‘Why, how & what’ of memes

As I begin exploring how memes have become a deep-seated part of the Internet’s conversation culture, I cannot stop giggling at the slew of memes on the Suez Canal crisis that has, unfortunately, put the world’s trade in shambles! What I also realise in the process is that this meme culture teaches us that memes spread ideas at a speed where most other methods of communication do not match. Agree?

Here’s an example of what I’m trying to say: Before you even knew of the Suez crisis and the ship blocking the canal, you have seen Memes on the Internet with the image of the diagonally parked ship and the JCB trying to dig the sand in front of the ship’s giant bow. So, basically, a meme brought the news to you before other media houses realised that this was a big deal.

Now… let me give you a brief tour into the origins of Meme and how it became part of the pop culture where even serious government institutions have begun communicating in the “meme format.”

The evolution from genes to memes

In 1976, an evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, needed a noun to describe the concept of the transmission of an idea. So, how did Dawkins land on the word meme? He combined the ancient Greek word mimeme — meaning something imitated — with the English word gene. He landed on an unusual portmanteau — meme, which set the stage for the “meme culture” of the famous Grumpy Cat, the Dancing Baby and so much more we see today.

In his book called The Selfish Gene, Dawkins writes that “Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word — Culture.” But wait…what does culture have to do with evolutionary biology, you ask? Like genes, cultural transmission creates a pathway to evolution, he argues. “I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture.” 

So, in Dawkins’ sense, a meme is simply an idea; it could be anything from fashion to a catchphrase to a method of building arches. Dawkins coined the term because he was trying to figure out whether there was a measurable unit describing how ideas spread and propagated through generations. That is basically, in today’s words, measuring the virality of content.

Memes, apparently, have been around even before Dawkins coined the term, showing up as early as 79 AD in a Pompeii ruin and as late as the 1970s, in graffiti. Now, who would’ve thought that Frodo Baggins, the fictional character of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, would also become part of a meme. The phrase “Frodo Lives” was painted all over in graffiti, buttons, and even bumper stickers on cars. It was frequently used by people who felt that Frodo was a good metaphor for being held down by “The Man.”

Another bit of trivia pops up from the 1990s from Godwin’s law about his project on “memetic engineering.” When a meme took various forms, Mike Godwin realised there was more to the madness. “The Nazi-comparison meme had gotten out of hand – in countless Usenet newsgroups, in many conferences on the Well, and on every BBS that I frequented, the labelling of posters or their ideas as “similar to the Nazis” or “Hitler-like” was a recurrent and often predictable event. By 1990, I had noticed, something similar had happened to the Nazi-comparison meme.”

As a consequence, he experimented with what is now called Godwin’s Law and soon realised there were counter memes to his law. According to Godwin’s Law, “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Once a thread would reach that point, it was traditionally considered over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis immediately lost any credibility in the argument.” 

On the Internet though, one of the first memes to go viral was that of a “dancing baby.” In 1996, graphic designer Michael Girard created software that showed how movement could be programmed and projected via computers. The final design was the model of a baby demonstrating different movements from the Cha-Cha-Cha. Girard’s employer then sent the demo out to developers to show off their software’s capabilities. One of the demos arrived in the inbox of a LucasArts employee, who then turned the video into a GIF and shared it (largely via forums and email, but also on the burgeoning web), sending it into a widespread viral sensation. 

And, around the same time came the “Hamster Dance.” If you’re old enough to figure out, the website featured just four GIFs in repeated rows and everyone got obsessed with those little rodents. Well, it all started with Deirdre Lacarte, an art student from British Columbia along with her sister and her friend started a friendly competition: they would each start a website and see who could get the most visitors. 

In the early days of the Internet in 1998, her sister’s entry to the contest was a GeoCities web page with dozens of dancing hamster gifs. Later, she added a looping song in the background, which was at the cutting edge of HTML design. By working a 9 second-loop and having Disney’s Robin Hood song “Whistle Stop”, they worked their magic and created the internet sensation called the “Hamster Dance” which brought millions of visitors to her website.  

