When biologist Richard Dawkins coined the phrase "memes" he meant "an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture". A popular song, a kid playing the piano, a screwdriver; almost anything can be a meme if you want it to be. Animals have memes too, but what makes us different is that we can write them down. We are content creators. We make high fidelity memes. We make internet memes.
If you dissect any given internet meme you'll find an incredible amalgamation of culture, tone, humour and knowledge. When we're studied by future generations, our ancient artefacts won't be adolescent diaries or Tracey Emin artworks, but variants on the Condescending Willy Wonka meme. And that's because memes are both an expression of their creators and the wider world around them, meaning viewers understand them intuitively. Memes don't need to be learnt.
"Most memes are just slipping in," said Brad Elder, Professor at Doane University and a meme obsessive, over the phone . "If you drive down the road, everything in front of you will stick in your brain. Now all you have to do is scroll."
Of course, not all memes are made equal. And because the intention when you make a meme is generally that it resonates with someone and they share it, by their nature all memes are competing for our attention. Some are stronger; some are weaker and get forgotten. That's how the veiny forehead of that kid trying to hold in a fart in a classroom is etched into the fabric of your memory. It's basically like natural selection in biological evolution.
So what does it say about us that the memes that tend to take off are the more negative ones?
"A strong meme will latch onto a person like a virus," says Elder. "It's diabolical because the strong ones are most frequently negative. If you think of our mind as the immune system, it struggles to reject it. A negative meme will come in and find a home."
Whats defines the majority of the most popular memes of the last few years is a sense of sadness – whether it's the misery of another, the misery of ourselves, our collective misery or often all the above.
Take "Netflix and Chill", a meme that's become so synonymous with our age that we're now referred to as the Netflix and Chill generation. In its innocent beginnings the phrase meant kicking back with a laptop and a takeaway. Now it's code for two people meeting up and hooking up. Completely bypassing chivalry or the idea of an actual date, the greatest outcome in this scenario is watching Netflix, the probable end result: fucking. We laughed because we recognised the truth in it; we laughed until it fed back into itself and came to define how we view relationships, sex and dating. And now it's just a little bleak.
Chris Chesher, a professor in Digital Cultures at the University of Sydney, believes that an internet meme's agency in society is a manifestation of an iteration of Roland Barthes' concept of the punctum.
He theorises that the feature of an image that wounds or punctures the viewer exposes the common experiences and situations people face in life – thus the meme reveals something that individuals have already felt but are unable to articulate. Obviously, the more people who relate to a meme, the more they're likely to share it; the more the virus is infecting until we're dropping memes into our everyday conversation both online and off.
We all know the mighty "Why the fuck you lyin'?" video of 2015, featuring Nicolas Fraser singing the line in his back garden, grinning knowingly at the camera. This, again, reflected a negative reality back to everyone – even Chris Brown reposted the meme on Instagram.
Our lives are filled with lies and apathy. When our friends cancel because they're "ill". When we cancel because we're "ill". And, of course, within meme culture, girls are shown to be nagging hoes hellbent on catching men out through their social media activity. Why the fuck is your other half lying?
Most people sharing a variation on the Lil Mama Crying meme might not know exactly where it's from. Her face is captioned with relatable stuff like, "When u start rubbin on his dick n he move yo hand," or, "When you text him 'Merry Christmas, I love you' and he replies lol you wild, merry xmas." The image all this text is laid over is actually a screengrab of the artist tearing up on radio while talking about her mum dying of cancer when she was a teenager.
We like celebrities being miserable in memes. They are no longer untouchable, but just as unhappy as us, as we drag them into a visceral global misery. Crying Michael Jordan has been a favourite, as has Sad Ben Affleck. When Nicki Minaj uttered the immortal words, "Miley, what's good?" we were blessed with both the pop culture moment of the year and the perfect way to express one person slamming another. Leo DiCaprio running topless became our enemy (or us) pathetically pounding along through life.
And never forget Pizza Rat, the New York rat struggling to carry a whole slice down a flight of stairs. Why did the image spread so widely? Because really, aren't we all this rat, just trying to get by in work and our personal lives, but consistently failing, crushed by the immensity of our tasks?
These are just a few examples. But think about memes for a second; I'd imagine the specific ones that stick out most in your mind have some kind of negative slant. Dissect most internet memes that have really flown and you'll find some kind of negativity.
The result of this global conversation is powerful. "The force of this becomes even crazier when you realise memes affect other organisms," explains Elder. "So if I'm brought up to think that all snakes are slimy creatures, that's a meme in my head, and it might mean that I actively go out and kill snakes in my backyard. These are organisms that don't interact with our society really, but memes are forcing us to go out and do this."
On the one hand, we should be fascinated by memes. They make us cry with laughter on our phones in bed at night. They have done an incredible job of expressing our discontent. They've allowed people to pinpoint something that needs to be expressed – memes have flourished in the mental health community, for example – that they might not have been able to otherwise.
And what, you might ask, is greater than all people across the world finding connection in the face of Good Guy Greg?
But if memes are a reflection of the people who make them, and the world that makes those people, what does it say about us that the memes we most eagerly consume are the ones that represent the act of wallowing or of relishing in negativity? Should we worry that the more we eat these up the more they'll be absorbed into our collective consciousness? To put it simply: were we the Netflix and Chill generation before we told ourselves we were?
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