A defining characteristic of the millennial generation is undoubtedly our love for using memes whenever possible. Memes can take on a variety of forms, but always have that element of repetition which increases their spreadability. According to Richard Dawkins, a meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. They often carry social meaning and provide a vehicle for transmitting cultural information throughout that culture. Internet memes are a kind of subset of this idea, and have largely shaped the way we interact in our daily lives.
Internet meme culture is incredibly diverse and catalogued. There’s actually an archive of every meme on a site called KnowYourMeme. Browsing through all of the popular entries, I was overwhelmed at the sheer volume of Internet memes that have been produced during my lifetime. You can spend a whole day looking through it (and cringing). They’ve been around since the early 2000s, but since then there has been a wide variety in form and scope. My understanding of memes began with things like “Can I Has Cheezeburger?” and “Me Gusta” on Tumblr, but most of those are no longer as regularly used.
At a certain point, it became more popular to use real-life events and people to create memes. This is what we see more dominantly in our culture today. For example, in 2012 we got this guy. Zeddie Little, otherwise known as “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy”, became an instant icon after his smiling face appeared in a photograph taken at the annual Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, South Carolina.
I mean, it is a good face. When Little’s face was discovered, people spread it around social media like wildfire. It didn’t last for long, but most of us can remember when this guy was all we could talk about the next day at school.
This approaches the category of memes that I find we use most often today: situational GIFS or images that often come from short videos or television show screen grabs. These are often the shortest living memes, but the most instantly successful. Unless you’re on Tumblr or Twitter 24/7, its also extremely difficult to stay up to speed.
Sometimes, this highly popularized meme from an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants is actually pretty representative of how we feel when we’re left out of the meme loop.
So why, then, have memes lasted so long and evolved so much over the past decade? It seems that the appeal of memes is that they provide us with scripts for interactions in our communities. What may have once been confined to online spaces has now trickled into our everyday lives and senses of humor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is something to be said of their pervasiveness in our cultural climate. They give us a sense of unity and belonging, and oftentimes provide us with comic relief during turbulent times.
It seems that recently, the most heavily circulated memes only last for a month or two before they are no longer relevant in our discourse. Some stick around (i.e. Pepe the Frog), but it’s much more common to see memes constantly overlapping and replacing their predecessors. While it is true that each meme may come and go with time, meme culture is alive and well, and I don’t think it plans on going away any time soon.
Humphreys, Ashlee. “Chapter 12: Cultural Representation and Practices.” Social Media: Enduring Principles. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. 222-224. Print.
Images from KnowYourMeme.com