Changes in Culture: What We Can Learn From Memes
by Ren Clough | published Apr. 27th, 2020
How do you respond to minor inconveniences? Or how do you respond to hearing devastating news from a friend looking for sympathy? For younger generations, the answer to both is the same: “it really do be like that sometimes.” This is an example of how meme culture has integrated into daily life. But what can we learn from this integration? To begin answering that question, we must first ask ourselves: what is a meme?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “meme” has two definitions:
- An idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture
- An amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media
For our purposes, we will assume both. This is because the widespread nature of internet culture and its integration into everyday life, transforms memes from online humor into commonplace slang.
Dark Humor in Memes
Normally, the integration of humor into youth culture is nothing special, and since humor is the origin of memes one might think that memes are just simply jokes. However, memes can provide a detailed look into the lives and mindsets of their targeted generation.
A meme found on a middle-aged woman’s Facebook page varies drastically from a meme found on a teenager’s Twitter account. One common thematic difference among younger generations is that memes tend to lean closer towards dark humor, making light of serious topics.
Freddie Barnes, a first year Applied Mathematics major, asserts that memes are a coping mechanism for younger generations.
“[People] make memes about serious topics as a way of coping ... letting other people know that it’s not just them [who feel that way],” Barnes said.
In a world where the youth are saddled with bad news at every turn, it’s no surprise that they’ve adapted to coping with humor focused on darker topics, some of which others would consider far too serious to make light of.
In comparison, older memes are more lighthearted or absurd, as seen in popular older memes such as "Doge" and the iconic “I Can Haz Cheezburger” cat. This shift in humor from general lighthearted comedy to gritty comic relief reflects the detriment that is being done to younger generations’ mental health due to many factors.
According to Professor Andrew Perry, a senior lecturer for the University Writing Program, this may be due to the focus of the news being largely negative.
“In the background of everything we do is this looming sense of doom,” Perry stated. “Because the news is never good.”
For some, this may seem like an inconsequential detail. Yet, the thought that the majority of news being negative affecting the mental state of viewers has scientific backing. A study conducted by Ohio State University in 1998, as well as a peer review of that specific study published in the Review of General Psychology in 2001, both assert that negative emotions and events hold greater influence over psychological well-being compared to positive emotions or events.
Differences in Communication
Beyond just the humor of memes, the integration of meme culture into the younger generations lives, helps reflect the generational divide in terms of communication.
Memes are consumed and made in different ways by different age groups, and those differences reflect the changing styles of communication over time. When talking about memes, Perry referenced the older style of images with text overlaid, whereas Barnes referred more commonly to specific phrases relevant in pop culture, without an image necessary.
This can be seen as a reflection of the way written language has adapted to be able to communicate better over a text-driven platform, such as texting.
In 2019, a linguist named Gretchen McCulloch published a book titled "Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language." In the book, McCulloch explores the way language has adapted in relation to the internet. As memes move away from the need for images, language and communication move away from the need for vocal accompaniment.
It may be true that a portion of the younger generation struggles with face-to-face conversation, but it is also true that younger generations are well versed in textual conversation. While an older person is likely to consistently text and type in proper, perfect grammar, younger individuals are more likely to adapt their style to their needs.
A text to a college friend might read, “hey are u busy rn,” but that same text would likely come off as rude or confusing to someone who couldn’t pick up the tone as informal, friendly and non-urgent. Even just changing the text to “hey are you busy right now” changes the tone of the message. Older generations who have not adapted to intrinsically detecting the nuances of textual communication would not likely pick up on this kind of shift.
Textual language has grown so complex that there are linguists who specialize in “Internet English” and internet language in general. The developing ability to more fully communicate, without the normal barriers presented by written communication, shows that the integration of the Internet in day-to-day life has caused younger generations to adapt to communicating through screens better than face-to-face. This is mainly due to younger generations being well-versed in the nuances of internet language, rather than detecting the differing tones of voices and body language.
But What Does This Show Us?
Memes can teach us a great deal about the worldview of the younger generations, but in order to understand them, one must understand that memes vary by generation. For older generations to truly understand the world from a younger person’s perspective, they should first look at the memes that younger people make, share and like.
The differences between memes today and the memes from just a few years ago are vast, showing just how rapidly changes to culture are occurring.
With dark humor to accompany the psychological damage of negativity-focused news, and the development of written communication in nuance and complexity, the digital becomes more integrated into day-to-day life.
Major cultural shifts can be tracked easily through the changes in memes. Some may see memes as a frivolous part of internet humor, but the truth is that memes reflect far more about our society than just what younger people find funny. As culture changes around us, memes made by younger generations can give an insight on how much impact those changes truly have on society as a whole.