Memes. You know what they are; those humorous things that you browse whilst going through your phone on the toilet. Those inspirational quotes laid over a picture of a night sky or a sunset beaming across desolate corn field. Those life lessons warning you about the haters, time wasters and girlfriend/boyfriend thieves. Those pictures of a shifty-looking bearded Muslim informing you that he’s planning to burn some poppies at the weekend along with your tax money that your racist uncle shares on Facebook. Those images of dying children being held by devastated parents imploring you to pressure your government to take action. Those ‘What are thooooooose.’ The point being that they take many shapes and sizes.
A meme is officially defined as ‘an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.’ Memes are the viral strains passed from individual to individual with minute degrees of variation that make up the cultural consensus and their very being certainly predates the internet and social media. The study of Memetics, largely popularized by the infamous Richard Dawkins, has been around for 30 years or so at this point.
It goes without saying why memes are so important to marketers. Richard Huntington of Adliterate writes brilliantly about the debt that Strategic Planners owe Dawkins for his work on Memetics. Now that most of us share a common dialogue via social media, internet memes have become some of the most prescient signifiers of the zeitgeist. Fortunes and profiles are made and destroyed on the ‘content farm,’ and marketers will often get into bed with internet personalities and curators just to try get a piece of the pie, just ask The Fat Jewish and Buzzfeed. There is however a different way that marketers could and should be approaching this modern phenomenon. Instead of trying to ape, appropriate and stand next to the shiny new thing, why aren’t we analyzing them as serious cultural propositions which tell us a lot about our shared values, passions and struggles?
Below I’ve gone and done a breakdown of the memes that I see regularly accompanied by my analysis of why they are so popular and what that tells us about the zeitgeist.
You are special and unique and someone needs you
The above meme, one which has been Liked 118,348 times and shared 45k times is one which has clearly struck a powerful chord with a lot of people. Thematically it covers two basic needs, the first is people’s need to know that their differences or ‘quirks’ are nothing to be ashamed of, the second is the individual’s need to know that they have these points of uniqueness within their character in the first place. If we consider social media’s role in today’s world, the second of these needs seems infinitely more important. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter forces us to be both wildly individualistic and conforming. This creates a sense of cognitive dissonance which these kinds of sentiments help to reconcile. Nietzsche, Satre, Camus et al grappled with the question of life’s meaning and purpose incessantly in the 19th and 20th centuries but the social media age in which we are more connected yet somehow more isolated may be the one to give us the most interesting insights (excuse the pun).
People are shit
Next up we have existential rage. The above meme shows us that most people, at some stage, begin to suspect that we are not truly needed by others, that we’re merely surrounded by opportunists and people those who would use and manipulate us for their own sordid purposes. We’re scared that other may have it easier than us, that maybe there isn’t a benevolent justice system which doles out everybody’s just deserts. This cynical anti-humanism, I would argue, is indicative of our political and economic landscape as the below meme demonstrates:
Despite coming from popular American conservative Facebook page ‘Right Wing News’ I have seen the above meme countless times on my newsfeed posted by my predominantly British ‘friends.’ Aside from the political implications (anyone with half a brain knows that no one in the UK is taxed to ‘breaking point’ and very few people ‘refuse’ to work when they are able), what the meme really expresses in being shared by the largely nonpartisan public is a fear that honest (apparently) purposeful toil will never be rewarded as it should be and that the undeserving ‘other’ is reaping the rewards.
You can’t have been on Facebook in the past 2 years if you haven’t seen the above meme. Yes it’s a completely made up assertion but considering the popular sentiment that politicians uncaring careerists only out for themselves the creator made the wise choice and printed the myth. The rise of nationalism, factionalism and populism in its many forms from Golden Dawn and Syriza in Greece, to Marie Le Pen in France to Nigel Farage,the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn (and even Russell Brand) in the UK to Donald Trump in the U.S. tells us that a lot of people are struggling with the social, political and economic effects of Globalization. Politicians from the long-established main political parties are identified as the culpable stooges of corporations and international governing bodies such as the EU, IMF, UN etc. The trend now is to say ‘Fuck it, they’re all the same! They’re all saying and doing exactly the same thing, and we- the little guys- are getting fucked by forces beyond our control!’ This may not strictly be true (it isn’t) but there is an element of truth, or wider theme at play, which allows memes like this one to resonate with people and become viral.
