Memes: Shared Experience, Implicit Meaning and Social Commentary
In 2017, memes are arguably one of the most ubiquitous forms of content millennials consume. Plastered across all forms of social media, one seemingly cannot scroll through a news feed, a timeline, or a “wall” these days without coming across a mocking Spongebob, a ‘cash me ousside’ reference or a bewildered blinking guy.
The popularity of memes can seem inexplicable at times – they’re often thought of as largely meaningless, chalked up to millennial internet humour at most. But there is a particular implicitness to memes, a subtle relation of nuanced meanings that we continue to share for a particular reason or purpose. Why are memes so gut-wrenchingly funny sometimes, and why do we participate in their proliferation with such resolution?
Firstly, memes are at their core are a new form of language or a “visual rhetoric” that has adapted to an increasingly digital landscape of human communication. Where digital interfaces such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter lack spaces to accurately depict essential communication tools such as implicit meaning, sarcasm, irony, relatability, and shared experience, memes come in to fill the void.
The latest crop of Spongebob memes (a distinctly pervasive figure in the memeworld) involving Spongebob, cocked over imitating a chicken, accompanied by interspersed lowercase and capitalized captions, captures a very specific real life moment we’ve all experienced, and can be understood as a form of communicating shared experience. The caricatured jeering of a friend mocking us animatedly is something we have all encountered at one time or another. Thov Reime at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology asserts this form of shared experience in his paper, Memes as Visual Tools for Precise Message Conveying: “A Visual Meme lays a foundation of context, e.g. a specific situation, emotion, topic, affiliation, or specifies the purpose of a statement, such as confession or critique. The written content is combined with the Visual Meme in such a way that they complement each other, making sure that the reader receives a tailored message.”
We as consumers of the meme find points of reference in this tailored message. In the context of the Spongebob meme we connect the text (awry with grammatical incorrectness) with the imagery (an unabashedly ridiculous Spongebob face) and the nuance of the content as a whole to create a mental audiovisual experience that would be impossible through text or imagery alone.
Them: I’ve been mocking people before chicken sponge-
Me: I’Ve beEn MOcKInG PEopLe bEfORe cHIckEn SPoNgebOB pic.twitter.com/lgeHpVdGp0
— Leen Been (@LeenaTomb) May 19, 2017
In addition to the component of shared experience, memes take on an added context when appropriated by certain groups, adding a layer of references which can increase its longevity and relevance within popular culture. The Spongebob meme, in the context of President Trump rescinding the United States involvement in the Paris agreement, or the failed Republican healthcare reform can then express the public’s discontent and alienation by the American political system.
Memes work efficiently in this way, co-opting current events, trends, experiences and points of view to express shared experience over vast digital spaces. With these co-opted versions comes an even greater depth of meaning and reference that can turn a relatively straightforward meme into a seemingly inexplicable amalgamation of internet jokes, other memes, and pop cultural references alluding to multiple current events all at the same time.
Only those “in the know” get to participate in these dense and layered forms of satire and relatability, but those who do, find a niche of other like-minded people with which they share a connection. Feelings, emotions, anecdotes and experiences can be shared with all their subtleties and layers of meaning through memes, and in their propagation connect us with communities with whom we share intellectual, political and cultural similarities, creating common spaces of shared knowledge and experience; something digital interfaces have always tried desperately to create.
In this way meme generation is a form of reclamation of agency and autonomy in which internet users by means of “crowd culture” create and consume organic content that has not been produced for the purpose of branding, marketing or advertising. Memes in the current digital climate are in this sense a reaction towards the encroachment of capitalism in social spaces, and are a means of social commentary which can voice the opinions and experiences of individuals and groups en masse. Memes are far more than just internet humour, they are an entirely new form of communication altogether.
Cody Rooney is a Glossi Mag contributor.
He is a photography aficionado, theatre school alumni, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.