The Reality Behind the Memes

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.

-Jessica Prus

4 thoughts on “The Reality Behind the Memes

  1. This is a thought-provoking take on memes in modern times. Thanks for sharing (I laughed at the Regina George one).

    However – I can’t entirely agree with some fronts. Though joking about WWIII or coronavirus can be insensitive if taken too far, I believe making jokes about particularly depressing or emotionally confrontational topics can be a healthy coping mechanism. In this age of so many trials and tribulations, which you discussed, I would argue that humor is needed more than ever. Someone who makes a joke about WWIII could be just as concerned as the person who refrains from laughing about it – they’re just coping differently.

    However, I do agree that the internet community should be more cognizant of who these mems reach; because the internet is so widespread, someone (say, a soldier) that the joke might offend or emotionally trigger might see it. Being cognizant of your audience is essential when making light of unfortunate events, and the internet isn’t particularly good at that.

    Additionally – I would argue that we’re more sensitive than past generations when it comes to jokes. Though there’s still a long road ahead, civil rights and reduction of racism and sexism have come a long way. This doesn’t justify insensitive, racist or sexist jokes, but I wouldn’t describe our generation’s meme culture as a novel societal flaw. Insensitive and controversial jokes have probably been around for generations.; the internet is just our way of expressing them.

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  2. I concur that memes are used as a coping mechanism by our generation. I think part of the reason for this is due to the sensationalism of news headlines that has risen from the digital age. With so much media to consume and information to report, news orgs often focus on the negative things that will most grab the reader’s/watcher’s attention. Very rarely is there a happy story on the evening news. This makes sense because catastrophe is important for us to know about, but the constant stream of horrifying stories does affect our collective psyche. I think that could contribute to the phenomenon you describe in your blog. Nice job!

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  3. This post is really compelling, and I highly enjoyed reading it. I think the WWIII thing especially got me thinking about this topic, as it seems to have done for you as well.

    The discourse about this on Twitter was fascinating, and it’s really interesting to see your perspective. “Humor as coping” is definitely a valid principle and should be brought up in these discussions. It does, however, raise the question: whose trauma do these memes address? Does the Twitterverse have a right to cope with things that impact them only indirectly, if at all?

    There isn’t a clear answer to this, and no discourse can negate the fact that these memes happen consistently. Your point about the consistency of alarming media is really strong, and I think that might point to the specific trauma these memes address.

    Additionally, there’s a strong sense of nihilism that I’d love to consider in this conversation. In making jokes out of so many things, are younger generations communicating a rejection of the systems surrounding us? Or at least questioning their authority?

    Overall, I’m really glad you wrote on this topic. I haven’t seen discourse on it outside of Twitter itself, so I really appreciated hearing your thoughts.

    -Taylor

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  4. This is an interesting post that provokes my thought about things that I haven’t really paid attention to: the fundamentals and influences, positive and negative, of meme culture. Using meme as a sense of humor therefore a coping mechanism is a thought that never came up to me but did occur to me: when reading about memes about certain matters that I worry about, I do feel them easing my concerns, even just a little.
    A question that leaves us to wonder about, however, is that internet is accessible to not only people our age but all sorts of people. Although we may find memes interesting and comforting, certain groups may find memes offending or uncomfortable to read about if themselves/their families have been involved in the matter, or simply having different values. Another phenomenon that I found is that more and more groups have emerged that share memes to only its members. Could this be an effective way of solving the issue? We can not be certain. Your post provoked the thought of me and I believe many like me who are inseparable with online media but have thought little about the depth behind it. Nice work!

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