Memes are a strange little thing.
I could pick up a book from the 1800s and read my way through it, no problem — maybe with a little help from a dictionary. But I laugh to think about what will happen if someone living in the 2200s, or even fifty years from now, stumbles on an image CaPtiOnEd LikE tHiS and no other context. What was the reasoning for it? Is it a cypher or code of some sort, intended to reveal a second meaning when cracked?
That’ll happen only because memes have a much higher turnover rate than languages, making them and their comprehension short-lived. But it is also because memes — more than humour, more than density — rely on context. The origin of the word is from the Greek mimema, which means to imitate. Memes imitate a format that is already made, ever-evolving, and understood by the masses.
We need to dispel the stereotype that memes are an instant, low-brow form of humour. I think any given meme would require as many footnotes as a page of Regency-era writing to explain it to someone completely foreign. Memes rise, memes fall, and they are born again from the remnants of old ones. To understand the present, we need to understand the past — which sounds like a moralising adage, but I’m using it very literally.
The fact that Gen Z scrolls so mindlessly past them, en masse, necessitates a type of social memory that recalls the meaning of certain images, font types and grid layouts. Add to that a base understanding of what’s happening in world politics, economics and entertainment, and we have Gen Z’s equivalent of a daily newspaper.
Before this year, people might have written off my defence of memes as a Gen Z girl protecting her Gen Z habits, but now economists, academics and teenagers alike have a vested interest in understanding memes and their role in information transfer. No-one can deny now that memes can be weapons of social change. Not after the Instagram Egg. Not after GameStop.
The Instagram Egg was an internet meme that started in 2019. One account posted a picture of a plain chicken egg and challenged the world to make it the most liked photo ever — and the people provided, with 54.8 million likes currently! Second place has half that number! We toppled Kylie Jenner!
In the aftermath, publications talked about rebelling against the Kardashian-Jenner hierarchy and their curated popularity. But I, and certainly many others, did not give those things — while worthy endeavours indeed — a second thought when I pressed that little heart button.
It was just funny, you know. An egg. And everyone was doing it.
Sometimes memes are deeper than that, and sometimes they aren’t. When they aren’t deep at all, they can still be effective. With current events feeling like they’re going down the crapper (even if they aren’t statistically) a nostalgic, absurd or contrarian meme might give us that coveted boost of serotonin. Even depressing memes lend a sense of camaraderie and common suffering that makes tough times not so isolating.
Memes are humour, a phenomenon and a balm.
Now they are also power, as recently evidenced by the GameStop debacle.
For anyone who wants a very crude, very simple explanation: the little people of stock market Reddit decided to take on Wall Street for no financially-sound reason. Banding together on the good faith of the meme, all these individuals cost Melvin Capital and other hedge funds billions of dollars. CEOs are now testifying in court. Congress had to get involved. What fun!
Like the Egg, the aftermath circled around anti-capitalism and reclaiming a sense of economic agency. But in the moment of GameStock? You bet a large chunk of people just did it for shits and gigs. That’s not to say there wasn’t pre-existing dissatisfaction with the state of the stock market, but nothing lights up a social movement like a solid, transferrable symbol. A hand gesture, a logo, or even a meme.
Look at the types of posters used in protests in Myanmar. I’ve never seen so many sexual innuendoes and democratic sentiments side by side. It’s not that Gen Z doesn’t know how to be serious. It’s that we appreciate the power of frivolity. I think that it is because the signs are ridiculous and raunchy — very share-worthy — that relatively more awareness has been raised for the coup and the events following.
There might not be anything so communal and impactful as memes right now — which is exactly what the world needs. Memes help people process inexplicable events, distract from distress and occasionally leave a footprint on the world in the calibre of the unprecedented.
In this generation, memes are very much part of fighting the good fight. They spread and they take their hidden messages and underlying contexts with them.
Memes are our swords and shields. They are our armour. We wear them proudly.Support Villainesse