There is a new genre of social and political satire that is sweeping across the internet and embedding itself into our minds more effectively than any other commentary medium in history. This genre is witty, instant, planned and easily-accessed, and I’m willing to bet that you spend a large portion of your day consuming it.
I’m talking about memes, of course.
Internet memes have exploded over the past few years, and their rise in popularity has coincided with the growth of social media. I’d define them as comical text over or accompanying photos or short videos. The first memes I remember seeing are those black-background motivational posters that feature a word like MOTIVATION in big bold letters and then something snarky in smaller font beneath it. Since then they’ve evolved drastically, dividing into hundreds of different styles and seeming to follow certain trends and patterns that vary from month to month. For example, July 2016 will likely be remembered, in the meme-verse, as the month of “Savage Spongebob,” because that was the most popular meme during that month.
Memes are popular because they’re easy to make. Compose a tweet, use a meme-making app, or put two pictures together and voila, you have a meme that might make someone laugh. This also makes them the most common item on your timeline.
But what’s the real societal purpose of memes? Why do we like them so much? Why do politicians and celebrities create and re-post them? Why are we obsessed?
I have a few theories.
Memes are distracting. They remove us from the boredom of our daily routine for the few seconds it takes to consume them. Life after childhood, for many, is a serious of equally dull routines, and memes offer a break, a laugh and maybe even a unique thought or perspective. Even memes that are completely ridiculous draw us in.
But there’s a deeper significance to memes–they allow us to laugh at ourselves. They point out the absurdity of daily life and the things we constantly worry about. This was initially the job of the political cartoon or the satirical essay. But in the world of no time unlimited data, memes are what captures our short attention span. They put our daily “struggles” into perspective by making them funny. To quote Carrie Underwood, they turn the mountain into a grain of sand. They expose our flaws in a way that we can handle and benefit from. They also remind us that we are not alone, and that our thoughts are shared by others in the same situation.
We can’t live without this genre of entertainment, because laughing at ourselves and our problems is the only way to move forward.