It me: how memes made us feel less alone

Relatable content has swept across the internet since the early Noughties. Is it just a bit of fun, or has it profoundly changed the way we think and feel?

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It was Jesus Christ who famously first told us to love our neighbour but Confused Mr Krabs really hammered it home.

Over the last year, screenshots of the bemused Spongebob Squarepants character have flooded the internet, each titled with its own relatable sentiment. “When your mum leave you in line to get eggs and the cashier says ‘next’” reads one caption above the confused crustacean. Another: “When the teacher says, ‘Partner Up!’ but you ain't got a single friend in that class.”

Confused Mr Krabs memes don’t inspire much cultural commentary because – and really, this sentence needs no end. Yet although they are simply a flippant joke format, they are part of a wider online culture of “relatable” content that has dominated the internet since the early Noughties. There are jokes “only teachers will laugh at”; pictures “only anxious people will get”, and memes “only people who hate themselves will understand”. Relatable content, including Mr Krabs himself, has taught us to “love our neighbour” because it has taught us one thing on a grand scale for the very first time: we are not alone.

“They make me feel normal,” says Nikki, a 37-year-old events manager from Florida, referring to memes about being antisocial. One of a man tucked up in bed, smiling, is captioned: “when the group plans are cancelled & you never wanted to go”. On Twitter, the picture has over 26,000 retweets – proving that not only is Nikki not alone in her thoughts, they are actually very common.

“All too often I’ve wondered if I’m alone in the fact that I’d rather stay in and watch Netflix with my dog than go out on a Friday night,” she says. “Posts like [that one] make me realise that there are probably more people out there who feel the same way than there are not.”

Sociologists have noted that the internet is instrumental in forging community bonds, and can be particularly helpful to those struggling with their identity – be that their sexuality, mental health, or social status. Yet meme culture is a less-studied aspect of this phenomenon. Dr Grainne Kirwan, a lecturer and expert in cyberpsychology, sheds some light on how and why memes allow us to feel connected to one another.

“As we tend not to discuss many of the mundane aspects of life, either because we believe them to be boring to others, or so unusual that others might think us slightly strange, we frequently don't realise that many others do and think exactly the same things, even in private moments,” she says. A key example of this, she explains, is “imposter syndrome” – a feeling individuals have when they believe their accomplishments are a fluke and they are actually a fraud. “Because we try to save face many people never admit to such a feeling, and hence we seldom realise how common the feeling is.”

There are many memes about imposter syndrome across social media, and they have both helped people understand that it is a problem and identify the problem in themselves. “It me” is a common phrase used above memes to signify that you relate. Kirwan says individuals are often surprised when they realise the syndrome exists, as they finally realise they’re not alone. “The memes fill a similar gap - they slightly surprise us in providing evidence that others share our thoughts or private behaviours, and because this surprise is genuine, and usually relates to common yet fairly benign or neutral activities, this becomes amusing to us.”

Yet Anna Borges, a senior health writer for Buzzfeed News, believes such memes can go beyond simply being amusing. She often curates meme lists that are related to mental health for Buzzfeed, such as a recent one titled “55 Memes About Anxiety That Will Make You Say ‘Me’”.

“I see a lot of comments from readers, both for and against using humour that way,” she says. “A lot of people feel the way I do – which is that joking can ease some of the pressure off dealing with these issues alone, makes it easier to talk about, and can make you feel connected.”

Borges believes mental health memes can provide a “safe way” to disclose feelings that would otherwise be very isolating. “Not a lot of us are comfortable going around and earnestly being like, ‘Oh, yeah, my suicidal thoughts are really creeping up on me today,’ or, ‘Wow, my anxiety has convinced me that my entire friend group hates me and I don't want to leave the house now.’ Those aren't easy things to say, even if you desperately don't want to deal with those feelings alone.” Her posts, she believes, can help people find a way to share their emotions without exposing themselves too much.

Critics do note that memes can minimise mental health issues and lead to people self-diagnosing incorrectly, for example believing they having anxiety disorder when they simply feel everyday anxiety. Yet it seems undeniable from comments on posts like Borges’ that memes can be incredibly helpful. “It sounds terrible, but I'm kinda glad I'm not the only one going through some of this crap,” wrote one reader on an anxiety-related post. “As much as you know you're not alone, it's nice to hear (or read) it, even if it's kinda douchey to realise you're kinda happy that others aren't happy.”

I personally feel so strongly that memes have helped me to realise that I’m not unique – from feeling anxious to seeing little stars when you rub your eyes too hard – that I wonder what life must have been liked before. As an angsty teenager, memes were invaluable in helping me understand that my weird thoughts weren’t that weird – and I imagine I might have struggled without them. I ask my mum, aged 60, how she found this solace when she was young.

“I read Jackie,” she replies.

Jackie was a weekly magazine for girls that ran from 1964 until 1993. Its comic strips focussed on real life experiences, and the “Cathy and Claire” problem page allowed readers to write in with their issues. Yet not all teen girls could access it, as my mum remembers she had to share her copy with a friend. “Her mum wouldn’t let her have it. I think she thought it would corrupt her.”

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My mum explains that she never truly felt normal and “always felt different”, and I wonder if memes might have changed this growing up. I imagine that Jackie was instrumental in helping with common emotions and experiences like fancying boys and arguing with your parents, but it probably didn’t touch upon the specifics that memes do. Because of memes, for example, I know that others construct fake arguments in their heads when they’re in the shower. I know that when people take a water bottle into a shop, they’re scared the guard will think they shoplifted on the way out. I know that no one in the history of ever has ever seen the difference when the optician asks: “Which is better? One… or two?”

My generation is often criticised for believing that we are “special snowflakes”, but memes mean I can’t buy this argument. More than ever, we know we are not unique. Rather than thinking there is no one out there with a pattern quite like ours, we know we are simply part of the storm. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh