Internet Memes as Part of Modern Humorous Culture

Internet memes are everywhere within the modern internet, and are becoming more and more popular in today’s society. For anyone unfamiliar with social media or even to internet culture as a whole, internet memes can be confusing and more difficult to understand. Despite the booming popularity of internet, most people, even those familiar with memes, are not aware of the actual origin of the word “meme”, or assume that it is only associated with the modern internet phenomenon.

In actuality, the meme has academic origins. The term “meme” is rooted in evolutionary biology, and was coined by Richard Dawkins in his famous 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. According to Dawkins, a meme is “a unit of cultural transmission or imitation”: his examples include the concept of God, nursery rhymes and jokes, catchphrases and fashion trends (Aslan). When we hear the word “meme” today, we generally think about what we call an internet meme.

An Internet meme is a concept or idea that spreads ‘virally’ from one person to another via the Internet (Beal). An internet meme today is most easily identified as a sort of image or video with a witty caption above it. However, there is so much more to memes rather than being a simple, funny image. There is a whole history behind the now popular meme, and memes have changed a lot over a p of a few decades. In addition, memes themselves have different uses, including the promotion of humor, sense of connection as a society, and even political expression.

The internet first became widespread in the 1990s, and this would be the time where the first, viral internet meme was created. This meme was called “Dancing Baby”, and it is simply an animation of a baby dancing. The Dancing Baby meme first spread and became popular through email, and then its popularity skyrocketed when featured on the hit television show, “Ally McBeal”. The Dancing Baby meme was one of the first examples of how the internet can transcend and become a part of the mainstream.

If we look back at the early 2000’s to see the beginnings of memes as mainstream, we would see bulky white text with a black border over a picture. Additionally, most memes in this time period were actually YouTube videos. If we look at memes today, you would see organized, black font text over a white background which appears above the picture or video it is captioning. The reason memes have changed so much in convections is because of the change of the primary platform they are created in.

Back in the early 2000’s, YouTube and 4chan were the primary sources of memes on the internet. Nowadays, with this creation of this app, Twitter is the main source of the memes you find today. Other sources along with Twitter include Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook, and other social media platforms. With new software used to create and share memes, the format of the meme changed with it. The typical format for an internet meme may have also changed simply to look more aesthetically pleasing and organized for others to see.

In correlation to the changing format of memes, the use of the internet meme is forever changing with time and what is happening in society. Most obviously, memes are generally and more currently used for humor and for commentary on popular and/or internet culture. When you look deeper, however, memes have more specific uses as well.

Memes can also serve as a sense of relatability and a connection in society. Sometimes, advertisers will use relatable memes to connect to an audience, particularly an adolescent one. A great example of this phenomenon would be the recent “It’s a Trap” anti-smoking ad from Truth. The anti-smoking ad is literally filled with memes that went viral over the course of the 2000s. The use of memes shows that this advertiser is particularly targeting an adolescent and young adult audience, especially with the time period of when those memes went viral.

Viral content on social media like memes are becoming frequent content in political communication as well. It might be surprising, but memes have combined pop culture with politics, allowing for the average person to know more about political issues than before using memes. According to Bebić, the humor of memes, their relatability, inspiration, and shortness can inspire research on political issues (46). Hence, the positive use of memes politically would be to create awareness to the issues. However, there are cons to using memes as a political medium. First, most political memes are more mocking towards the social or political issue at hand. Political memes throughout the internet are also usually biased. Additionally, the humor associated with memes may cause the public to not take the political issues at hand seriously.

A great example of this trend would be the 2016 US election. Political memes were everywhere you looked on social media at this time. The 2016 election memes began by comparing Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Usually, the memes suggested that Bernie was better than Hillary. This is further proof of the issue of bias in political memes. Bernie vs. Hillary memes transformed into Trump vs. Hillary memes in the later stages of the election. Memes of the two candidates could be brutal towards either candidate. Overall, the 2016 election was the first US election to be so associated with political memes throughout social media. This is primarily because the growth of internet memes boomed in the later 2000’s, especially in these past few years.

In conclusion, in terms of the internet, memes are becoming a more and more popular genre. Memes have developed into an influential type of infographic for today’s society, and it will continue to change over time as the circumstances around them change. Hence, memes will also continue to go viral and then cycle out. Memes may seem like humorous nonsense for people who only scroll through social media all day. However, it could be argued that internet memes have brought together a cultural concept, across the web and to society as a whole, to further promote the onset of viral ideas on social media, and provide a type of commentary to changes to the world we live in.

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