It's unlikely that you haven't heard the word meme at least once in conversation throughout the past decade. When it comes to internet comedy, memes are the new currency; they spread like wildfire across every major social media network and are shared by the millions between friends and followers on a daily basis.
If you're a resident at Broadmoor Court assisted living community who often takes to social media to stay in touch with family, chances are you may be able to find a source of comic relief in your feed as well. However, there may be more to this modern format of satire than initially meets the eye. Here's a closer look at what memes are, how they've impacted our current culture and why they matter.
A meme is a form of viral internet comedy in which a culturally relevant idea, behavior or situation is satirically referenced — typically through a popular image with a humorous caption that the majority of people will understand. However, the word meme isn't new and didn't always refer to this form of entertainment. It dates back to the 1976 book The Selfish Gene by renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, where its meaning was a bit different.
In Dawkins' book, a meme was defined as a "unit of cultural transmission," the sociological equivalent of a gene. It was the vehicle through which an element of culture was transferred from one individual to another. Dawkins went on to explain:
"Examples of memes are catchy tunes, ideas, catchphrases, fashions of clothes, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."
Although the definition of what a meme is has changed a little since 1976, this quote from Dawkins actually remains an accurate description of what modern-day memes do. By referencing popular songs, movies, TV shows, Hollywood celebrities and well-known jokes, memes circulate a fresh, new form of instant comedy across the cyberworld, communicating culture from one person to another. As Eloise L. Kinney said over a decade after Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, "Memes are, simply put, ideas that catch on."
In the name of understanding what kind of humor the most popular memes touch on, here's a closer look at some examples.
It's no secret that the internet has always loved cats. Cat memes play on this with their simple, classic format: an image of one or more cats, usually doing something downright adorable, with blocky overlaid text written in intentionally poor English (also known as lolspeak). The caption's tone mimics the supposed voice of the cat in the picture and what it would be saying or thinking.
Another classic, the condescending Wonka meme pretty much speaks for itself. It's an image of the original 1971 Willy Wonka played by Gene Wilder propping his head up with an underwhelmed, unenthused facial expression. Typically this meme features a particularly patronizing caption. For example: "Oh, you just graduated? You must know everything." Another example might be, "Oh, you have a goatee? That's cute. Did you know that beards also come in 'man' size?"
An accomplished martial artist, actor and director, Chuck Norris is now a household name and a familiar face in another form of entertainment: memes. Online, his face has become famous from the abundance of Chuck Norris Fact memes. In these memes, some absurdly exaggerated feat of Norris's is mentioned. These "facts" act as a caricature of sorts and make ridiculous, unfounded claims regarding Chuck Norris's toughness or boldness.
One example is, "Chuck Norris doesn't dial the wrong number. You answered the wrong phone." Another might be, "Chuck Norris can win a game of Connect Four in three moves."
Internet memes are notable in the sense that they've managed to transcend the limits of older forms of comedy (such as stand-up) by conveying an entire idea or concept in a matter of mere seconds through a singular image. No other form of comedy has yet achieved this; it would seem that social media's rapid advent into day-to-day life over the course of the past 15 years bred its own strain of humor.
For older adults, memes may seem silly or irrelevant. But chances are your younger friends and family communicate using memes. It's common, for example, to respond to a text mess with a meme just as it is to respond with an emoji. Taking some time to learn more about memes or stay familiar with some online favorites can help you understand humor on social media and communicate in modern ways with others.
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