Welcome to the Meme Generation

Even from the most obscure corners of the Internet, you can find creativity oozing in the form of a meme. While it is widely disputed in academia, the meme concept has enthusiastically been picked up by Internet users.

A study by Limor Shifman states that “A search of Google Trends suggests a spurt of interest on the subject since data collection began in 2008, and a quick Google query of the term ‘‘Internet meme’’ yielded around 1,550,000 hits (January 4, 2012), many of them leading to large interactive depositories of memetic content. For example, on the popular website Know your meme, ‘‘resident Internet scientists’’ appropriately dressed in white coats provide various explanations for the success of certain videos in generating wide attention.

Following the explosion of the Internet, Reddit, 4Chan, 9Gag and many such platforms made memes part of our online culture. While initially memes were extensively used for political communication and cultural purposes, they have now diversified into pop-culture references and sarcastic life observations, making them relatable, funny, and easier to spread like wildfire across the web. 

Take the GrumpyCat or LOLCat for instance. Reddit users made the cat famous for the “grumpy” expression on her face, eventually becoming the subject of all parodies and humour. Now, GrumpyCat is a whole phenomenon by herself who not only has endorsements but is also a brand ambassador for pet food. She also has millions of followers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. 

Original Meme

Then came the distracted boyfriend meme, which even today, appears randomly across the Internet. Though it was a staged photograph which made it to a series of stock photos on the web, the image soon became a meme. The photo of a distracted boyfriend got repurposed and several parodies of the image were recreated and even got to celebrities having a good laugh about it. 

Going by the virality of memes, here are three key characteristics of memes that I tried to deduce: 

  1. Memes are cultural packets of information passed from one person to another but eventually become a socially shared phenomenon. 
  2. Memes are mimicked or repurposed. They are either used for humour or remixed with something else, to convey a similar idea.
  3. Memes are extremely adaptive and accessible to the Internet environment.

To explain better, consider the “Leave Britney Alone” meme that went viral in 2007. A young blogger and actor named Chris Crocker uploaded a YouTube video in which he reacted to the harsh criticism following pop star Britney Spears’ lacklustre performance on the MTV Music video awards. Crying and shouting throughout most of the clip, Crocker implored his viewers to “Leave Britney Alone.”

The video gained over 2 million views within 24 hours, and many more in the following days and months (current view count is over 51 million). The Crocker sensation was reported on various mainstream media stages and generated worldwide attention. The video soon spawned a stream of derivatives: imitation-based memes (in which known actors and ordinary users impersonated Crocker), as well as remix-based memes. 
Let’s take the “Gangnam Style” video as an example. In 2012, South Korean singer Psy’s video on Youtube crossed 1 billion views. The aftermath was thousands of viewers created and posted their own variations of the video —Mitt Romney Style, NASA Johnson Style, Egyptian Style, and many others. So, Gangnam Style (and all its variations) became one of the most famous examples of an Internet meme: a piece of digital content that spreads quickly around the web in various iterations and becomes a shared cultural experience.

The Power of Memes & Digital Culture 

Despite several waves of transformation that memes have gone through to simplify messages to the mainstream audience,  memes are still evolving. But their power on the Internet seems to have far-reaching consequences. 

For instance: What Crocker’s video exposed about the meme culture is that “people may share a certain video with others for many different reasons (spanning from identification to scornful ridicule), but when they create their own versions of it they inevitably reveal their interpretations of the text.” 

That video exhibited people’s behaviour of undermining others’ beliefs, ideologies or mocking their traits. That was also the beginning of memes taking their own direction and venturing into trolling, criticism and negative behaviour. This pattern suggests that the chaotic Web may in fact follow more organized, culturally polarised views than meets the eye. But, that’s just a bite-sized percentage of memetic engineering. 

