Only 3 days into 2020, teens in the US were making memes about the newest world crisis: the potential war between the US and Iraq. While it wasn’t likely that the conflict would escalate into a full blown world war, the increasing tension and threats led supporters and opponents alike to discuss #WorldWar3. And as everything and anything in pop culture, people made memes about it.
It’s one thing to discuss the audacity of Americans to joke about war in the Middle East given the history of US involvement there. But instead of focusing on a single circumstance, I think there’s a larger concern: Why do young Americans make memes about controversial, awful things?
It’s not like it’s anything new. As long as memes have been around, people have used them to discuss controversial topics, from Jeffrey Epstein to the new coronavirus. And sure, some people might say that comedians have always made distasteful jokes about serious events, so what’s all the fuss about? The difference is that comedians have standards- lines they don’t want to cross so that they don’t get bad PR or lose fans. Memes and their creators have no such standards. No one makes a living off of making memes, and no one’s career is threatened with the anonymity of the internet. No rules, no limits, anything goes.
But even if people are able to make memes about terrible things, why do they? How has internet culture evolved to accept, and even promote, such things?
Well, even as a Gen X-er, I can’t explain everything. But maybe I can give some clarification. To me, internet culture is like an inside joke. A giant inside joke that you can share with people next door and across the country. And where intrapersonal inside jokes can be random and strange, online ones are the same. Gone are the days of rage memes, and viral Twitter despair is in the new. Sure, not everything that gets made into a meme is depressing. Take the Kombucha girl, for example. That’s fun, right? Or memes that are just weird images. That’s not terrible! Meme culture today is a strange mix of common experiences and layers of references with hints of absurdity. For example, the new Shakira memes. Built from the common experience of watching the Superbowl halftime show, they include anything from references to Spongebob or to goats.
But why do people care about it? Because the tongue wagging is unusual, to say the least. Put it all together and it’s the perfect 2020 meme. It’s not as bleak as the memes about a potential World War 3, but all the other factors are there. I can imagine someone saying now, “Well what’s special about this generation then? Why do they have such a twisted sense of humor?” That, my friend, we can attribute to the mental state of youth today.
The rise of memes, fueled by internet culture, has coincided with the era of Millenials and Gen X. Often portrayed as broke and depressed, we are more broke and depressed than older generations (xx). We grew up during the Great Recession and the war in Afghanistan. Every day, we can look online to see the worst things that are happening in the world. The Earth is dying. Politics are polarized. People are starving. The list of terrible things in the world just goes on. And we can see as much of it as we want, whenever we want, from a quick online search. Plus, there’s our daily lives with paralyzing pressure to do well in school and looming college debt. It’s fair to say that anyone who grows up in that environment can feel paralyzed by fear and stress. By the time Millennials and Gen X could independently use the internet and social media, almost everyone had a fair dose of cynicism. Can you blame us? So, to cope with it all, we return to the internet. Where the inside jokes about our common fears and experiences -even an experience like watching a viral TikTok- culminate in memes. Memes that anyone and everyone can make.
The common experiences and mentality of Millennials and Gen X take a toll on us. There never seems to be an “off” button, where we can disconnect from the world and connect with our personal lives. So how do we live with the pressure? The answer: humor. The idea of using humor as a coping mechanism was introduced by Freud, and confirmed in a 2001 study (x). Popular meme culture is a coping technique for younger generations, a way to express themselves and their fears. They are a distraction and a unifier. Popular memes say: You are not alone. Others feel the same way. It is a human connection in an electronic world. The sarcasm and strangeness evolved as Millennials and Gen X grew from the shelters of their childhoods to their adult realities.
At least, that’s how I see it. Maybe other people have different explanations. But I’m sure any Millennial or Gen X-er will be hard pressed to deny the relevance of memes in their lives.