Deciphering Memes: What to Make of The Inside Jokes of The Internet
If you’ve spent any amount of time online, then it’s highly likely you’ve encountered memes, especially if you’re active on any major social network. Maybe you were trolled by a classic bait-and-switch video to the tune of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna’ Give You Up.” Or maybe you keep seeing people “dabbing” or doing the floss wherever you go. Memes are everywhere. Surely, everyone has come across a meme online where they have not been able to understand it at all. What most people don’t know is that memes have been a big part of human culture for a very long time and internet memes are just another rendition or evolution of this social behaviour. There are many categories of different memes and lots of them leave their meaning totally up for interpretation. Meme culture is at an all-time high thanks to the popularity of social media and apps like Vine (RIP), TikTok, Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and Fortnite. People in the meme communities treat memes and their circulation like they’re almost transcendent. The goal of this article is to help to explain the concept of memes and meme culture for those who are unversed in that aspect of our society. We are going to break memes down into very broad categories, since there are so many limitless classifications, and that will hopefully help shed some light on the meaning, mechanics, and transmission of these memes. In no way is this an exhaustive explanation of memes, as that would prove extremely complicated and take a very long time to cover. This is a general review for those who have heard of memes, are a little confused, and are interested in a basic overview of this growing phenomenon.
So, what exactly is a “meme?” There is actually a lot more to the videos/gifs and funny pictures layered with text that you see being shared around online. You might be surprised to find out there is much more of a cultural aspect to memes than meets the eye. Up until recently, memes could be defined as “an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means” . Now you could say the same for how we define memes today, but when most people picture memes, they think of something that is shared or passed around by specific means of the internet. Essentially, scientists noticed that some concepts spread between people very similarly to the way that germs do—hence, the term “viral.” They named this concept "memes.”
There is a tendency among memers—the people who are heavily involved in the creation or culture of memes—to attempt to keep memes away from the mainstream and from those who are not considered “worthy” memers. For example, think about the word “muggle” when it comes to the outdoor activity geocaching. The term “muggle” is often used to describe someone who is not a geocacher. It’s a word that comes from Harry Potter and it’s used to describe people who do not have magic ability and who are generally unaware of the magic world. Like many communities, and in the true fashion of human behaviour, people like to cultivate distinct words, behaviours, or knowledge within their own community of people who truly “fit in” and understand each other. Part of what makes memes as funny and unique as they are to the people who share them is the fact that not everyone understands the humour. It can kind of be compared to a secret handshake or an inside joke. It has a special meaning for the people who know the handshake or who are aware of the context of the inside joke. A lot of the time, the best part of a meme is the fact that it will be shared many times by people (and even large companies as a marketing ploy) and oftentimes these individuals don’t even know why the meme is humorous. That means everyone who is “in” on the inside joke can laugh and relate to the punchline, so they feel included. Generally, having to explain why a meme is funny makes it considerably less funny. To quote E.B. White, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.” Once a meme goes viral and is adopted by the mainstream media, this meme is said to be “dead” by the meme community. The obscurity of the joke is lost in the popularity.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes memes have pretty much zero context and cannot be explained. These specific memes constitute an entire category of memes that are confusing and lack frame of reference but the hivemind it creates just adds the absurdity, and therefore, the hilarity. Inside jokes are only funny because some people know the joke and other people don’t. If everyone knew the inside joke, it would defeat the purpose of it being an inside joke and then it wouldn’t be funny. This leads me to dicuss “normie memes” and why they aren’t considered funny in the underground meme community. When everyone has seen it and has been explained the meaning, the meme becomes “cringe-worthy” and no longer funny. In meme culture, a “normie” (or “normie meme”), again, is the equivalent to a “muggle” in geocaching. Serious memers disapprove of or ignore normie memes and consider them to be over-shared and “dead,” that is, if they were ever funny enough to be “alive.”
Let’s check out a case study meme to review its parts. Understand that the meme below is definitely considered a normie meme and is most certainly “dead.”
