Why Memes Mean So Much

Memes — the communication phenomenon that can take a static moment from a book, movie, real-life event, etc and turn it into a relatable and translatable message from just one moment in time. While parents and grandparents may want to credit the meme and technology culture to the millennials — this concept dates back much further than many would imagine.

A definition of a meme by Britannica is “a unit of cultural information spread by an imitation”. This term was coined in 1976 but British biologist Richard Dawkins in his work The Selfish Gene and comes from the Greek word mimema which translates to “imitated”.

Grumpy Cat and Pepe the Frog are deeper than we think. Retweets and Reddit threads are serving as a larger societal role that highlights the evolution of expression and communication. Years from now, anthropologists will be looking back on this portion of history to understand the complexities and cultural identities that are tied to seemingly pointless and humorous pieces of history.

While this may sound like an exaggeration — much of this realization comes from the work of Dawkins and his interest in the evolution of cultures. Much of his work focused on how memes have many forms, and the replication and transmission of a meme occur when this form is copied and recreated similarly from one person to another.

What makes memes so meaningful, is that language is secondary to the imagery. We know when Grumpy Cat is being used, that regardless of the text and language, the user is trying to communicate disdain, sarcasm and other like emotions.

The philosophy and meaning behind memes are so rich that school such as Berkeley and Brown are even offering courses on “meme studies”. Not only are memes being considered history, but they are making history as many corporate cultures and companies are utilizing their universal communicate tactics in advertising campaigns.

The commercialization and capitalization of memes has even brought up legal questions surround memes, such as copyright and trademark laws. This has become a sticky situation as the purpose of memes are to be shared and go viral, and if an individual or company wants to enforce copyright and trademark laws then it is effectively disabling it from doing so.

Memes have begun to be more than just the slang your grandparents don’t understand — they have taken root in our culture and even given rise to new forms of memes such as audio memes and gifs.

History is forming all around us, and memes, audio memes, gifs and all electronic ways of communication will all play a major role in how our society communicate in the future. It is important to take into consideration the consequences and impacts of our seemingly harmless online actions. I doubt Dawkins would have imagined the Pepe the Frog meme as a symbol of his theory — what will researchers be saying about our culture and its use of communication in the future? I am interested to stay tuned.