An Internet Language For Youth, By Youth:
With many thanks to Wi-Fi, and no disrespect to the dial-up modem, viral content has become a normal part of our lives and the source of entertainment for many internet-wanderers. But this ain’t your mother’s internet anymore. One creation in particular, the meme, has transformed the web as we know it. And its creators? None other than those (in)famous Millennials.
So what exactly is a meme? A simple question with an unexpectedly complex answer. Memes are a pretty nuanced subject, and their intricacies offer insight into the minds of the Millennials and Gen Edge. There’s even an entire book devoted to the subject, Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman. In it, Shifman walks us through the history of the meme (yes, there is a history!), defines the many different types, and examines their significance and imprint on our culture.
As trivial as memes might seem upon first glance, they actually constitute a whole new mode of communication. Millennials and Gen Edge have grown up with memes and the ever-evolving world of the internet. They’ve come of age while wandering the unchartered virtual worlds and created their own system of communication and shared language. Decoding this internet phenomenon could be one of many keys to a deeper understanding of these two tech-savvy generations. If you want help deciphering the language of the next generation, take a seat, brew a strong cup of coffee, and prepare for a deep dive into the land of the meme.
WHAT IS A MEME?
Shifman defines a meme as “shared norms and values constructed through cultural artifacts such as Photoshopped images or urban legends.” Fancy, eh? In other words, a meme, whether it be a video or a Photoshopped image, is a piece of internet culture that a group of users understands as embodying a specific message. Still confusing or ambiguous? Don’t worry. This is one of those things that’s best understood through example:
- Psy’s Gangnam Style music video became very popular very quickly. People around the world sang along to the song and imitated the horse dance. Some began recreating the music video with their own twist; they changed the lyrics to reflect their own local atmosphere. This is when Gangnam Style became a meme—when people started to adapt it; it is important, however, to realize an individual video does not a meme make. As Shifman describes it, “A single video is not an internet meme, but part of a meme—one manifestation of a group of texts that together can be described as the meme.” Here are a couple well-known examples of how people imitated Gangnam Style:
- Chris Crocker’s “Leave Britney Alone” video, just a teeny bit older than Gangnam Style, also became very popular very quickly. But this meme was far from positive. It was a mocking imitation in the form of parody. People around the world were making fun of him—recreating his video in a taunting, satirical manner. Eventually, it all came back around and some readapted the video to ironically defend Chris Crocker instead of Britney. Both styles of mimicry, the mean-spirited version and the in-defense-of-Chris version, are responsible for the development of the “Leave Britney Alone” meme.
The first two examples are mimicry-based memes, but there are other types of memes that use remixing. A remixed meme often involves Photoshop. One example? The pepper-spraying cop. Here’s the the rare, original photo of the pepper-spraying cop, which originates from an Occupy movement at the University of California Davis. The video of the incident went viral, becoming susceptible to mimicry. Almost immediately, internet users were satirically Photoshopping the cop and his pepper spray into other environments to make political points (curious? here’s a sampling). Of course, there are many, many more memes lurking around the internet:
VIRAL VS. MEME
What’s the difference between something going viral and something being a meme?
Viral: A singular something that’s been mass distributed through the internet. (i.e. The Linda listen video.)
Meme: A collection of similar things (i.e., videos, photos, jokes) that are recreations of an original thing that is the source of inspiration.
For example, “Leave Britney Alone” was a viral video that became a meme once people started remaking it. A meme and virality aren’t mutually exclusive and will usually go hand-in-hand. If something goes viral and millions of people see it and have access to it, the likelihood that meme hubs such as 4chan, Reddit, or Tumblr are going to recreate it and immerse it into their online cultures increases. From the other end, it’s difficult for something to become a successful, long-lasting meme when no one knows anything about it. Virality makes meme formation easier. Shifman explains that it’s easier to think of the two terms as a spectrum, because there’s probably no such thing as something that is strictly viral or strictly a meme. If a YouTube video has gone viral and has millions of views, somebody is copying it.
WHY ARE MILLENNIALS DRAWN TO MEMES?
Why are memes so popular? Well, everybody likes to be a part of an inside joke, and that’s essentially how people feel about memes. Shifman defines it as something called networked individualism. Understanding memes can reflect on a person’s social logic—their digital literacy. By using and sharing popular memes on social media, a person can display their uniqueness and creativity to their friends; they can feel like a part of the community that’s cool enough to propagate the meme. Simultaneously, this person can still maintain their individuality, because memes are all about recreation with personal spins. Networked individualism: a person is being themselves while connecting with a larger community. Does that have “Millennial” written all over it or what? The Xers in your office aren’t the ones sprinting to your weekly meetings to share their latest and greatest ideas, and they aren’t craving to collaborate with anyone who has the time. That’s a Millennial thing, and this meme phenomenon meets their needs perfectly. Although Millennials didn’t invent memes (WWII’s Kilroy can be credited with that), they’ve been able to master and popularize them with the help of the far-reaching internet.
WHY ARE INTERNET MEMES IMPORTANT?
You could say memes are a glimpse into the minds of the youngest generations, especially their sense of humor. Millennials started this movement, and Gen Edgers are building it into an entire library. Internet memes are a blend of historical, real-life, and online cultures, and people are using them to communicate in a single style that transcends these dimensions. It’s a new type of literacy. If you don’t know about awkward penguin or work cat, you might miss out on the joke (and/or the message being shared).
The younger generations constantly make use of this new method of demonstrating individuality and establish an affiliation with a community. As communication technology continues to evolve (I mean, just take a look at IOS10), memes are just one of the many new visual ways to express a sense of belonging. One might say that for Millennials and Gen Edgers, a meme is worth a thousand emojis.