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What Do You Meme?

Written by Jordan Kwong
Artwork by Carolina Galdamez

When I am looking for a laugh,  classical art memes never disappoint. They are irreverent, occasionally raunchy, and always hilarious. They are also everywhere online, as are the countless other memes that have become viral hits. With so many of us spending countless hours on social media browsing, sharing, and tagging memes, it is worth examining their rise and popularity.

The idea of a meme actually goes way back. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggested the possibility that ideas are like organisms, replicating and mutating and evolving. These ideas form our constantly changing cultural landscape. Dawkins named this concept mimeme, from the Greek word for “that which is replicated”, or meme for short. The original intention of the word may have been simply to describe a sociological concept, but how it has manifested into the internet meme that we know today is a fitting progression. Our modern meme is mimeme in action: so basically Evil Kermit is an organism, mutating beautifully.

Gone are the days of landlines and fax machines. The smart phone era is efficient, connected, and paradoxically impersonal. We carry our social media in our pockets, allowing for updates as desired. This modern habit cultivates the perfect environment for something as catchy as a clever meme to be shared instantaneously. Memes are largely visual, making them easy to connect with quickly. Sometimes a picture is more apt at conveying meaning than words.

Above all, memes are relevant, versatile, and relatable. Just take a look at the meme series featuring the Obama-Biden bromance epic; they are based on a genuine friendship, a friendship that could be you and your friends. While the memes are no doubt silly, the fact that the Obama-Biden duo is no longer in the White House adds a bittersweet note that elevates the memes beyond simply goofy.

Memes make feelings of helplessness more bearable. No meme illustrates this better than “This is Fine.” The iconic dog sitting at a table in the middle of a burning building is the epitome of calm, cool, and in denial of reality. The meme conveys a reaction to garbage fire situations that is universally understood but not often put into words. “This is Fine” demonstrates how memes are a mirror reflecting back shared experiences and comfort.

Familiar imagery, both old and new, is a cornerstone of memes. This is why in addition to Ryan Gosling’s “Hey Girl”, we also see (scandalizing) memes for Arthur, a children’s TV series that shaped the childhood of many millennials. The purpose isn’t to create fodder of a favourite, but to use that favourite as a recognizable tool to relay a message or feeling.

The paradox of today’s impersonal connection is a challenge, one which our dedication to communication will rise to. To start, let’s take a seat: I want to hear the story behind your favourite meme. And am I the only one that thinks meme-by-fax- machine was a missed opportunity?