More to memes than jokes
In the beginning, there was the theory of evolution. Richard Dawkins, in his debut book “The Selfish Gene,” posited that a new kind of evolution was taking place, not in biological life forms, but in human culture. He needed a new term for this non-biological replicator, and he dubbed it a “meme.” The friendly casual terms we exchange regarding joke picture-text based memes do not reflect what is actually happening. Memes are in fact competing, “Hunger Games” style, for a limited resource: attention, or brain time. The Internet’s 4-Chan picture-text-based joke format templates are a perfect example of Dawkins’ meme. Most only understand the word “meme” in reference to these picture joke templates.
Creating a week's worth of memes
On Facebook, Biola has its own forum for these jokes, called Biola Memes. I had never made a meme, and while I know about most meme templates, I don’t often pay attention to them. To better understand memes, I decided to make and post several a day for one week only, and then share a few observations here. After enjoying reading others memes and making my own for a while, I began to notice some unexpected side effects. Namely, the realization that perhaps the humor is mainly based on recognizing the content rather than the depth of the content, and that maybe the repetition that aids recognition puts limits on our engagement with larger scale issues outside of Biola.
When I first arrived, I noticed specific memes represented strongly, including Condescending Willy Wonka, Scumbag Steve, Facepalm Jesus and The Most Interesting Man. It seems that recognition of the context and information of a joke is enough for the meme to be retained in memory. The retention is the meme’s strength. So even if a joke is more complex and perhaps more robust, jokes that are more recognizable appear to last longer and be better liked. The most common templates on the page involved familiar concepts found outside the Internet realm: the icon of Wonka, the exposure of Dos Equis’ spokesman, and of course the Euro-Western Jesus are all concepts originating from somewhere outside of the Internet and its forums.
Memes undermine student groups
Truth contributes to a meme’s strength, but it doesn’t seem to be required. For example, the current profile photo is of a glaring Ron Swanson, the top text reading: “Why Does AS Government Matter?” and bottom: “It Doesn’t.” I think AS exists as a collective fiscal policy “buddy” to the student body, or leadership for club funding. So this model matters, unless one doesn’t care about all the reasons students work to make clubs exist, especially cultural heritage clubs and art or study practice groups. Few will admit to such directed apathy. We will, however, admit to a collective “Hey! I don’t know either!” quite easily.
Regardless of the reasoning, the feeling invoked is common, and that idea embodied in the meme gives it another breath of life. The meme therefore gives the idea of a futile AS government a further extended brain time in the minds of the student body. The point is, we critique the situation based on the joke and whether or not we connect with it, not assessing anything by outside means. This is totally fine for one or several jokes of course, but how we joke affects how we think about bigger issues, and then we can start assessing things based on how much we relate to a statement, versus how true it might be.
I tried implementing different techniques for variety: posting a template not used before, creating my own, using a meme “incorrectly,” and posting three in a row, among other things. I made one regarding the Jesus Mural as an experiment. It gained some apparent approval, but nowhere near those memes referencing more recent and surface topics. The post was ironic in that the attractive Anglo-European image of Christ is a visual meme I perpetuated in my effort to critique it. Simplicity and mere recognition is enough to garner a “like,” but even a hint of pause or confusion can cost the meme some of its “stickiness.” Therefore, big issues seem to be avoided in jokes for the most part because they appear to be less successful. This can lead to a pattern of thinking. But should we be joking about serious issues through the meme medium?
Satire in this culture has been diluted to be all but irrelevant. Back when Jonathan Swift was using it, there was some legitimate means for change as a result of the device, but in today’s world, where thousands of people think “like”-a-status-save-a-nation activism actually works, people normally just smirk to themselves and move on.
Keeping informed while engaging in the cyber world
It was interesting how much more I began thinking about the Biola microcosm during that week. It was almost like the over-emphasis in this one area of the world limited my capacity to pay attention to the outside world. I suppose memes can be a fun way to be tipped off about an event, trend or opinion, but repetitive viewing of them appears to beget cyclical thought. In making memes, it’s even more difficult to resist this restricting over-concentration.
Memes are great devices for humor that can be easily understood, and I’ve enjoyed reading the creative input Biola has to offer regarding its own subculture through them. Yet it is a part of the Internet culture, which affects our consciousness with razor sharp subtlety. When participating in this cyber world, it’s always good to know what is happening to us while engaging in its many cyber rituals.