Unless you’ve been living under a rock or have somehow avoided the alluring siren song of Facebook, you probably have noticed a number of “meme” Facebook groups. Whether it’s in the context of “Binghamton Memes,” “Long Island memes” or “Memes for People Who Enjoy Memes,” the meme has blown up faster than the Shakespearean sonnet.
But what exactly is a meme? Why are our Internet profiles, the entertainment industry and even our daily social interactions now full of the things? And what are the long-term effects of the memes’ rampant use on our culture and its future?
Let’s start from the beginning.
Surprisingly, the meme didn’t start with the honey badger, the Ancient Alien guy or even “rage faces.” In fact, the meme’s birthplace wasn’t on the Internet at all, but in evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ book “The Selfish Gene.” The meme, which not coincidentally rhymes with “gene” and finds its roots in the ancient Greek “mimema,” is the application of evolutionary concepts to human ideas and culture.
Just as genes go through the all-too-rigorous process of natural selection, so do memes — some live long lives and others go extinct just as fast.
Since the new millennium has plunged us into an Internet culture, it is no surprise that this is where we find a majority of our memes these days and that their propagation is much faster than what could be accomplished by books, schools or word of mouth.
But, as we’re faced with the proliferation of the Internet memes outside of 4chan, Reddit and even past the boundaries of the Internet, we are also faced with their banalization, misuse and — I would argue — overuse.
The creation of memes no longer occurs just within the realm of scholars, philosophers or pop icons. Some would say this is a wondrous thing: the everyman can make his or her mark on the cultural world now!
But, as much as it makes cultural influence more available, it also stagnates our culture and devalues those who have painstakingly devoted their lives to moving forward our culture without the use of a “generator.”
Why come up with anything original when you can express yourself by copying and pasting the same few faces that everyone else uses into a bunch of panels? Almost instantly, you have a “comic” you can call your own. People don’t even need to take the time to formulate arguments when they can just as easily point to the straw man memes such as “the college liberal” or “the ignorant American.”
Long gone, it seems, is the personal essay, the novel and their literary relatives. Even blogs, which can be insightful in their own right, are being replaced with something as trite as Tumblr, which is nothing more than a sideshow of pictures — usually belonging to other people.
Unfortunately, this sort of behavior isn’t only limited to our Internet culture. No, it seems some people have even lost the ability to express themselves in daily conversation without the crutch of Internet memes, to the point that they become clichéd. It makes me cringe.
That said, I don’t want to demonize the meme. In no way am I saying that everything that anyone says should be 100 percent original. I’d be a hypocrite if I said such a thing. But we must be careful about how we use the new-found power the Internet meme bestows upon us and be wary of the trap of cultural stagnation.
Next time you’re with a group of friends and have the urge to use an Internet meme, try to suppress it. Try simply conversing and interacting with them without the crutch and perhaps a close cousin of the meme: the inside joke, something you and your friends can call your own.
If our culture is reduced to nothing but the same old pictures with the same old bold-faced text on them, then I, pardon my turn of phrase, don’t want to live on this planet anymore.