– by David Churack
Most people nowadays think of memes as the combination of a humorous image accompanied by captions, with these constructs becoming a dominant means of expression on the internet. Prominent examples include ‘Doge’, consisting of a picture of a Shiba Inu dog surrounded by grammatically poor sentence fragments , and ‘Bad luck Brian’, which features an extremely unlucky awkward-looking teen.
What most people do not realise is that the concept of a meme was invented by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He asserts that cultural beliefs and practices can be spread in a manner akin to biological evolution. Factors in biological evolution, such as mutation, competition, inheritance and variation can all be said to influence how cultural ideas and practices develop. By this definition, religion and religious ideas can be considered ‘memes’ propagated through imitated ritualistic practices and beliefs.
Such jargon, understandably, seems far removed from the captioned pictures of dogs and celebrities we are used to seeing. But the concepts do clearly relate; Internet memes are ideas and practices spread within a culture through processes such as imitation and tradition. However, Dawkins failed to account for the role that human creativity plays in the formulation of Internet memes. Memes are widely disseminated sources of entertainment and communication, their distributors not benefiting from personal gain from sharing them. For this reason, the interest in and demand for memes must be viewed as a symptom of a larger cultural and societal shift.
So why are memes suddenly so popular? There are many theories and suppositions surrounding this, but perhaps one of the main influences is the rapid advance in communication technology over the last decade. The incredible popularity of sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and Tumblr (just to name a few) have provided an ideal forum for memes to be created and spread amongst a young audience.
Another suggestion is the evolving demand for more concise or ‘compacted’ forms of entertainment. The popularity of YouTube is a testament to the notion that short and often humorous videos have a massive cultural attraction to modern youth. Similarly, the large number of extremely short ‘Vine’ videos, as well as the popularity of services such as Snapchat, all serve as further testaments to the idea that the current generation has a strong preference for quick, easily consumable media content. Memes are thereby only one aspect of this more fast-paced and less patient generation.
Perhaps the best way to understand the origins behind memes is, however, to look at the beginnings of a specific Internet meme. And what better example of a meme could be given than the highly popular ‘Doge’?
The Doge meme began when a Japanese kindergarten teacher adopted a Shiba Inu dog from an animal shelter, and proceeded to upload photos of the animal to her personal blog. The image most people are familiar with, that of the dog looking perplexed and uneasy as a hand approaches it, was then taken from this blog and uploaded onto the site Reddit with the caption “LOOK AT THIS FUKKIN DOGE”. The image was popular enough that several further captions and modifications to the images were propagated, eventually resulting in the viral phenomenon of the Doge meme.
The creation of memes can therefore be seen as very random and highly dependent on chance. How funny and relatable the caption is to a wide audience of web users undoubtedly plays a large role in meme creation. Ultimately, however, this new form of communication can originate from any source. School photos, personal blog photos and logo designs have all resulted in highly recognisable internet memes. The lesson to take from this is: if you don’t want millions of strangers laughing over a personal moment, think twice before putting a picture of it on the internet.
As explained previously, memes can perhaps be best understood as symptomatic of a generation obsessed with easily digestible images, videos, and the uploading of personal photos and comments onto the Internet. But what does this mean for the future in general? Is our culture doomed to generate into ever more simplified and shortened media content until it is rendered basically incomprehensible? Or is that response simply knee-jerk conservatism, with memes being simply a new development in an ever changing and developing culture?
This is a big question, and until the future comes, all we have been left with are heavy questions and concise memes to express our confusion.
The meme Philosoraptor and its associated image is licensed under the Creative Commons. Doge is not trademarked.