How memes shape self-expression

Whether we realize it or not, memes are an inevitable part of the average teenager’s conversation. They allow people to make and understand quick references to humorous characters and phrases without serious consideration. They are a way to get a cheap laugh; if overused or outdated, they can get groans or complaints from their users’ audiences. Because of this decay of humoristic value over time, many young people devote hours on hours to engrossing themselves in the latest trends in meme humor, so that their jokes remain fresh and amusing. Given how much effort is taken nowadays to keep current with memes, as well as their infiltration into even the most secluded corners of the Web, the question arises: Does the use of memes change the manner and content of conversations for better or worse?

The word “meme” was coined by the English scientist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He defined it as a unit of cultural information (analogous to the gene in biology, a unit of genetic information) that, like a gene, could be replicated and mutated. There is an important distinction between Dawkins’ memes and Internet memes: while Dawkins’s memes romp about on whim like pinballs, selected or discarded by their environment as befits the conditions, Internet memes move along in steady steps, actively created, selected, or edited by people online. Memes are the source of the term “viral” in the argot of the Internet, where, like real-life viruses that infiltrate cells and make copies of themselves, memes are copied and shared by millions of users.

Because of these viral behaviors, many people attack memes as being empty and distasteful, nothing but conversation fillers with no inherent meaning or purpose. They complain that because of their swift proliferation, memes quickly lose their comedic value and stifle originality in expression through extended use. These outspoken social critics bemoan the shuffling steps of their friends as they race to catch up with the latest trends in meme vocabulary, chasing the whim of popularity like flies cooked by fluorescent light bulbs. Their deepest fear is that if the consumption of memes continues to rise, all thoughts will only be expressed through the hackneyed, trite language of meme culture, with dissenting opinions incapable of being voiced aloud simply by the sheer nature of the medium.

From this perspective, memes need not be humorous; in fact, they are simply another guise of the age-old art of propaganda, utilizing symbols drenched in cultural connotations to promote a single ideology. The swastika, a Hindu depiction of the sun god Surya and a good-luck charm, was hijacked by Adolf Hitler himself for the design of the Nazi Party flag, believing it to be the original emblem of the Aryans, the “pure” Nordic race that he aspired towards with his campaigns of anti-Semitic genocide. In much the same way Pepe the Frog used to be just one of a cast of characters in a 2005 webcomic created by Matt Furie, and his exclamation “kek” simply an obscure in-joke from Korean servers of World of Warcraft. Yet despite their innocent beginnings, both were idolized by the underground alt-right movement during the 2016 presidential election, employed as a nose-snubbing mockery against the supposed influence of a Jewish collective over the American economy. The virulent racism that memes of Pepe generated on the Internet was so great that the Anti-Defamation League, an American-based organization that tracks bigotry directed towards Jewish people, declared him to be an anti-Semitic hate symbol in September 2016. Though neither Furie nor the WoW players meant to attack anyone’s race or religion, their memes were used to promote others’ prejudiced ideas more quickly than otherwise possible through their humorous attraction. The astronomical rate at which these “funny pictures” were able to amplify racism and intolerance in the United States holds great importance for the young people of today’s society.

As teenagers living in a world where “alternative facts” have entered political discourse and fake news stories fashioned by other teenagers are posted daily on social media, it is monumentally important for us to keep in mind that how something is said can radically affect what is being said in the first place. Memes constitute only a fraction of the plethora of daily social and cultural information which can influence our opinions, our feelings and our actions. Though they may only be a catchy phrase or a distorted version of a cartoon character, they can carry the emotional baggage of centuries of prejudice. To  successfully enter the real world of political discussion, teenagers must learn to take an occasional step backwards, to survey the influences on their conversations and decisions and to decide whether those influences are beneficial to their future development into discerning, sensitive adults. Those charming, absurd photos and Graphics Interchange Format (GIFs) that we share with each other on Snapchat may be funny, but the power they have to shape and direct our interactions with fellow human beings is no laughing matter.

By Jordin Wang, Guest writer


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