Nearly all millennials today are at least somewhat familiar with memes. Memes comprise the majority of social media feeds for many, whether from dedicated meme creators or just friends who create and share them to convey something themselves. They may even be used as a form of advertisement for clubs on campus, or even by large companies (West Chester College Democrats and Bagel Bites are a couple of great examples). While some find them just plain stupid, many millenials have fully embraced memes. They’re so wonderfully silly, accessible and convey humor in a way that seems like an inside joke between everyone.
However, memes may not be just some playful pastime for young people or a marketing fad. Memes have evolved from silly reaction images and people going through epic fails to a much broader range of topics and forms. What was once mostly Rage Comics redrawn into different situations has grown into countless different formats, templates and characters that seem to come and go faster than most can keep up with.
Perhaps as a result of this expansion, memes have ventured into the realm of politics, resulting in some very odd publicity for meme culture. Since the beginning of 2016 when talk of the presidential election began in earnest, the internet exploded with political involvement through memes. Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash organized hundreds of thousands of young Facebook users into a popular meme group with more memes than anyone could go through before the primaries. In opposition, the alt-right flooded the internet with their memes as well, especially on 4chan where troves of edgelords memed Donald Trump in a bubble where few outsiders (or “normies”) saw them.
I am not giving any special attention to Hillary Clinton’s meme activity because it was fairly insignificant. However, this lack of memery from the establishment candidate did end up having a potentially significant impact on the election. Most people would struggle to name a meme supportive of the Clinton campaign, but Sanders fans obviously had their many millennials in the meme stash making progressively-minded memes, and the alt-right had so many memes propagating their nationalist views that the memes achieved mainstream news coverage as white supremacist symbols. The discussion on what drove the country to elect Donald Trump currently includes racial, economic and geopolitical issues, but it may also require an understanding of how support has been gathered by the propagation of memes to a national audience disillusioned by establishment neoliberalism.
Despite their ridiculous nature and simplistic appearance, memes are important. Positively or negatively, they have a strong effect on our individual lives and wider society, and are quickly becoming integral to our culture. For reasons beyond their political impact, there is shining opportunity to formally understand this new mode of communication.
This vein of academic pursuit has already been tapped by scholars in a variety of fields. Starting around 2013, an influx of dissertations and academic papers from graduate students and professors of communications, history, sociology and political science on the subject of memes began to appear. These papers include titles like “Memes as Genre: A Structurational Analysis of the Memescape” and “Satirical User-Generated Memes as an Effective Source of Political Criticism, Extending Debate and Enhancing Civic Engagement,” and other scholarly-sounding headlines. Although somewhat limited in quantity, work is being done in analyzing and dissecting memes by qualified academics well-versed in their respective fields, which is already improving our collective understanding of meme culture.
Of course, not all of this scholarship must happen in the elite institutions of higher education. The bulk of research into memes has been done by memers themselves. The website Know Your Meme has been documenting memes since 2007, done in wiki style with the help of research and submissions by meme aficionados. The website has over 2,800 confirmed memes and meme genres fully documented including their origin, spread, some examples and references. This is a wonderful source just to catch up on the latest meme you may not understand, but also to understand the various factors which lead to its creation and its effects on our culture. This kind of database can be an incredible way for people to trace meme generation from the lens of sociology, linguistics, psychology and many other fields.
Perhaps one of the most powerful developments in academic memery is in the field of philosophy. Meme pages with philosophical content have become widespread over the internet, and perhaps the most popular of such meme sources is The Philosopher’s Meme. The page has over 220,000 likes on Facebook and does much more than just make memes, although the memes they do make are incredibly entertaining as well as academically rigorous in terms of their content. The Philosopher’s Meme also has connected groups for meme study discussion and resources, where members discuss and analyze memes in a surprisingly serious fashion. On The Philosopher’s Meme website, one of the main admins, S. Y. Her, posted The Artist-Philosopher Manifesto, where he eloquently outlines his rationale for studying memes without actually saying the word “meme” at all, instead focusing on the aesthetic and epistemological value of art and, by implication, memes as well. The website also has various other essays and treatises on memes and their underlying philosophical concepts.
Memes are not likely to go away anytime soon. Memes have become such a popular mode of communication in such a short time that academia has lots of catching up to do in its understanding of its concepts. Most importantly, there are very real consequences to a meme-based society whose constituents do not understand memes.
In the words of S. Y. Her: “Art, ethics and politics are today impossible without the concurrent engagement of theory and practice. The boundary between the two is arbitrary: we need artists and memeticists as much as developers and technicians. The hivemind—interdisciplinary, porous, living—connects and unites us; together, we create.”
Alexander Habbert is a third-year student majoring in urban and environmental planning with minors in anthropology and Spanish. He can be reached at AH855541@wcupa.edu.