Internet memes in modern day culture

Hadi Afif

Senior Staff Writer


Anyone who has ever spent some time on the internet, and specifically on social media, has witnessed how perplex online culture can be. One of the many facets of this online spectacle is internet memes.

They spread online like wildfire through shares and retweets reaching mass audiences. Evoking an array of responses depending on their context, memes adopt different roles across different contexts.

The word meme was coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In his book “The Selfish Gene,” he discusses ideas, and affirms that like genes, ideas are selected for, replicated, and inherited. Some ideas are more successful and stand the test of time.

Dawkins, having borrowed the biological mechanisms that govern evolution and applied them to culture, named this concept the meme, mimicking the word gene and originating from the Greek word mimeme, which means “that which is replicated”.

What Dawkins described over 30 years ago is coming into play through online media such as the internet. Every incident that receives considerable media coverage becomes the subject of a plethora of memes originating from all around the world.

Memes are transferred across internet users, recycled, and given new meanings.

Many would argue that internet memes are dehumanizing, stripping their subjects of their identity and agency and turning them into monolithic entities for the sake of comedy.

A recent example would be the United Airlines incident where 69 year old David Dao was violently carried off a flight due to overbooking. Following the event, the internet erupted in memes showing Dao’s distressed face with corresponding punchlines.

Spreading Dao’s face across the internet in such a manner minimizes the gravity of the incident, turning him into a laughing stock and dismissing United Airlines for its inhumane actions.

Following another trajectory of thought, many see memes as a form of comic relief, a way to lessen the harshness of the situation while still shedding light on it.

Memes can serve as a vessel for bringing attention to the situation in a way that is more appealing to mass audiences than a hard hitting news piece in a newspaper.

Criticism can underlie the comedy in such situations, and this can be seen in other forms of expression such as stand-up comedy, especially in Lebanon where TV stations are saturated with politically charged comedy shows that criticize the government for its shortcomings.

Whether memes operate on an implicit level in this regard does not matter, as they can spark interest in many social issues, such as racism and gender discrimination depending on how they are consumed by mass audiences.  

It is hard to say what purpose internet memes serve specifically, especially in interactive media such as social media where input from a wide range of people feeds into one place.

They are a huge part of online culture that reflects to an extent the interests of their consumers and the pressing matters of the time. As a form of modern self-expression memes enabled many people to provide a new perspective on many issues in an appealing format.

This is not to say, however, that all memes are thought provoking and require further analysis. Some are actually meant to be taken at face value for the sake of comedy, and can be given further meaning by the interpreter.  

Every month, a battle of the memes appears, from Harambe to the ‘how bow dah’ memes. Some would say it’s ridiculous to treat these internet memes as anything other than comedy pieces; others favor a more scholarly approach arguing that internet memes are a window into understanding global online culture and what underlies it.

Whatever their purpose may be, internet memes have and will continue to be a huge part of the internet user’s daily life.

Leave a Reply