Kanye is a twat
There is a great post on Reddit which lists and analyzes all of the reasons people really hate Kanye West. Personally I’ve always suspected that both Middle England and Middle America have trouble dealing with the presence of an audacious, iconoclastic and outspoken Black Man who deliberately appropriates symbols of White Male strength such as ‘the greatest fucking rock star on the planet’ and rudely hijacked the acceptance speech of Southern Belle Taylor Swift years after he called out the then-President of the United States George W. Bush. So when Ian Peters at Edwards&Sons Print Producers (made up person and made up business but you get the point!) sits down at his desk in the morning and sees a story on the Daily Mail about Kanye’s latest public spectacle, he can sit back in his chair, sip his morning coffee, let out an exasperated sigh and mumble ‘Kanye you twat.’
We’re Not Like Them
Fuckboys, fuccbois, basic bitches, basic bros, hispters, ‘cunts,’ these are the people whom we must disassociate with at all costs otherwise we risk joining ‘sluts,’ fat people and people who don’t respect the armed forces in the internet shame bin. The irony being of course that anyone, if not everyone, can easily find themselves in one or more of these categories. Like the first meme in this list, this kind of post, when shared or liked on social media tells others that we are simultaneously above these broad categories of undesirable individuals and a part of the consensus that these people are idiots. They also function to protect us from not being a part of any distinct or identifiable group so that we do not feel too much like we are being excluded by either the ‘basic’ mainstream or the cool alternative kids.
Fuck you Katie Hopkins!
Like a pantomime villain of old, Katie Hopkins, businesswoman and media personality, serves as a scapegoat or sacrificial punching-bag onto which we can project the worst elements of our culture. She is clearly a savvy individual and has managed to carve out a niche for herself which requires minimal original thought and effort whilst achieving maximal results. People who would normally complain about scroungers, immigrants (or ex-pats as they should be called), ‘chavs’, fat people and lesbians all suddenly release their vitriol at Mrs Hopkins with a hearty sense of self righteousness. KH gives them a reference point from which they can say ‘I know I have my opinions on certain things but this is just bang out of order!’ rather than confront some of their own prejudices and assumptions.
This one will be lost on Americans. Along with the Grime resurgence, chart-friendly Deep House music, Wavey Garmz, Netflix &Chill, Instagram and going to the Gym, having a Cheeky Nandos has become a cultural signifier for young working and lower-middle class lads in suburban areas. There are countless variations of this meme including everyone from David Cameron and Ed Miliband to Hitler to Louis Walsh to Tumblr posts of people explaining the phenomenon to Americans. Someone even did a Cheeky Nandos rap which plays off the various stereotypes associated with patrons of the South African casual dining experience. The meme-ification of Nandos and its alleged cheekiness seems to be an offshoot of the much-maligned ‘Lad Culture’ which gives its adherents a more relevant and ‘urbanized’ version of the phenomenon where words like ‘cheeky banter with the lads’ remain but the background of the participants is largely different and the dress code, taste in music, taste in women and type of haircut is worlds away from the clean cut Hollisted-clad Ruby lad from Durham University.
Everyone knows their place around here
To paraphrase Marx, Nostalgia is the opium of the British masses. Downtown Abbey, Cath Kidston, The Great British Bakeoff and Strictly Come Dancing tell us this quite conspicuously. Whilst the plight of East Londoners and West Midlander during the Blitz can’t really be compared to anything that we experience today, the sentiment of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ does carry some resonance for a population subjected to seemingly endless austerity that many of us suspect is not an equally shared burden. Another related meme category that ties in with this is the Queen doing various mundane tasks and pulling faces that us mere commoners are sometimes want to pull. For the benefit of any international readers, Queen Elizabeth II occupies a strange place in British life. The British (or English if we’re being accurate) have what Christopher Hitchens called a ‘fetish‘ for the Monarchy. There was a time when we ‘ruled the waves’, our Queens and Kings from House Windsor were recognized by our lowly colonial subjects as the governors of their everyday lives and we were prepared to take on the Sausage Munching-Bosch at the drop of an aristocratic top hat. Queen Elizabeth is like our beloved old aunt, politely fearful of change and too proud to use the NHS, who keeps that problematic family history alive in our minds. Coupled with campy English whimsy the result of this is memes like the below: