Memes and meaning: Why our online habits are more than just distractions

We turn to memes to help make sense of our chaotic existence, taking comfort in the shared experience of internet culture.

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Though not all jokes are memes, all memes are jokes. Good ones. Like traditional jokes, a meme is built on a pre-established structure – an image, a diagram, a sequence of images or diagrams. This base layer makes the image instantly recognisable by a particular group of internet-dwellers (of varying size, depending on the meme in question), and also provides scope for infinite interpretation. The next layer – the process of turning this image into a new meme, to express whatever view the user is trying to convey – brings it into the present. 

Memes, then, are ways of interpreting or expressing something new, yet are at the same time usually supremely familiar. It makes sense that they have become objects of comfort for times of crisis – including, yes, the pandemic. 

Given that this particular crisis has meant we are all spending more time than usual staring at screens, I have found myself thinking a lot about memes. They are familiar and funny; they are also intensely self-contained and self-referential, to the extent that even what I have written so far could be seen to be lessening their impact by intellectualising something fun and self-explanatory, or to be so far removed from the culture they inhabit that it’s completely irrelevant. But I’ll soldier on, because this – their intrinsic, specific and delicate cultural impact – is precisely why they are so fascinating.

The term “meme” was coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe the spread of ideas in society: a meme functions like a gene on an ideological level. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the term was used to describe something similar to our modern conception of internet memes, when the journalist Mike Godwin (of Godwin’s Law fame) wrote in Wired of a tendency by users on early online message forums to compare ideas they didn’t like to the Nazis. 

Now, memes are second nature; an online dialect. A 2019 US survey showed 75 per cent of 13- to 36-year-olds share memes on social media.

I am not the only one who thinks about memes beyond the reactionary response of “that’s funny, haha”. If you think reducing the wit and vibrancy of meme culture to a percentage statistic is boring, try reading thinkpieces on sea shanty TikTok. When, in January, the trend peaked and hot takes proliferated, Rebecca Jennings wrote in an article for Vox that despite efforts from CNET, the New York Times, the New Yorker and Vulture to make us believe the craze for sea shanty videos is meaningful, “the thing about viral sea shanties is that there is literally nothing to explain at all”. 

[see also: Who wins on the ephemeral internet?]

A couple of weeks after the trend died down, a Texas lawyer got stuck in a cat filter in a hearing on Zoom and declared to the judge that he was “not a cat” (that was funny, big haha). Imogen West-Knights wrote in the Guardian: “Whenever something goes viral people seem to want to make it mean something. I could analyse this video for deeper lessons it has to impart… I’m not going to. […] It’s just very, very funny.”

Neither the sea shanty craze nor Lawyer Cat were, strictly speaking, memes. As Gretchen McCulloch writes in Because Internet, her 2019 book on how the internet is changing language, a meme is not just a viral trend but “something that’s remade and recombined, spreading as an atom of internet culture”. 

But these trends and the responses to them made me think about memes more broadly. I’m not going to attempt to come up with a grand theory about how Lawyer Cat is deeply emblematic of the way in which we are all trapped in the cat filter of our own lives – it’s clearly not. But surely viral content is, in some sense, democratic? It is popular for a reason, isn’t it? Or is it all just a way of filling the precious hours of our lives? Is the communicative power of the Distracted Boyfriend and Bernie memes also meaningless? Are we all just scrolling through endless grey sludge, occasionally chuckling, waiting for death? 

Zeena Feldman, a senior lecturer in digital culture at King’s College London, has some reassuring insights. “Memes,” she tells me over the phone, “tell us something significant about what's meaningful for people and how people make sense of the world around them. They have a certain temporal quality, in that they are responses to things that are happening right now. They are responses to the contemporary conditions and events of everyday life… so the meme is a commentary on those dimensions of human existence.”

Those timely images that constitute memes accumulate layers of meaning over time. “[They] acquire significance in circulation,” says Feldman, referring to the tree-in-a-deserted-forest adage (if a meme drops on an account with no followers, does it make a sound?). 

“Not everything goes viral, and that in itself is meaningful,” she continues. Then, the further a meme travels, the more meaning it can acquire: McCulloch writes that a meme’s humour develops because it is repeated and reinterpreted. Each time a meme changes, it absorbs the context of its last iteration, meaning the memes that are most “meaningful” for their popularity are also likely to be the most complex.

This is significant when trying to work out why we like them so much – and, perhaps, why we might feel instinctively protective of them as objects of analysis. Some memes require years of internet knowledge to be deciphered. McCulloch writes: “The appeal of memes is the appeal of belonging to a community of fellow insiders.”

This has been the case, she explains, since their early incarnations (such as “lolcats”), partly because they required a then-rare technical proficiency to create. The beauty of memes is that they make us feel part of a club. Everyone wants to get the joke first, or perhaps a bit more than other people.

In a sense, this leads us back to Feldman’s point about the “temporal quality” of memes: they are niche, and they also must be in some way transient to survive. They exist somewhere between insider and outsider, fleeting and permanent. “That’s sort of the paradox of the meme,” says Feldman.

Perhaps the accelerated pace of internet culture means that, in the 30 years since it was invented, we are already fed up with endless interpretation and have reached a kind of online postmodernism (memes for memes’ sake). Perhaps there is simply something fundamentally uncool about analysing a joke. But memes are representative of something bigger than a reflexive laugh, because even if their content is arbitrary, their very popularity is emblematic of a cultural mood. And at a time of crisis, when we're feeling more isolated than ever, there is comfort in drawing connection with strangers putting their own twist on images of the Ever Given container ship wedged in the Suez Canal. We can all laugh at the same joke, even though ultimately we know the joke's on us.

[see also: Inside the internet’s social media graveyard]

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.

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