They’re no doubt old news by now, but our current bout of self-quarantine and the consequent surge in screen time has given me an appreciation for the novel medium of the meme. Memes are the visual one-liners which abound on the internet, the pithy combinations of image and text which have become our postmodern equivalent of editorial cartoons, t-shirt slogans, propaganda posters, and standup comedy. Researchers however, have discovered that memes existed as far back as the medieval era:
Memes have been crafted by countless users for endless purposes – not all of them, or maybe even not most of them, socially constructive – but they are nonetheless some of the purest representations of Twenty-First Century thought. No other expressions today can so closely track the labyrinthine trails of allusion, recognition, and memory worming through contemporary consciousness, and no others are funnier.
Here are some oldies but goodies:
There are many meme variants, but their fundamental construct is a juxtaposition of words and picture that instantly conveys an idea in a social-network-friendly way; the best memes are comprehensible enough to be understood in an instant of scrolling or surfing but clever enough to make us linger over them for an extra few seconds. Sometimes text alone does the job, especially if the font or the background imparts an ironic spin:
As a history buff, I can appreciate these succinct lessons about geopolitics and culture:
Other memes comment on current news. Note the frequent absence of proper punctuation, which somehow makes them funnier
As you can see, many memes rely on familiar motifs from pop culture (movies, shows, ads), which, in our media-saturated environment, has become a kind of universal lexicon. Often you’ll see the same still shot used for multiple and increasingly self-referential memes:
Some memes, meanwhile, are no more than verbal quips or puns transposed to a digital news feed, yet their simplicity aligns perfectly with the visual grammar of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram:
Even the most offensive memes (I haven’t shared them, but believe me, they’re out there) reveal something about the nature of dark humor. Amusement, like fear or arousal, is an involuntary response – we laugh even when we know we shouldn’t. Some types of meme and other comedy rely on exactly that quality, whereby the joke is not so much in the surface content but in its being offered as a joke at all, so that you crack up before the moral or logical implications of the setup sink in.
This one, for example, is fraught with political significance:
And others are clear products of kid / stoner / gross humor, which is timeless:
Of course, memes epitomize the accelerated, attention-deficient aesthetic of the internet generally. Memes provoke a quick snicker; they don’t present a reasoned argument or a deep thought, e.g.:
But the language of memes – the way they communicate at a single glance complex layers of sarcasm which previous generations would have to laboriously spell out – is the latest vindication of Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message.” We live much of our lives online now, so our collective sense of humor has migrated there too. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein saw it coming: