Memes are concepts imitated by users, from person to person, emulating a common theme or cultural transmission (Blackmore, 1998). The concept of a ‘meme’ is not new, but the modality is; now we have images rapidly spread among groups of people who may previously have had no connection. Memes are part of our changing concepts of culture and what it means to be a member of the online world.
“Users seem to have sensed that the meme concept encapsulates some of the most fundamental aspects of contemporary digital culture,” writes Limor Shifman in Memes in Digital Culture (2014, p.4). Most likely, if you spend any significant amount of time online, even without text you know that a velociraptor has a philosophical question for you; that the crying girl will try to tell you about her ‘first-world problems’; that the toddler is bound to be successful, and Boromir will correct your assumptions about the simplicity of a problem. This is the power of the meme, and the lack of text on the images supports that these images are so pervasive that they need no explanation. They have changed the way that individuals and society think, by creating automatic responses regardless of content.
In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr discusses the ways in which the medium of the internet is changing individuals and society, and how the means of consuming content can matter as much or more than the content itself. Carr discusses Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, written in the 1960s but amazingly relevant for interpreting today’s media. Carr criticizes the popular stances that either our access to so much information is ruining us, or the view that the access is a savior for humanity. On page 3, he writes,
“What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it–and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.”
So why are memes such a popular window into our world in 2017? Drawing from later in Carr’s book, he discusses the ways and speeds at which people read: studies now show that humans read differently than they used to, often jumping and scanning a page rather than absorbing every word written (Carr, 2016, pg. 135).
If we are looking for a quickly-consumable medium, memes certainly fit the bill: an image that evokes a feeling or thought, with no to few words superimposed onto it. Quick. Simple. Eye-catching. All valuable traits in the world of the Internet, ever moving, ever changing, spinning us faster and faster in a whirlwind of information that requires more and more research to discern truth from fiction. Memes have the ability to be taken at face value; no one needs to look more deeply into the meanings of memes, because they are meant to be light-hearted, funny, minimalist social commentary on issues much more serious than the images imply.
Memes are not really about content. They are about a shared thought in a community, latched onto because of the ease and familiarity of the format, and spread widely in social societies who need a medium to express themselves in the bite-sized pieces that our brains, overwhelmed, can manage.