Memes are the way that internet culture expresses itself. And since the internet is basically all culture now, we can also say that memes are the way that all culture expresses itself.
If we look at the evolution of communication, you might look to early examples of cave paintings on walls, depicting hunting. Here, early human culture expresses itself. And as time goes on, the techniques used for this expression become more sophisticated. We get poetry, art, music, and so on.
The digital age has seen a massive acceleration of the speed of innovation in this development. In my lifetime alone, I’ve lived through emoticons, smileys, ASCII text, the rise of GIFs, and social media reactions. And now: memes.
But what even are memes?
Let’s be clear; there isn’t an easily defined class of things that you can call ‘memes.’ Memes defy boundaries and often take the form of mixed media. A tweet can be a meme, an image can be a meme, a video can be a meme. You could make a meme by scraping lines in the sand, so even the digital part is unnecessary.
And being precise would be defining some distinction between a meme and a memetic expression. Thus, ‘distracted boyfriend’ is the meme, and ‘me/writing this blog/vine compilations’ is its expression. In a way, ‘meme’ has itself been memed.
And if you wanna be THAT GUY, you could point to the fact that the idea of memes derives from Dawkins’ original way of describing the way an idea is transmitted. And his use of it was as a metaphor for the way that genetic traits evolve through the natural selection process. “Meme” thus referring to the way that genes/ideas replicate themselves. We see this in the original Greek mimeme – imitated thing. (Which is where we get the word ‘mime’ from, as David Bowie alluded to).
It’s no surprise, then, that all internet memes are basically the same. In fact, I believe there are only three memes. OR, viewed another way, just one.
Meme 1: X is bad
The laziest form of meme is one that says that something is not good. Format-wise, you typically see it in panel-based memes, where you can easily swap in a new subject.
These are just a way of expressing dislike of a thing. It’s not particularly sophisticated, but it doesn’t need to be. IT GETS THE JOB DONE.
Meme 2: X is bad, Y is good…
The second type of memes builds on the foundation of the first by adding a comparison. Here, the subject is still bad, but something good is suggested instead.
As the ‘Sophisticated Pooh’ example shows, the classification doesn’t always have to be good/bad. It can just be thing/different version of thing. Either way, the idea is the same.
And it doesn’t have to be limited to two frames, as Galaxy Brain memes show:
The crux of meme 2, then, is comparison.
Meme 3: X holds some relation R to Y and Z
A truly sophisticated meme format! But it’s something we’re used to all the time, from sentences!
The sentence “the cat on the mat” loosely resembles Meme 1. A single subject holding a relation to a subject. A Meme 3 version of the sentence might look like this:
In English: “my cat prefers a cardboard box to a cat bed.” The elements of the meme are the cat (subject), the bed (object 1), the box (object 2), and the relation of preference.
But wait, you say, isn’t this just meme 2 again? It’s even the same “Drake approves” format!
Firstly, I think you’re onto something (but we’ll come to that). And secondly, shut up! It’s not the same at all. Why? Because the ‘Drake approves’ meme isn’t actually about Drake’s preferences. He’s not the subject. But in the cat example, the cat is. More examples:
Interestingly, only the subject and the two objects get explicitly spelt out in this meme style. It’s their framing via the meme format that provides the missing relation element. (In the above examples, disregard or misunderstanding).
PSYCHE: Meme 3 is just Meme 2 again!
Consider this: the main difference between the meme styles of 2 and 3 is the addition of a subject. My cat, my parents, me. In comparison memes, there isn’t an explicit subject, so they seem like different styles.
BUT, just as the relational element was hidden in the format in our analysis of meme 3, the subject is hidden in the format of meme 2. I believe that the subject of style-2 memes is ‘us’ or ‘everyone’. They are universal memes.
Consider the Vince McMahon meme format:
It’s not that great, but follows a typical style-2 presentation, allowing for the extension beyond merely two elements. Let’s say the silent subject is ‘everyone’, and the relation is “prefer x to y”. So let’s read it as: “Everyone prefers shopping at the store to same-day delivery to 1-Day Delivery to 2-Day Delivery”.
Not as funny, sure. But memes get their power from their relatability. That’s the secret to their success. It’s what allows them to prosper in the natural selection process of online sharing. We literally insert ourselves into the memes.
Meme 2 is just Meme 1
And from this, it should be fairly obvious where we’re going. Meme 2 is just a multiplication of Meme 1. Or to use the above framework, Meme 1 has the same underlying structure as 2 and 3 but is silent on its second object. Example:
REMEMBER PICARD FACEPALM MEMES? God, I feel ancient. Anyway, this is a style-1 meme (astrology = bad). But what’s the underlying structure? [Everyone][disapproves of][astrology].
So we have two options. Either the second subject is unnecessary. OR the second subject in style-1 memes is the implication of the opposite of what the meme states. I’m not too fussed on that, as long as I’m right.
I think this analysis of memes covers most types of memes. But I don’t believe it’s exhaustive. There are two more types of memes: surreal memes and variations. That don’t quite fit the archetype. Or do they…?
Surreal memes are memes that don’t make sense.
They’re closer to art than meme, and I’m not sure how they fit in. I feel like they’re memes about the idea of memes. Like deliberately not making sense as one of the few remaining ways to go with creating new content. See also vaporwave in music, which has a similar aesthetic. Or some types of anti-comedy.
Then we have variation memes. Example:
Here we have a “Drake approves” meme, but it’s about steamed hams. It’s very very similar to a type 3 meme (and might even count as one, in fact). But as much as it’s a meme about Principal Skinner, it’s also a meme on the Drake approves meme format. So what’s the subject, exactly?
I don’t know! Would the meme work if the Drake meme didn’t exist first? Well, yes. But something would be lost – the extra ‘aboutness’ that means it holds an external relation to another meme. It’s this added intentionality that breaks my simple analysis of some type-3 memes. But I honestly haven’t thought about it that hard.
So what have we learned?
Probably nothing! I realise that my fundamental analysis of memes is just that “they are conveyers of information that roughly conform to a common syntax!” That probably isn’t that surprising given that, um, we can understand what they mean.
I think what I found interesting when I began to think about this was how many memes are exactly the same. ‘Car turning off the ramp’ is the same as ‘distracted boyfriend’ is the same as ‘is this a pigeon’ and so on. We celebrate when new memes are born, but all we’re celebrating is a slight variation on an existing framework. It’s the new framing that the visuals provide that might allow us to express a slightly different relation between the elements.
But ultimately, the memes all seem to come down to expressing preferences. X is good, Y is bad. This is better than that. My cat is stupid. I guess that’s why these work, those are basic and powerful emotions. And simplicity is a powerful advantage in the process of memetic selection.
Basically, MAKE MEMES WEIRD AGAIN. Here are some favs.