Meme | /mēm/ | noun
Originally, meme referred to an image or idea that spread naturally through society. Anything from the American symbol of the Bald Eagle to the idea that Communists are illegal criminals that should be locked up would be considered memes. They are images and idea that take on lives of their own as they travel through the social sphere, becoming elevated to more than just an image or idea. They become social constructs that have a deeper, hidden meaning and live long lives that become transcribed in textbooks and in our verbal folklore.
Nowadays, memes are pieces of fire content that get spread around the internet, primarily through social networks and image sharing sites as a means of promoting a shared experience and inducing laughter. The most viral memes often begin with an obscure image, overlayed with savage text and the image then gets repurposed many times over with internet heroes and trolls one-upping each other to bring evermore hilarious meaning to the image. Sometimes the images can be obscure high school photos of someone no one knows, a la Bad Luck Brian:
Other memes can be more nostalgic, playing up the cultural meme of the “throwback,” or a piece of content that is an ode to a time of the past. On Instagram this is commonly seen through TBT (Throw-Back Thursday) posts and all of its derivatives (e.g. FBF). In the meme-o-sphere, this often gets translated into photos of old television shows, cartoons, movies and music. Perhaps the most of common of the throwback memes is the Arthur Fist meme:
Arthur’s Fist is commonly used to show anger or discontent, with wide variations and plays off the aardvarkian fist from the 90s PBS television cartoon, “Arthur.” While it is unknown who the first person to memeify Arthur’s fist was, it has certainly taken on a life of its own over the past few years, even sprouting up as a ever-popular Halloween costume, as crazy as that sounds.
Another form of meme is the timely, or news cycle meme. The most popular example of this today is Harambe, the gorilla that was shot dead in 2016 at the Cincinnati zoo when a child fell into his cage. When zoo officials entered the scene, Harambe was dragging the five year old by his leg and much to everyone’s surprise, the child remained calm, not making a single sound. There was much public outrage surrounding Harambe’s death, with many saying the zookeepers should have tranquillized the gorilla instead of killing him. The public outrage then turned into faux internet outrage, spawning an endless array of Harambe memes, glorifying the beast as some sort of lord and savior:
The big difference between the Harambe meme and many of the others resides in the imagery. While the Bad Luck Brian and Arthur Fist memes all must use the exact same image, the Harambe meme is more of an idea meme that translates into many different images being used. While Brian is a meme of imagery, the Harambe meme is an idea meme, with the idea being that Harambe was a martyr and his memory must live on. Since his is an idea meme, creators can use a wide range of images, some not even containing a gorilla.
In this meme, all internet trolls would know which gorilla Billy is talking about. That’s just how widespread the idea meme of Harambe is. In a meme without an imagery of a gorilla, everyone knows exactly which gorilla is being referred to. Another common phenomenon is the remix or mashup meme. Using two of our previous examples, we find many Arthur Fist / Harmabe meme mashups:
In summary, a meme is an image or idea that goes viral, today primarily through social platforms on the internet. They can be timely, throwback or even esoteric, with no one knowing the origin. Often in the form of static image, memes can also take of the form of a moving gif. You can read more about the history of gifs in our related post right here.
Thanks for reading!