If we now consider political memes, they bear the potential for a grassroots approach and encourage people to speak on issues that matter. The Occupy Wall Street movement made the slogan “We Are the 99 Percent” popular. This slogan also led to a prolific Internet meme, in which individuals posted photos of themselves with a written statement about their lives and tribulations, signed with “I am the 99 percent”. 

Memes offer a new way of civic participation, one where citizens are able to express political opinions and participate in important debates. This argument connects with other studies in the field of new media, which also find that user-generated content may function as a mobilizer for citizens who are not usually able or willing to convey their political opinions in the traditional mass media.

I also believe memes are such huge phenomena now because GenZ is using the tool they know best — technology — to lighten the weight with a little quirkiness. Memes carry forward a movement defined by both humour and defiance of past ways of thinking. The best-known example of this is the “OK Boomer” trend which spread like wildfire on the Internet following a retort by a young climate activist after a Newzealand Parliamentarian heckled her for her age. 

Given that the social media interface is gamified, it is addictive in a way that people keep coming for likes, shares and attention. So, being successful with your memes can build a reputation of a funny, savvy person, worth following and listening to. Those people who share memes in private networks like WhatsApp can also receive gratification, although to a smaller degree, just a nod or a smiley from the recipients.

Let’s take an Indian example. Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his media antics give the meme factory a lot to experiment with. From highlighting diplomacy issues with China to election strategies and even, making funny jokes about being single, Modi is a great subject for memers in India.

One thing that meme culture has done across the Web is to bring out the best creativity from people. This has not only helped trace the way memes are propagated but also shape digital culture today. What this has also done is build an economy for meme creators who are now officially paid for developing these pieces of humour. Many brands rely heavily on memes as part of their branding strategy and are quick to latch onto trends ruling the Internet. Even social media influencers and Tik Tokers have adapted themselves to video memes.  

While many researchers argue that using memes is not novel, what is astounding about it is the scope, scale and global visibility of memes in the contemporary digital environment. The current logic around it is “if you don’t spread it, you are dead.” That is also one of the reasons how the virality of memes has become a crucial part of digital communication today.

The Applied Science Network’s study on the virality of memes has reflected that the success of a meme can be predicted based on its content alone. Apparently, neutral memes perform better than extreme ones, but of the extremes, negative sentiments perform better than positive sentiments. Let’s dig a little deeper to understand how memes work on our brain.

According to this book on the Science of Meme, a human gets infected by a meme in three ways: 

  1. Conditioning: The first way we get infected is through conditioning or repetition. If we hear something repeated often enough, it becomes part of our programming.
  2. Cognitive dissonance:  The second way is through a mechanism known as cognitive dissonance. When things don’t make sense, our minds struggle to make them make sense
  3. Trojan horse: The third way new memes enter our minds is by taking advantage of our genetic buttons in the manner of the Trojan horse. We are susceptible to bundles of memes that push our buttons to get our attention and then sneak in some other memes along with them. 

What makes memes so adaptable is that there are no rules to create a meme. A 70-year old is as capable of sending a meme to their friends and family as a 12-year old. The attractiveness of memes lies in their visibility – it is way easier to notice an image with little text in the flows of newsfeeds and WhatsApp groups – their fun nature, and the ease at replicating them. 

A meme is multifaceted, takes any form and can originate anywhere. They make us feel good, sometimes, even lighten us up! And, right now, in the digital world we live in, they have become a big deal. More like the voice of our generation and a significant part of our lives. What I mean by that is if you’ve had thoughts in the meme format when speaking to someone or creating situations in your head like “Expectation vs Reality” or “What I want to say Vs. What they hear,” you’re a successful product of memetic engineering.

Researchers predict that there could be designer memes in future that could be used as extraordinary tools of manipulation which once unleashed, self-replicate and channel people’s lives toward some self-serving end or creation of cults/belief systems that could divide people further. That could also mean regulation of memes, given the increasing surveillance of governments across the world!

For now, memes and digital culture look like a match made in heaven. So, don’t be surprised if you get meme-ified someday by the Internet’s meme factory. The future is unpredictable and so are memers!