Memes: there is no escaping them. From the Instagram explore page and Twitter relatable accounts to company marketing advertisements and BSGE bake sale posters, memes are used to reach a wide audience, with purposes including entertainment and advertising. While the iconic Pepe and Kermit the Frog memes made their viral Internet debut in the 2010s, memes have been around since the 1940s, connecting people around the world.
The word “meme” was first coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, who described it as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Under Dawkins, memes were analogous to genes and were considered a “unit of culture” that reproduces itself. Inspired from Dawkins, the study of memes, known as memetics, arose to act as an evolutionary model of the transferring of information within cultures. Despite its scientific beginnings, memes have taken a different route that most people can understand.
One of the first recorded memes occurred around the world in the 1940’s, thirty years before Dawkins or anyone else had a title for it. “Kilroy was here” circled around the world during World War II, and an example of it can be found in room 400 even now. The meme came started from two separate ones — “Kilroy was here” from America and the “Mr. Chad” drawing from the United Kingdom — and merged sometime during the war, evoking a spirit of Allied unity. As the war dwindled down, so did Kilroy, but his legacy lives on through the Internet.
Internet memes are a subset of Dawkins’ original and general 1976 meme. Specifically, they are regular memes that are altered by human creativity and spread through the Internet. As their popularity grew with the rise of technology, the Internet meme became the meme that everyone with social media knows about. With the great reach of social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram, memes have become the preferred way of conveying emotions online and telling jokes.
Memes tend to be an easy and funny way for one to tell another how they feel, usually evoking laughter from what would have been an awkward, dark, or upsetting situation. The vast amount of memes have made it fairly easy to portray almost any emotion, ranging from the Arthur Fist and Spongebob Caveman to stock photos and “Salt Bae.” This variety has also made it hard for people to have a single favorite meme. Justin Yip ‘19, who typically makes his own memes in preparation for different situations, claims that “a true meme connoisseur does not constrain himself to a normie trend.” Similarly, Joanna Krzystyniak ‘19 says that she likes all memes because there are so many. In order to alleviate her dilemma, she says, “I am my favorite meme because I am a character.”
However, not every teen on social media is a meme connoisseur. Ethan Yung ‘19 explains that he is “not in the realm of meme culture.” While he knows that they exist and what the more popular ones are, he does not find them funny, claiming that “they’re some inside joke that I’m not in on. They’re not funny unless you understand other memes.” These “internet inside jokes” both connect those on social media and tend to shun those who are not constantly on their Instagram explore page, creating a sense of social media meme exclusivity.
The rapid and sudden growth of meme culture leaves a questions for the future of the use of memes: Will they become obsolete as people reflect on their technology-reliant communication or continue to transform our lives further than the scope of the Internet?