You may be familiar with “Grumpy Cat.” It was an extremely popular meme that hit a peak back in September 2012. The cat Tardar Sauce has a permanent scowl, so she is known by the name “Grumpy Cat.” Many people loved her face, so they started meming pictures of her:
But in 2013, after gaining popularity from being shared around social networks, she went “mainstream”:
Some people would argue that Grumpy Cat is still a valid meme, but it’s pretty clear that it is now considered a normie meme. You can buy backpacks, blankets, phone cases, even MINTS with Tardar Sauce’s sour face on them. If that’s not mainstream, then I don’t know what is. Some would say that Grumpy Cat was always a normie meme.
There are other categories of memes like “dank memes,” “deep-fried memes,” “wholesome memes,” or “surreal memes.” These can typically be a lot more avant-garde and creative. This subsequently leaves a lot up to the interpretations and iterations of others who view and share it. That’s the beauty of memes, they can evolve depending on what someone interprets or how they may change it before sharing it. I may eventually explore some of these subcategories further in future articles we post to our blog.
Where exactly do memes come from? From what I’ve seen, they often originate from small Discord channels or group chats before they are shared to sites like 4Chan, Reddit, or Twitter. They can come from many varied places like the once-active app “Vine.” A lot of people don’t realize how many memes got their start on Vine. What I’m seeing is that since Vine was shut down, these short video memes haven’t disappeared; they’ve just migrated over to other apps like Instagram or Vine’s successor, TikTok. TikTok, a Chinese-based app that was launched just a few months before Vine was discontinued, has gained huge popularity over the past year—in large part due to the memes and different meme formats that it has generated. Vine and TikTok share similarities in that they both allow for the easy transmission of short, plain videos. I consider TikTok to be the new Vine when it comes to content like that.
Memes seem to have a lifecycle of sorts. At the first stage when they are created, it’s either by intentional or unintentional means. Some people try hard to create a meme that will catch on. Other times, someone randomly posts something online that they find interesting, weird, or funny. This is the critical stage that determines whether or not this will become a meme. If what was posted is reposted by others, often remixed or reiterated, then this is where the post truly becomes a meme. The sharing and transmission of the content is necessary.
Not all memes go viral or become well-known. The life cycle of a meme can be quite short, where it is shared a great deal for a short period of time only to never be seen again. And other times, a meme can last a long time as it is continually culturally transmitted across the internet. It can start by someone sharing it in a subreddit or sending it as a reaction in private messages, then it’s shared more publicly to larger social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter where it is then used in popular culture. Memes have been appearing in ads for years. Take the “Fresh Avocado” or “Fre Sh A Voca Do” meme.
It started with a simple Vine from Christine Sydelko where she reads a Del Taco sign with the letters in awkward spots out loud in a funny way. People began sharing it and then mixing it in with songs or melding it with other memes to make new Vines. It was huge on Vine and then started getting more popular on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Now the Fresh Avocado meme is so circulated that Sirius XM Satellite Radio uses a sample of it mixed in with electronic music during their commercials. The memes that really stick and spread like wildfire are usually the ones that are bound to be scooped up and used in internet marketing or commercials. The memes currently being used in marketing will soon be replaced by new up and coming memes that are growing in popularity.
As discussed in the beginning of this post, memes are significantly difficult to define or explain, as they vary drastically in meaning. This meaning often changes depending on the individual who is interpreting the meme. One helpful tool is a site called https://knowyourmeme.com. It refers to itself as an “Internet Meme Database” and it usually will have the meme you’re looking for information about so long as it’s nothing too new or too obscure. Memes have been an important part of our culture for a long time—much longer than the internet has been around. So much of our society being active online just allows for an expedited means of sharing these ideas. In my opinion, the best part about memes is their ability to bring people together, allowing for a collective understanding or idea on a topic. In the future, I believe memes will be studied academically as the field develops and we’ll see roles like “meme historian” for those who studied memes and have a better understanding of how and why they spread. I also foresee memes continuing to show up in marketing, but for every meme that dies in a marketing ad, one hundred more new ones will be created, and the cycle continues. Although memes are difficult to explain and understand, the concept of these inside jokes is nothing new and most likely we’ll see further evolution of the quality, creativity, and acceptance of memes as our technology advances.