They clog up our newsfeeds, provide early morning hilarity for imageboard lovers and act as a surprisingly precise mirror through which we can understand our own societies; memes are everywhere, entertaining, enthralling and consternating billions across the world.
Within any other aspect of our culture a low-resolution, hastily edited image, accompanied by Impact-font text, wouldn’t charm us in the manner in which it does, but with millions of meme images being uploaded and shared every day the opposite is indeed true. So why do we love memes so much? Why do they go viral?
The word ‘meme’ has a history spanning further into the past than one might think. In Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene”, the eminent evolutionary thinker wrote that self-replicating units of transmission, not genetic chemicals, dictated evolution, and that memes – ideas, styles or behaviours that spread from person to person within a culture – were an extension of this evolutionary behaviour. Memes, in Dawkins’ eyes, meant anything from tunes, fashions and skills though, however, not the favourite, easily-shared images of today.
Whilst the thinking behind meme does indeed shed light on why these images spread like wildfire, it doesn’t explain why we go so crazy for certain memes over others, and to answer this question, we have to take a look at the memes themselves. Take the ‘Sleeping Man’ meme that went viral just last week; an image surfaced of Haukur Viðar Alfreðsson, an Icelandic designer, taking a nap on a couch at his office, and within days people across the world had begun posting hilarious images of the sleeping worker in all manner of poses including Gulliver of Gulliver’s Travels, Sleeping Beauty and Titanic’s “draw me like one of your French girls” scene. Why did it go viral though? Well, the man was simply having a nap and pulling a hilarious sleeping face, and as such people felt they could identify with the moment, putting their own amusing spins on the image through the use of tongue-in-cheek pop culture references. The same can be said of the First World Problems, Foul Bachelor Frog and Success Kid memes; they put in to words the trivial, unsaid, but utterly widespread thoughts that pop in to our heads every single day.
Internet memes are no longer the preserve of the people though, and as internet-savvy figureheads have grown to understand the trend, they have begun to use the power of the meme. Take Shaquille O’Neal’s recent fall during the halftime show of a Rockets-Clippers series in May. The gigantic star took a rather hilarious, tree-being-felled-type of tumble, and was instantly in the headlines on sites such as Betting Sports as he tweeted fans that the best meme of him falling would win the creator $500 cash. Improving his already-sunny public image and knowing how much free publicity the meme contest would give him, Shaq came out on top, all thanks to memes.
Of course, truly engineered memes will likely never take off – we’ve all seen the efforts of ad and marketing agencies in this regard – and the meme will likely remain as an expression of our collective appreciation of the fun, amusing, often-mundane aspects of everyday life. Who knows – perhaps robo-humans will still be sharing images of Business Cat in 3000 years, poking fun at their feline overlords in the process?