These strange pictures you keep seeing are mostly just a fun way for kids (and adults!) to communicate. When we feel left out of a joke or confronted with a really, really weird image, it’s our first response to shake our fists and grumble about how the Internet is rotting our children’s brains. But language evolves and summer turns into fall and, come on, some of these Internet kids are pretty funny!
What the Heck is a Meme?
As we do for most things, let's turn to Wikipedia for a nice & succinct definition:
As friendly as this definition is, trying to understand "memes" with little to no prior context is decidedly less so. Because memes (for the most part) are born and bred through the Internet, the forms they take rapidly evolve, as they are available to anyone to remix or reconstruct.
Let's put it another way. Just like both of these would be considered art:
Both of these would be considered memes:
Now do you get it? So, how did we end up here?
A Little Context For You
The word “meme” first appeared in evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as shorthand for explaining how ideas mutate and spread, like genes being passed along through population groups.
If we define a meme as a mass circulation of an idea or in-joke, then lots of cultural phenomenons that've happened before the birth of the Internet would fit the bill, from “Kilroy was here” to the line “Play it again, Sam.” Could the penises we carved into school desks and bathroom stalls be considered memes? Probably. Although today we mostly understand memes in the context of the Internet, it can be helpful to view them through the lens of a wider cultural lexicon.
Internet memes took off as a concept during the 1990s, and with the introduction of social media sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, in-jokes could be shared with bigger audiences and achieve viral status much more quickly. Remember Harlem Shake or Charlie bit my finger?
As ridiculous as it can feel to read the terms “meme” and “cultural lexicon” in the same sentence, it’s important to remember that memes have become an increasingly popular way for people to communicate. Your child will likely get the chance to enroll in a “meme” course at their university, and major news outlets now write about and refer to memes more than anyone would ever reasonably expect. The significance of the President of the United States consistently tweeting memes shouldn’t be lost on us.
As a parent, you’re likely familiar with the format of the above baby meme. This “above text below text” configuration, called image macros, was popular on Facebook (and maybe still is, depending on the age demographic of your friends).
But as we’ve now officially entered the age of Gen Z, meme humor has gotten, well, weirder. Watched a commercial on TV lately and thought, what the hell? That would be consumerism catering to your kids’ sensibilities.
The Internet’s attention span is short & thrives on instant gratification, meaning a meme’s popularity lasts about as long as its ability to be morphed and remixed. Take, for example, the You Know I Had to Do It to Em meme:
Its humble origins, like so many other memes, was a fairly standard and not particularly attention-grabbing Twitter post. Something in this regular photo of a regular guy with the accompanying caption, “You know I had to do it to em” contained the illusive, baffling, unknowable makings of a meme:
Soon, people latched on to this image and created all sorts of reiterations, including:
Without knowledge of the first image, the image below would make no god-damn sense:
To the outside observer, this sort of humor won't track and is easily chalked up to baffling gibberish.
"Dank Meme" Demystified
Familiar with the term dank meme? A phrase that both sounds ridiculous to hear and say, it emerged from the ether of messaging platforms 4chan and Reddit, and often refers to a meme that is deliberately idiosyncratic and nihilistic, outside of the mainstream, or sometimes just "really good."
Essentially, memes are fun images and inside jokes that we share with friends. But considering how capricious the meaning of a meme can be, it can be hard to keep up or to know exactly the kind of message being spread by an incomprehensible image. Endless recontextualizing of images means that even seemingly innocuous jokes get picked up and remixed by some truly nasty ideologies. The popular internet meme Pepe the Frog, a green cartoon frog face, was placed on the Anti-Defamation League's database of hate symbols, after the image’s widespread use in racist contexts.
These strange pictures you keep seeing are mostly just a fun way for kids (and adults!) to communicate. When we feel left out of a joke or confronted with a really, really weird image, it’s our first response to shake our fists and grumble about how the internet is rotting our children’s brains. But language evolves and summer turns into fall and, come on, some of these Internet kids are pretty funny!
The best way to learn a new language is to be taught by a fluent speaker, so why not ask your kid to let you in on their jokes. By the time you’re reading this, there are likely a million new memes to replace the ones here, and your kids will probably get a kick out of trying to explain them to you.
Either a really, really weird image or a good joke.
Editor's Note: For a deeper look into how adults sometimes misinterpret memes--and the terrible consequences that can come of this--we urge you to listen to The Hidden Brain's "Online Behavior, Real-Life Consequences, The Unfolding of a Social Media Scandal."