The Meta-Narrative of Internet Memes
The Meta-Narrative of Internet Memes
Unlike the fleetingness of most viral content, memes have the potential to survive for far longer periods as they continuously adapt and re-invent themselves. Taking their name from a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene, a meme simply functions as ‘an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.’ However, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy and Grumpy Cat were not necessarily what Dawkins envisioned when he put forth this particular notion on the culture of imitation. Whereas his original idea suggested that a meme would mutate randomly and spread by a form of Darwinian selection (we’re talking evolutionary biology here guys), the internet meme is deliberately altered by human creativity and does not seek to accurately reproduce a copy.
Although the internet is still too young to be fully assessed with regards to the longevity of its memes, one can only assume that they will continue to evolve over time and adapt to developing attitudes and humours. As they mutate with every generation, they will be able to function as artefacts – the fossils of our digital age and its many platforms. In doing so, they contribute to an internet culture and confirm it as something distinct from wider cultural shifts in society. Alongside blogs, virtual worlds and even cybersex, internet memes are emblematic of the flexibility of internet culture and the extent to which communication is transformed online. Generated and spread almost as quickly as think pieces, internet memes have been hailed by some as “little moments of connection, of silliness and play and good spirit.” Journalist Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote those words in an article praising the positive aspects of memes and their redemptive qualities in internet communities overshadowed by bitter comment sections and trolls.
Indeed, internet memes have the potential to spread light-hearted humour throughout the internet as opposed to vitriolic tweets and anonymous hate. Whether it’s a picture of a cat looking silly or Keanu Reeves looking down, memes are primarily intended to make you laugh enough to then pass it on. Marketing agencies have begun to cotton on to this desire to share and even Google has launched The Engagement Project – an ‘initiative to study, understand and prove the value of engagement in modern brand building’ – in a bid to harness the power of memes. You only have to look at John Lewis’ last few Christmas campaigns and the millions of pounds they spend on them to witness the effect of memes on other aspects of society.
Our use of the Internet as a tool for communication has provided memes with the perfect environment in which to emerge and develop. As our attention spans become increasingly shorter, memes promise to deliver messages via an image or quick video instead of a written anecdote – just think of the emoji and its predecessor, the emoticon. With apps which allow even the biggest technophobe to edit images and videos, memes can take private jokes to another level as well as mock worldwide news stories at the press of a button. Does the creativity it promises users enable memes to become works of art? If they were presented in an art gallery then the answer would undoubtedly be yes (to much furore of course), but net art has existed for over twenty years within the digital landscape and it is certainly regarded as art. However, net art is made with the purpose of being art where memes are intended to communicate and more often than not, make the recipient laugh. They are ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek and they succeed when they are relatable. Although they can sometimes seem formulaic, memes utilise our shared experiences into sources of comedy and in turn, connect us.
In many ways, it would appear that internet memes and the term ‘viral’ go hand in hand. As they spread through social networks and e-mails, memes begin to take on a life of their own and establish a meta-narrative in which they parody themselves. While a viral infection would be treated with medication IRL, there is no cure for the internet meme. Especially when we’re all too busy wondering if that dress was really white after all.
Written by Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell
Images courtesy of Willem Van Lancker, flickriver.com, @MedievalReacts and mckaylaisnotimpressed.tumblr.com/