The meme has become one of the most prolific, controversial and weaponised tools of communication on the internet today. Originally introduced as a viral format that spoke to a moment in a particular subculture, usually put forth by a member of the community and intended to spread themes and ideas, the modern internet meme has become a tool that has IRL effects on society—influencing how people interact with each other and social institutions at large. Viral memes such as Pepe The Frog have impacted political thought and become a coded way in which the American alt-right communicates. But because memes do not rely heavily on facts and often have the power of anonymity backing them, the potential for memes to be weaponised and influence a generation of newly-connected internet users is massive. To understand the culture better, we spoke with former social media manager at BuzzFeed India, Nahim Abdullah, who understands what memes mean to our country like few others do, mainly because he's created many of the memes we've all laughed at and shared.
VICE: Can you tell me a bit about your early life?
I was born in Kerala but grew up in Dubai and Sharjah because I have a stereotype to live up to. I’m the second of four brothers, each of us with similar tastes and different interests so it's a ninja turtle-esque dynamic. I’m definitely the Donatello type who reads a lot.
What was your first introduction to the internet and do you remember what kind of communities you got into?
It was back in '98 or '99 because my dad is an early adopter of technology to this day (which is unusual for an Indian dad), and got us a home internet connection before my friends had even heard of such a thing. I’m pretty sure I started off on the 'low bandwidth' version of the Goosebumps website and Pokemon fan communities, but the first serious internet communities we got into was the Soldier Of Fortune fan communities and forums before eventually spiralling down the somewhat awful 4chan route circa 2006.
How did memes get introduced into the lexicon and when did you started noticing this trend?
Memes on the forums I used to frequent were a lot more low-key but they were always around even though a lot of people didn’t call them memes at first. Memes started really taking off outside of the image boards when Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit started reposting them and bringing them to a wider audience.
How did you and your team approach memes as a communication tool?
I was the social media guy at BuzzFeed—the one who made a few piping hot memes from scratch every day—and generally decided social strategy. I think we were advantaged by having a meme-savvy team that had an eye on both, trending memes as well as the history of memes in general. Also, we were unafraid to get meta and poke fun at ourselves from time to time.
I think all we did was repackage very Indian experiences and humour in popular western meme formats. As funny as Reddit and Black Twitter are, the vast majority of India isn’t going to relate to a 'Knuck If You Buck' meme as hard as they do to a Chak De India meme. Of course, a lot of our memes had a liberal slant because our team all had liberal or leftist views and when done right, memes get across ideas more efficiently than articles or essays can.
Can you give examples of some of the more popular campaigns (like the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and K3G ones) and how you guys approached these?
Honestly, one of the coolest things was that we made memes we enjoyed and related to. A colleague of mine was probably the biggest K3G superfan of all time and her incessant quoting of the series in office led us to make memes of it, and we were shocked at how incredible the response to it was. A lot of millennials and Gen Z kids had grown up with this movie and still knew the dialogues, throwaway jokes and trivia well enough to appreciate every post we made about it, even as it referenced more obscure trivia about the movie.
Do you think memes have become the defining communication tool on the internet today?
Definitely. Why waste time saying a lot of words when a few words do the trick?
What led to this and how have you seen memes evolve?
I think advice animals, rage comics and Impact font memes, as well as sites like quickmeme that helped people make basic memes right away, led people of all ages to start making memes to express their ideas, while until then, memes were the domain of the young and fairly tech literate.
The more people became savvy to the concept of memes, the shorter the shelf life of your average meme got. 10 years ago, a meme had a shelf life of months if not years. That whittled down to weeks or days, the reason being that a meme is considered dead when your average joe aka the 'normie' gets a hold of it. To stay one step ahead, meme-makers have got more meta, esoteric and prolific in their output. Today, meme culture has evolved into some kind of Dadaesque fever dream to avoid being sucked into the mainstream.
In times in which internet communities are having real-world effects, how are memes being weaponised or used to further political/social agendas?
In India, it's definitely via WhatsApp. There are a lot of new internet users in this country and most of them take memes as gospel truth. It’s not about where you come from or how educated you are—everyone is getting taken in.