Memes are a powerful tool for social change

Add a catch phrase to an image, throw in some humour or satire, and let it go viral on the Internet

By Shalini Verma

Published: Mon 17 Feb 2020, 6:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 17 Feb 2020, 8:26 PM

We have all enjoyed funny pieces of content floating on social media. These digital tidbits of pop culture are called memes. The memes as we know today are as old as the Internet. They started out in a very specific format in the mid-1990s - short clips shared in forums and emails. Remember the dancing baby meme? We loved it!
My early recollection of a meme was what my then 11-year old son introduced to me. It was called the Harlem Shake - a group of people feverishly dancing to 30 seconds of the Harlem Shake song. The dancers doing convulsive dance moves seemed more like they were possessed by a spirit. Lots of young children did their own creative take on the Harlem Shake.
This parodying of life remains a central driving force for memes. Some would say it trivializes life with repeated viral assaults on our intellectual sensibilities. There are memes like a stock photo of a brown egg that became more viral than Kylie Jenner's Instagram post. It must have an esoteric philosophical purpose that is frankly beyond me.
Add a catch phrase to an image, throw in some humour or satire, and let it go viral on the Internet. Memes traverse everything, ranging from nonsense to absurd, to satire and even the subversive. In the end you respond to what tickles and touches your sensibilities. Even those blessed with the highest intellectual prowess have at some point chuckled at a meme. But the world of memes has not lost the self-awareness that many of the memes going viral are meaningless. Deep fried memes that are yellowish and grainy images with too many filters mock the low-quality content people share.
Admittedly, memes are a powerful vehicle of ideas when they attain 'viraldom'. They could even in some way catalyze social change such as the #MeToo memes. They are glimpses of public discourse and opinions on anything, ranging from major goings-on like the Oscars to prosaic day-to-day problems. They are an art form that is viewed, enjoyed, shared by many, and copied, but not entirely. Every creator overlays a little something on them. Fittingly so, memes are known to have loaded with multiple layers of irony that require context. They are great conversation starters, but if you are not keeping track, you won't get them. My son is exasperated by my repeated requests to unpack the memes he shares with me.
Before the Internet was invented, a meme was a broader cultural concept coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He drew a parallel between the propagation of memes that shape culture and the natural selection of genes in biological evolution. He viewed meme as a unit of cultural transmission or imitation that proliferates among people and generations. Susan Blackmore wrote in The Meme Machine that religions are particularly tenacious memes.
Ironically the original concept of meme has been subjected to the very process it advanced for the transmission of culture - natural selection. So today we generally understand memes as opinions that go viral on the Internet. While Professor Dawkins rues the fact that the Internet hijacked a word that he coined, he cannot ignore them. Memes are now deliberately altered by human creativity, he reckons. But a meme's viral nature does stay true to its self-propagating cultural meme roots.
Memes are both a function of the prevailing technologies with plenty of meme tools available today. If the Internet gave birth to memes, the viral machinery of social media really nourished them. They are a great representation of how content is consumed today.
While we have all contributed to memes through the years, it is the Gen Z that have made memes a core part of their lives. One of their most celebrated memes 'OK Boomer' is the familiar Gen Z retort to condescending lectures from Baby Boomers and Gen X. OK Boomer was a reaction to a TikTok rant by an older man that Millennials and Gen Z had a Peter Pan syndrome, meaning they never grow up. Now if you lecture Gen Z, you may risk an OK Boomer response. It is Gen Z's way of dealing with a perception that they are all tech-imbued kids with no purpose. In their thinly veiled mocking, there is a sobering reminder for all of us that many of the problems they face were created by the Boomers.
In the post-truth era, the baffled Gen Z try to understand and cope with the world with a touch of irony and dark humor. Often, they pick up something for the first time from memes, such as a WWII event and then go and research it. Memes give them a sense of belonging. This is why brands try to engage with Gen Z through memes.
In the pre-Internet days, we waited for the cartoon in the newspapers for our daily dose of entertainment. Now anyone and everyone can chip in. It is at times mass creativity at its best and worst, and at other times counterculture. Done right, memes could be a powerful self-replicating medium for education and social change.
 - Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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