What the hell is a meme and why are they plastered all over the Internet? To find out we’re going to take you back a long time ago, longer than you might think. In 1976, long before Facebook, Instagram or anything even resembling the Internet existed the term meme was coined.
Richard Dawkin’s book the Selfish Gene explored theories of evolution and natural selection. In this book he explained that as genes were passed along the strongest and most successful would survive resulting in stuff like blue eyes, olive skin or red hair being prominent in a family or race.
He explained that cultural traits also followed this pattern. Memes are “an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Just like genes memes self-replicate, mutate and respond to pressure. It’s how art movements developed, how hip-hop was created, why we still tell knock-knock jokes and why a person from Paris and a person from Montreal speak the same language but might struggle to understand each other.
So how did an evolutionary term come to describe silly Internet jokes?
Well for starters you probably don’t understand all the memes you see and that’s okay. Just as you can’t be expected to understand French or hip hop, some memes are developed in corners of the Internet you have never been and reference cultures you’re unaware of.
Here’s one that everyone should understand.
Fist pump kid is stoked, and it’s plain to see. We all know this feeling, something good has happened and you give yourself a little private celebration.
Here’s a slightly evolved version, again most of us can relate to this.
Here’s where you start to lose people, this is clearly aimed at a smaller audience. This meme was most likely created to celebrate the opening of an Indian restaurant with a fellow workplace curry lover.
This is the wonderful thing about memes, this recognisable character has built some serious cultural context. He explicitly represents earnest joy, and his meaning can be used add context to situations. In this example a co-worker is sharing a relatable emotion towards a situation (I’m so happy, we’re going to eat lunch at Funky Curry all the time because it’s so close to work).
Lets look at another meme, one that holds a lot of currency at the moment.
You have probably come across this meme in some form or another. You may have heard this term in a song, in a Facebook status or perhaps someone has actually invited you to watch Netflix and chill with them.
Basically ‘Netflix and Chill’ is code for a ‘booty call’ or code for casual sex, just like when people used to invite a date in for ‘a drink’.
Let’s take a look at how this meme has evolved, been mashed together with other cultural references and perpetuated Internet culture.
The ‘Netflix and Chill’ idea has been taken for a ride here. Here we see it being used to make light of a political spill, to make reference to Frodo’s behaviour in Lord of the Rings, pulled apart into a literal representation, and remixed with the ‘sad bear’ meme. Just like a ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ joke the ‘NAC’ framework has been used millions of times to apply a concept to countless subjects.
That’s the beauty of memes, they provide a context to very specific subjects thus making them relatable to a wider audience. Just like the great ‘impressionist’ art movement or ‘walks into a bar’ jokes, great memes evolve from strong ideas that resonate on a level that everyone understands and appreciates. They give people a tool to connect and relate to each other, which can’t be a bad thing.
If you still think memes are meaningless and stupid jokes, we’ll leave you with one of the oldest memes that’s ever existed. Enjoy.