In the name of art or lolz?
Whether you pronounce it “mem,” or “meem” (the correct pronounciation is the latter, by the way), there’s no denying these funny and punny photos have captured the attention of our society. “Lolcats,” “y u no,” and the “lazy college senior” meme have flooded our news feeds and made us chuckle or laugh out loud countless times. So, for something that is only meant to brighten your day, why are people so divided on their feelings for memes? The Fulcrum asked two writers to sit down and hash things out.
Point: The positive power of the meme
They’re not just pictures with captions—they’re memes! Memes help us let loose and put the fun back into life. After all, during times of unrelenting stress—exams, anyone?—does it not make your day to see the hawkward bird on your computer screen? Memes have the power to entertain and inform us during the dull moments of our lives. So what’s not to like?
Memes have developed into a cultural phenomenon, mostly by means of online interaction—but they’re way older than Microsoft itself. The original idea for the meme can be traced back to the late 1970s, where the term was first coined by author Richard Dawkins in his novel The Selfish Gene. Dawkins discusses “cultural transmissions” and how jokes can spread and become a phenomenom and how the things that make up a particular culture are passed from one person to the next. These exchanges can be viewed as a massive inside joke that can become a historical piece of a society’s culture. Everyone is in on the joke. There is nothing that makes people happier than being able to share something in common with others.
Some would put memes on the same level as viruses, spreading from one person to the next in rapid succession until you’re faced with an epidemic of trollfaces and babies saying inappropriate things. But if no one is getting sick, what’s the harm? There are those who abuse meme culture with their negative comments—but what online trend hasn’t been subject to this? One should be able to tell the difference between an attempt to spread hate and an attempt to entertain and inform. If Darth Vader tries to tempt you to join the dark side with cookies, tell him you’re not interested. Go buy your own damn cookies. Memes do not corrupt our minds. They are just the amusing creations of our minds.
Memes are fun, insightful, creative, informative, and sometimes downright silly and they don’t look like they’ll be disappearing anytime soon, so why not enjoy them? After all, in a society like ours where people are frustrated all the time and become stressed out at the drop of a hat, a meme could just be the kind of pick-me-up we need to get through a hard day. Memes are a fun way to keep in touch with what’s going on, from the bigger social issues to the latest celebrity gossip with a few laughs thrown into the mix.
So you just keep hanging in there, cat meme, because somewhere a person is smiling at you, and that’s all that matters.
Counterpoint: The problem with memes
Memes aren’t funny. That isn’t to say they can’t ever be funny or that they never were funny, but when they have no added wit or context, they aren’t funny. Context is what makes most jokes funny. If I were to make a joke about Mitt Romney, as many people have, the context would be that he is the Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States. The joke would surely be lost on anyone who had never heard of Mitt Romney.
Some might argue that certain things are funny without context, which is only half true. But even comedy of the absurd has a context—the context of the play Waiting for Godot by Bertolt Brecht is the juxtaposition of our own reality and that of the characters. The comedy group Monty Python, perhaps the kings of absurdity, always gave their sketches a context.
It might be unfair to compare lolcats to Monty Python, but we can afford to have higher standards for comedy. When something like trollface or nyan cat pops up, it isn’t funny in and of itself. Randomness isn’t funny. If something random is funny, it means there is something to back it up and give it weight.
Others say the viral nature of memes gives them the context of being a familiar image in the collective consciousness. There might be something to that, but something isn’t funny simply because you’ve seen it before. In fact, usually the more you see something, the less funny it becomes.
Memes have expanded into an arena beyond jokes. They seem to have evolved into a shorthand for conveying specific ideas and thoughts. For instance, “U Mad Bro” is a fairly specific rhetorical reaction. The image with caption-style memes (seemingly a favourite of people running for student association positions, but that’s a whole other opinion piece) is often used to comment on current events or politics, whether those events be national or only campus-wide in scale. As any astute observer has probably already noticed, these meme-based commentaries are incredibly biased and superficial.
So if memes aren’t that funny and are practically useless as a means of social commentary, what good are they? The answer is, none. They’re actually harmful to comedy and public discourse. Why should a comedian spend their time creating clever jokes when they can get as many laughs by yelling, “This is SPARTA”? In the case of memes directed at politics, they’re propaganda that dispenses with the informative in favour of bias.
It would be ridiculous to suggest we abolish memes, as it simply wouldn’t be possible. We can, however, afford to have higher standards and perhaps we should ask a little more of our comedy.