Lately, I’ve been noticing a trend in the way people communicate, at least in the way they communicate online. The only way I can describe it is “communication by meme.” They often take the form of pictures, videos, or other media containing cultural information that, rather than mutating randomly, have been deliberately altered by individuals.
The more time people spend online and the more their online activity becomes a part of their lives, the more they build up shared context, the meaning of which can only be derived from exposure to similar online activities.
The decontextualization of memes within the internet has allowed for the huge expansion of memes and memetic communication, along with the dramatic increase in social media use. Online communication has allowed for memes to nearly become a language in their own right! Memes become so recognizable to experienced net users that they can be used to express sentiments or ideas, without the need for explanatory text. This may not always be the case in more popular social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
What I have found fascinating is that the Internet is allowing for the buildup of a tremendous amount of shared context, of backstory that can be left out of conversations and replaced with nothing more than a meme image. Memes appear out of nowhere and within days it seems as though all of your friends are communicating in a completely foreign language … until you figure out the source of the meme, and then suddenly it all makes sense.
Notes from Danah Boyd…
Genes rely on their hosts for transmission, and memes are no exception: in creating the internet it turns out that we have developed the ultimate meme hothouse.
In danah boyd‘s terms, the internet is a “networked public” that has four features highly conducive to making and spreading memes:
Replicability. Digital objects are infinitely reproducible and exploitable across a range of platforms.
Searchability. Finished versions of memes as well as raw materials and templates are easily found.
Scalability. Digital objects are created for a particular audience but with the knowledge that they can spread to an unknowably large audience wherever the internet is available.
Persistence. Although individual digital objects may not last as long as analogue objects, they are infinitely transferable and storable in many locations.
Successful memes abound on every social network, often going viral to reach tens of millions of viewers in days as they are rapidly shared with an ever expanding network of friends. Collectively, memes generate tens of millions of impressions an hour. Every day, millions of people laugh at LOLcats, dog shaming, and music videos without music, while others mock injustice, support marriage equality, poke fun at NSA surveillance, or call out racism.
We use memes not only for absurd humor but also for societal and political commentary. At this time in human history, every single thing that we think or do can be turned into a meme and is likely a meme already. Memes can be jokes about miniscule everyday observations or the endless woes of mental illness. Memes are cathartic and allow us to process information through the abstraction of tragedy and global events. Whatever our interests or needs, a meme exists for us.
Examples: Popular Meme Activity
Reaction Faces and Videos
The most common form of memetic communication is the use of reaction faces and reaction videos. There are hundreds of examples of both, sometimes associated with text, or just ideas.
The use of individual rage faces as reaction faces is extremely widespread, and remain one of the most widely-recognized forms of memetic communication on the internet. Due to the diverse nature of rage comics, there are tons of possible examples with a variety of meanings. Rage faces are generally used to conclude or to react to stories or images, and rage comics, compilations of rage faces, are used to illustrate stories with well-recognized image.
Create your Own
There are a number of ways to begin creating memes. You can use nearly any painting or word processing program, or, choose the quick and easy option and try one of the many free online tools.
In the age of the internet, the ways in which we communicate with one another and share cultural information change every day and do so at alarming rates. We can speak with anyone anywhere at any time and relay information about the space and time we are situated in in moments or as it happens. This ability to virtually participate with billions of others in meme-making means that the sharing and exchanging of information is limitless. Memetics is an emerging discipline and as the way we communicate and share information continues to be ever-changing, this will be an area of study for decades to come.
The real question I have is what does this mean for the future of communication between people? Are we headed for a future where we do nothing but exchange images of memes to convey meaning intermingled with emojis and icons, and nobody actually exchanges words or complete sentences ? Is the use of memes and shared context for communication contributing to the “dumbing down” of average people?
More importantly, what impact will this have on books? You already see more and more contemporary references to things that might be funny to readers of the time appearing in books (which will, of course, mean nothing 5 years from now). Will books of the future be nothing more than a bunch of meme images pasted together like an old ransom note?