Not only does the emergence of the internet create new terms, it also redefines existing words. The internet is a new place where people exchange information and engage in social contact. The setting of social media is quite different from the setting real life interactions. For instance, we’re able to edit and correct ourselves before posting something, however, in real life, once the words are out, we can’t take them back. We’re probably also interacting with a larger diversity of people than in real life. With this diversity, it is likely easier to create new creative content.
A very interesting part of this new creative content is memes. The term meme was coined long before people had an internet connection at home. Initially, Dawkins used it as a way to describe pieces of cultural information that are passed on between people. Memes according to him, pass on the same way as genes do. Gestures, words or rituals are spread among people and are also subject to mutations. And if we think about memes in the internet sense, the aforementioned definition still holds. Words, pop culture, specific interests, daily life situations are often spread among users of internet communities in the form of imagery or texts.
When does something become a meme?
This is a very difficult question to answer, as internet users can get quite pious in what can be labeled a meme or not. However, I believe the same principles that determine whether something becomes a meme in real life, can also be applied to the internet setting. For instance, the word “gnarly” existed long before surfer culture popularized it in the 70s.
But what exactly makes up these principles is hard to spell out. I think if this was known, businesses would gladly use this to promote their products, to make money off of this process. Sure, there have been companies that successfully, intentionally and unintentionally, used this phenomenon for brand recognition (I have seen people use Snickers’ slogan: “eat a Snickers” in online interactions). But not all companies that invest money in ‘memeing’ will achieve ‘meme status’.
Though, not only companies can earn money through memes. People and animals have become internet sensations and earned money as well (e.g. Antoine Dodson, Grumpy Cat, Ken Bone). But why do some memes catch on, while others don’t? I’m assuming timing plays a large role in this. Some attempted memes achieve virality after a few years. For example, the movie The Room was released in 2003. The first meme-like imagery was spread in 2009, while in 2010 more content was created, which kickstarted the actual meme.
Memes as words and slang
Language-wise, what is interesting, is that new definitions for existing words are created. And that the use of certain words suddenly spikes in online interactions (and gradually make its way into real life interactions as well). I recall a time when the words “I’m bored” were plastered all over my Facebook timeline. The actual meaning behind these words in that setting is fascinating. As it wasn’t just a statement of one’s internal states. With this phrase, people looked for entertainment through social interactions.
Then we had a spike in “That awkward moment…“. The internet provided the opportunity for people to open up about embarrassment they go through in daily life. Things people might not discuss in everyday face-to-face conversations, because, well, they’re embarrassing. But being able to read that you are actually quite similar to your peers takes away some of that embarrassment. Besides, a quick Google search can easily lead you to stories of people who are going through similar situations, which probably makes people less alone and ‘weird’.
Now the word “relatable” seems to be a much-used form of expression to indicate you experience similar emotions or events in your life. What is important to mention with this word is that figurative speech is imperative online. For instance, people might find a picture of a dead fish lying on the shore to be ‘relatable’. Thus, images are used to figuratively or comically express feelings.
Other, more recent slang terms are “extra“, “lit“, “dead“, and “bruh“. Much of the credit of the emergence of these new words can be given to an important online community referred to as Black Twitter. This community not only sheds light on relevant (racial) issues, such as police brutality, members of the community are also responsible for a large part of the new creative content that can be identified as memes (and slang).
Memes do not only create new ways to express emotions and create bonds between individuals, it also influences the current zeitgeist and creates discussion among groups of people (e.g. Kony 2012, #icantbreathe).