Reddit. iFunny. Imgur. Memes. Spread like wildfire for ridiculous reasons, the culture surrounding Gen Z would not be the same without memes. With the rise of the internet age, a platform for the easy transfer of memes arose. Ever since, their prominence and importance has grown alongside the increase in accessibility.
The first meme was created in the 1920s—before people could recognize it as a meme: a well-drawn, old-time photo of a dressed-up man captioned “how you think you look when a ‘flashlight’ is taken” next to a second, less appealing photo of the same man captioned, “how you really look when a ‘flashlight’ is taken.”
However, the term “meme” wasn’t actually coined until 1976 by the author of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, in an attempt to describe the spread of information within culture. The memes we all know and love are actually considered a subsection of the term, specified as internet memes.
Memes can be harmless and nonsensical. They don’t contribute much to our culture other than pure entertainment, but that still makes a mark. Look at film. When it arose, these moving pictures were usually independent directors making art for fun. However, the platform grew into its own branch of entertainment with—eventually—an entire industry surrounding it. We should be looking at the same growth from memes.
Harmless memes are typically safe to show friends, family and acquaintances. An example might be the Meme-based Gen Z kids who have a tendency to connect with generational humor, like making light of a poorly designed social media update or the panic of not feeling your wallet or phone in your pocket. Memes are the platform by which these shared interests or shared emotions are conveyed.
Ray Schoonmaker, a student from Drexel University, uses similar language when describing the importance of memes. “Memes are our generation’s way of relating to each other in a really cool way.” Schoonmaker continues, “Like the thanking the bus driver meme. It’s pretty harmless—positive, even. It just says, “hey, we should be nice to each other.” Memes can be based on cultural values and promote the behavior we strive to see in our culture.
Josh Rettew, a student at our very own West Chester University elaborates on Schoonmaker’s thoughts: “the most significant reason they are important to our culture is the connection. I can take a meme, fly out to the West Coast, and show someone who I’ve never talked to and they understand it. They may not have all of the context, but they understand.” Rettew continues, “I can look at one and know that someone understands this. […] In such a time of uncertainty, having that grounding and someone telling you that you’re not alone? That’s important.”
Memes provide important commentary on the happenings within the political scene. Back in May, the White House announced its hire of a lawyer after Ty Cobb retired. The internet responded with a pop-art sketch of Obama with his hands up, captioned “In eight years, I never had to hire a lawyer.”
The earliest example of a political meme might be certain features of political cartoons we see in print newspaper, such as exaggerated features and a hyperbolized interpretation of the actions of the person illustrated. Not all political cartoons have elements of a meme, however.
Memes can spark controversy and start a conversation that might need to be had over a particular issue. Although not always the healthiest forum for communication, the internet is a public sphere where debate can happen.
Of course, there is a downside to everything. Browsing Reddit can become consuming and distracting, communities on the internet can be toxic and meme culture can be interpreted as immature by older generations, causing Gen Z kids to lose the respect of some.
Nonetheless, memes are now used in marketing slogans for TV advertisements, in the storylines of video games and other areas outside of the internet platform. There is no escape. The prominence by default proves the significance of memes. Next time you’re scrolling and see an entertaining twitter text post, remember that the quick press of a share button means the contribution to something so much bigger.
Kirsten Magas is a third-year student English major who minors in biology. KM867219@wcupa.edu