of the film’s plot and its easily mock-able scenes have made the film a meme goldmine, with the so-bad-it’s-good nature of the film creating an ironic love of the movie by an online generation. This is all well and fine when it comes to The Bee Movie, but becomes much more problematic when speaking about the animation’s Dreamworks cousin, Shrek. Shrek has undergone a similar meme transformation, with attention being brought towards the character design and accent of the title role. The difference between the movies is that The Bee Movie was critically lambasted upon release, whereas Shrek was given universal praise and seen as one of the finest animations of the 21st century and a benchmark for children’s entertainment. To reduce the film down to creepy memes and silly soundbites robs the film of its power and robs a generation of a sincere and unironic love of a timeless story.

Of course memes are, in theory, harmless and one should be able to see through their jokes to the source material underneath, but they create a worrying atmosphere of ironic appreciation of the arts. We have to question at what point does an ironic appreciation of a work become sincere. Will we see situations where outwardly bad films are given positive responses due to their potential to be memed? This may be far-fetched, but not such a ridiculous thought in 2017.

The real worry in the power of memes is their transition from being about films to being about ideas more rooted in reality. The biggest example of this was the meme-ification of the 2017 general election. Living in a digital age allows the constant and instant creation of content, and created a situation in which anything a politician said could instantly be turned into a meme. Theresa May’s out of touch answer to being asked what her naughtiest moment in her life had been opened the floodgates for Twitter wizards to meme the heck out of it, instantly making May appear a laughing stock to a generation of voters. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn’s liaisons with the Grime community and mocking of May’s media faux pas resulted in positive meme creation, and so a clear line was drawn in the memesphere. It would of course be naïve to assume that most young people voted based upon which side had the freshest memes, but there is an argument to be made about the subconscious effect of these jokes. Constant jokes and memes about the incompetency of one side places the idea in someone’s head that they are not fit to rule and so discourages them from voting for them. In that regard then memes are no different from the traditional media, with Theresa May running through wheat fields being as much a character assassination as the Daily Mail attacking Ed Miliband for eating a bacon sandwich.

We may never get away from identity politics, from elections being decided on trivial matters, but the rise of social media and the mutation of memes to being a force for change may have shifted the balance away from traditional media and towards something all the more democratic. Memes in theory are the perfect example of a society working in harmony together and often swing towards the hive mind of the people sharing the ideas. While it is worrying the effect that memes could have on film criticism and appreciation of media in general, we could also see these same memes being a force for change in a positive way. If the next election is fought on the dankest digital battlefields then so be it. I’m sure Shrek would do a stellar job as Prime Minister.

Words by Phil Jones

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