• Jennifer Klesman, LCSW

The Power of Memes

Memes have been around for nearly 10 years now and they can easily overrun any form of social media. They are a way for cultural information to spread. An internet meme (/miːm/ MEEM) is “an activity, concept, catchphrase, or piece of media that spreads, often as mimicry or for humorous purposes, from person to person via the internet.” Google defines a meme as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that is passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation.” Using those definitions, I will include tweets and personal posts that get shared through social media as well as classic memes that are a shared picture with white font.

Originally expressing a feeling or thought through an image, memes have become a force with one of the farthest-reaching impacts in the history of the internet. This is illustrated through how overwhelming memes have become: there are entire Instagram accounts that make an actual income from posting memes. Through simply producing laughable images, they’ve created careers with millions of followers. An acquaintance of mine had a personal post picked up by a major meme-posting Instagram account, and it was made viral. When I reached out to tell him that I had seen his Twitter handle on a mainstream account, his response was, “This is getting absurd, this isn’t THAT funny. But now it’s my life’s greatest accomplishment.”

Memes have evolved over time. Once only words over an image, now they have many formats. Sometimes they’re just black words on a white background. Sometimes they’re quick stories, conversational Twitter exchanges, or thought-provoking one liners. Some convey an idea or just make people laugh. While always changing and updating, why have they been such a hit and stuck around for so long?

Memes have the unique ability to relate a feeling though a short phrase with an image. The “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” that comes with seeing memes is what connects us. They keep us in tune with those we care about and illustrate to those people that we know them intimately. Tagging friends in memes is a modern way to enjoy closeness. There are even memes about best friends who share memes daily: “If you don’t share a meme with your best friend once a day, are you really best friends?”

Memes are a way to relate to other people with little effort. For those who aren’t as good with words, sharing a meme can express empathy that could otherwise be misinterpreted by saying the wrong thing. This appears to be influenced and reinforced by how memes can tap into feelings that are otherwise only internal. They are images that express a feeling that one may not openly talk about. One meme has a picture of someone lying awake in bed only lit by the sun pouring in from the window that says:” When you’re excited for it to be the weekend even though your only plans are to stay home alone in your room.” To read that may make someone feel less alone because it’s a thought and behavior they believed that they were the only one experiencing. People use memes to bond over the shared dread of a job they hate or show how happy they are when receiving good news. There are entire communities that share memes about what a certain subculture may experience, such as being single and dating, being a mother, a teacher, a secretary, or any other specific profession with its own inside jokes.

However, memes certainly have a dark side. They may very well be the reason for the mindset that Millennials don’t know how to be adults. If not the origin of such a mindset, memes have certainly spread the idea and normalized it. There are a series of memes about failing at “adulting,” partying excessively, being promiscuous, and excessive alcohol use. Memes certainly could be the source that convinces people that this is acceptable and appropriate behavior because of the illusion that other people do it and we all find it funny.

It’s permission to get drunk on the weekend since you can express how funny it is by sharing a meme about being hungover or the contrast of how you look on a Saturday night versus a Sunday morning with a picture of a Barbie. Memes can normalize the mentality that drinking too much or not handling things like an adult is widespread and acceptable, because “we all do it.” There’s no available data to know whether memes affect culture significantly, but it’s hard to not think a meme with 80,000+ likes isn’t tapping into something with the people who like it.

In more recent memes, grammar has degraded in the content. Some of early 2018’s memes hinged on poor grammar or phonetic spelling. Such tricks might allow the meme to reach a broader audience; however, with such a wide reach, this trend could have damaging effects on younger generations.

It certainly isn’t all bad. Memes also help us observe ourselves. They help us realize what we are experiencing when someone else puts into words a thought with which we relate. There is literally a meme for everyone, always at least one that will make a person say, “Yes, that’s me,” with regard to how they feel or what they have experienced. Memes make such things less stigmatizing, especially when some people can’t label depression or anxiety until someone does it in more relatable terms.

Memes also assist in reaching out to others, such as someone you may not know very well or haven’t spoken to in a while. Sharing a meme is a great ice breaker to show that you saw something that made you think of that person. Some memes simply illustrate the awkwardness of reaching out, which is then made humorous and relatable. They’re an amazing way to connect or reconnect with someone that you haven’t spoken to in a long time. Reaching out with a playful meme that is relatable to your friendships or lifestyle is an easy and effective way to open a line of communication.

Memes have enhanced our connectivity with each other across the globe and their simplicity makes them user friendly. Memes can say “I hear you” and “I understand” in a simple and relatable - and often humorous - way. Seeing strangers express the same feelings and thoughts we have make us feel not so alone. Even as they’ve evolved in style, memes have also evolved in meaning to our society and to each other.

For better or for worse,

they definitely don’t seem to be going anywhere.

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