Social media has a bad reputation, and for good reason: white supremacy left unchecked; revenge porn; livestreaming of mass murder; the spread of fake news, possibly undermining world democracy. It isn’t the greatest list. As far as lists go, that one probably couldn’t get any worse. I quit Facebook long ago. Well, in 2013, which
Social media has a bad reputation, and for good reason: white supremacy left unchecked; revenge porn; livestreaming of mass murder; the spread of fake news, possibly undermining world democracy. It isn’t the greatest list. As far as lists go, that one probably couldn’t get any worse.
I quit Facebook long ago. Well, in 2013, which in the internet age counts as long ago. Most social media I keep up with solely for work. But there are times when, for me, despite all its true horror, social media – and memes in particular – induce tears of laughter. What has made me laugh the hardest over the past few years have not been the sold-out Edinburgh fringe shows or the Bafta-winning television comedies, but strangers on the internet.
In the greatest of ironies, it is the mostly unhumorous Richard Dawkins who gave us the word “meme”, which he coined in his 1976 work The Selfish Gene. He defined a meme as: “a unit of cultural transmission”, encompassing ideas, symbols and practices. The derivation is the ancient Greek word “mimeme”: imitated thing. It’s probable that neither the Greeks nor Richard Dawkins foresaw the internet’s Distracted Boyfriend, in which a stock photograph of a man walking hand-in-hand with his beau while checking out another woman – much to his girlfriend’s annoyance – has been used as an analogy for everything, from eyeing up new titles in a book store while unread ones are neglected at home, to millennials turning their backs on capitalism for socialism.
For a meme to really take off, it has to be relatable; it has to contain a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen would put it. That is basically how all jokes work. What I love about memes is the way they bring out the best in people: their wit, their absurdist thinking, their quick turns of phrase. I love that a 17-year-old girl in a Minnesota bedroom can reduce me to belly laughs as much as a father in Norwich or Jakarta. I adore the twists and turns of a meme’s journey. It doesn’t matter what form they take: video clips; Vines (RIP); Snapchat stories; Twitter threads; old-school image macros.
The greatest ones often have a central juxtaposition or an imaginative leap. An old favourite is Unhelpful Teacher, a stock image of a woman in front of a blackboard whose jaunty expression is entirely unrelated to the quotes people make up for her: “Oh, you don’t understand? Let me explain it again in the exact same way.”
Yes, the internet is in many ways driving us apart. But memes are bringing us together.