Memes are the universal language we've been waiting for

Image credit: Adrian Mathew Lam

Writing about memes kills memes, as everyone I have mentioned my theme to for this week’s column has reminded me. By some definitions, a meme is officially dead once a think-piece has been written about it (by others, when it has been used in advertising), a phenomenon that only Pepe and —for a surprisingly long while — Harambe survived. But despite this, I wouldn’t be able to satisfactorily complete a column on what makes the millennial without bringing them up, so I can only apologise in advance for the cringeworthiness of using words like ‘dank’ and ‘normie’ out of context. 

If Facebook is the millennial’s Domesday Book as I argued in my first column, then memes are our woodcuts: funny images, often with a small amount of accompanying text, which sometimes carry an underlying point. Like woodcuts they can be quickly made and disseminated to a wide audience — I’m not sure at what point memes went from obscure rage comics to the majority of my Facebook newsfeed, but now there’s no escaping them. 

Even as I walked home along Silver Street today, thinking over what to write in this column, I passed two girls dressed in gowns and heels for formal who were talking about memes. Cambridge has its own meme page which inspired other universities across the country to begin their own, a phenomena which was discussed in Varsity (they featured one that I made and added the caption “Students have a medium to discuss serious topics through humour with Memebridge”). 

The Tab has, of course, run a ‘which meme is your college’ article, whilst Tom Wang — whose fame stems from Memebridge — was crowned a Top 10 Tab BNOC. Memes have also appeared on the BBC, in Trump and Hillary’s election campaigns, and (to my utmost embarrassment) in the Houses of Parliament, if you can count dabbing as part of meme culture. 

The definition of what a meme is, is fluid: it might be an image from Facebook, Reddit or Tumblr, it might be a video from Vine or Youtube, or a screenshot of a Tweet or other post; it might even be applied to a person or something funny that has happened. Some meme pages categorise memes into two groups, dank versus normie, and crown a ‘meme of the month’ from each one in an online calendar. 

I find this interesting because it’s almost as if they have they urge to track memes’ progress and make sure old memes aren’t forgotten about in the fast-paced turnover of the internet. It also demonstrates a divide between two perceived categories of people who, prior to memes, might have been called something like jocks and nerds by Americans, whose language, after all, is the language of memes. 

Dank memes, which are frequently based on in-jokes and lateral thinking, might allow nerds to feel somewhat superior to their normie counterparts but now, as ever, these labels aren’t really useful. Different memes simply reflect different senses of humour and as such some are dark or deeply ironic, others existential and self-consciously depressing, some convey left or right social or political opinions, some are deliberately offensive whilst others are ‘wholesome’, some are meta, employ anti-humour or are simply absurd. 

Many memes, such as those drawing on The Bee Movie, Lazy Time, Spongebob, Kermit the Frog, and Arthur, are popular amongst millennials because they draw on our shared nostalgia for the T.V. shows we enjoyed growing up, often updated with adult humour. Others push millennials’ love of irony and self-awareness to new extremes with characters such as ‘Meme Man’, who sports a deconstructed identity. 

You could go as far as to say that some memes are intellectual: think Trolley Problem Memes, The Philosopher’s Meme, Memetic Literature or one of the STEM meme pages that probably exist but I don’t follow — whilst others are vehemently political or satirical as Sassy Socialist Memes or God Save Our Gracious Meme with convictions on the left and right. 

In this way, memes reflect much millennial culture I have previously discussed, from our strong political persuasions to our vibrant subcultures. It is telling then, that one of the strongest trends amongst memes is self-deprecation, something which is certainly true of Memebridge, with inadequacy and essay crises featuring regularly, but also more generally as in ‘when everyone else is n, but you’re x’ style memes. 

Through these, millennials express the unnecessarily heavy pressure we’re put under to achieve or conform to certain social expectations, laughing at ourselves for our laziness and love of food, puppies and nights in. Some even discuss mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, or troubling political events such as Brexit or Obama and Biden leaving office, offering comic relief and public discussion of things not always talked about in a way that fits young people. 

Whilst Facebook and Instagram usually lend themselves to image-control and pretending that we all have perfect lives, memes admit that we don’t — and surely there’s nothing more comforting than being tagged in a meme about procrastination or inadequacy that 20,000 other people have liked. They might only fuel that procrastination further, but memes can be validating as well as entertaining and are inclusive of all kinds of millennials, and our senses of humour. 

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