What’s in a Meme?


For a blog that purports to be all about memes, I may have been unfair to some readers in my first post by not offering a proper explanation of what I’m talking about when I say “meme.” Sure, most people who, like me, spend a sickening majority of their time on the Internet are familiar with memes in all their irreverently funny glory. But for those people who do not spend all of their free time (and, okay, maybe some of their not-actually-free time) scrolling through the endless void of the Internet, memes are a more abstract concept.

And the truth is, memes are pretty abstract. I’ve tried to define “what a meme is” for people many different times and in many different ways, but I’ve never been able to satisfactorily explain what makes something a meme. “It’s a picture,” I say, “and it’s got words on it.”

Background photo via Wikimedia Commons

“Ok, no, it’s pictures that people use all the time that have meaning because of the way that they’re used.”

Background image: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818, via Wikimedia Commons

All right, yes, technically that satisfies my definition of a meme; the piece of art above is used in specific ways to convey a specific meaning (in this case, the picture is often the defining image of European Romanticism). But it’s still not properly meme-worthy. And that’s because a meme is only memed when it goes viral—that is to say, when some thousands of people (the exact numbers for what constitutes “going viral” are open to debate) have shared and reposted the piece.

It feels strange for me to be writing definitions for these terms that I’m sure many of you, especially if you’re a Millennial or a member of Generation Z, already know. Words like “viral” and “meme” are part of your vernacular. I throw these words around in my everyday speech and assume that everyone gets what I’m saying, but then I write a blog about memes and learn how incorrect that assumption is.

So now we know: A meme is a picture with a text overlay that has gone viral. By going viral, the meme’s meanings—text, subtext, connotations—becomes accepted by the population that sees it. That’s how one day a stock photo of a teacher can turn into the Unhelpful High School Teacher meme.

But there’s one last aspect of memes that’s still missing from this definition, and that’s humor. If it isn’t funny, it’s not much of a meme. Even the Oxford English Dictionary (sorry, my English major is showing) defines memes as “typically humorous in nature.” That means our pal over there looking dramatically out over the stormy sea with a bland observation about his current state is most definitely not a meme. He’s art, sure, but not a meme.

Confused John Travolta; via GIPHY

And actually, the OED makes another interesting observation. Memes, the hallowed dictionary says, can be images, it’s true, but also videos or GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format, or a brief, soundless snippet of video—basically a moving picture, if you will) or even pieces of text. Until now, we’ve been working with memes exclusively as a form of visual media, but they’re also more. They’re also inspirational quotes that your kind-of-hippie, I-haven’t-spoken-to-you-since-high-school-and-even-then-not-really-but-we’re-connected-on-social-media-anyway friend always posts on Facebook, or brief anecdotes reposted from addictive blog sites like Tumblr.

(Let me be perfectly clear: this is recent news to me. Before I started writing this blog, I sent such Tumblr snippets to friends in a “Memes Only” text group with ever-increasing levels of self-doubt. I will now be able to sleep easy.)

Via knowyourmeme.com

With so many forms of media available to meme makers and enjoyers, and especially considering the very-definitely-on-purpose reference I made above to more traditional forms of art, do you think it’s safe to say that memes are the art form of the Internet age? Or are they a passing phase in the ever evolving world of the Internet? Personally, I’m leaning towards the side of the modern art form. I love dank memes (that means really awesome memes, for those meme novices among you).

I propose a challenge for us hear at QC Voices, and I want your help for it, fellow students. With a student population numbering in the thousands, each person with their own networks of acquaintances, it shouldn’t be too hard for Queens College to create a meme—going viral included. While you consider if memes are art or not, post your QC-themed meme submissions in the comments, and let’s see if we can turn it into something bigger!

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