Memes: Their origin and their impact

2016 was legendary for memes like "But that's none of my business" showing Kermit the Frog drinking a glass of iced tea. (Wikimedia Commons)

Memes seem to have taken over social media in a way that only some internet content can. 2016 in particular was a legendary year for memes; it gave us evil Kermit, Arthur fist, Biden/Obama memes, and my personal favorite, bone app the teeth. 2017 is also shaping up to be a good year for memes, with white guy blinking and the new explosion of student athlete jokes standing out as front runners. But how did we get here; where did these memes originate from? We were not always so blessed with such high quality content.

Think back to the first meme you saw on the internet. It might have been on iFunny, or maybe you saw it on the Instagram popular page. These memes were characterized by big, white, block letters, maybe a colorful pinwheel as the background, possibly even sketches of various facial expressions. And also, they weren’t funny. I mean maybe, maybe the first time you saw a meme you thought “Oh, this is genius. Bad luck Brian really does have the worst luck ever, and nothing will ever be funnier than this hastily assembled meme.” But then, as you started to see more and more memes that were essentially all the same, and had been around for ages, none of it was funny anymore. Back in 2012 or 2013, memes felt kind of overdone and were only funny to like, your mom, who just saw one for the first time on Facebook.

So memes kind of died for a little bit. Of course, there were still viral trends online, and there were still old memes circulating, but memes hadn’t reached the level of hilarity and relatability that they have achieved today. But suddenly, in 2016, memes had a Gryffindor in the House Cup level comeback. They broke through full force, taking over Twitter and Facebook in an unprecedented manner. People began to boast about their love of dank memes, and suddenly, memes were for everyone again.

The reason memes have been much more successful lately than in the past is in large part because they have become more versatile. Memes that ask the same types of questions, pose the same type of dilemmas get old quickly and are focused solely on humor; they ignore what makes memes so appealing: relatability. Nothing brings people together like a good, relatable meme.

The other great thing about memes today is they are constantly changing. Every three to four weeks there is a new viral meme, so it’s impossible to get sick of them. In 2017 alone we have seen salt bae, cash me outside girl, white guy blinking, what in tarnation and, most recently, a slew of student athlete jokes.

Take the student athlete jokes for example. To me, this is the perfect meme. Now maybe this is because I constantly mock people who take themselves too seriously, and live for deprecating jokes, but that is besides the point. The student athlete jokes are so versatile, so over the top and so unexpected. And this makes them hilarious. Who knew I wasn’t the only one who noticed student athletes’ frequent use of the hunna emoji and tendency to complain about practice before class?

Now of course memes are a matter of opinion, and not all of them can compete with the upper echelon of elite memes. I believe that “cash me outside how bow dat” is one of those memes. It isn’t versatile enough to have any lasting impact. Plus that girl was rude to Dr. Phil, so I really don’t understand why there are any memes condoning that.

And while most memes are rooted in fun and humor, oftentimes in my opinion they can have other unintended consequences that are worth examining. For example, in January of 2016, before the democratic primary elections, many “Bernie vs Hillary” memes began to circulate. These memes featured Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s presumed opinions on nonsensical, irrelevant issues, with Bernie Sanders’ views always being preferable. And while these memes were pretty funny, they didn’t give any insight into either candidate’s actual political opinions. But they still sent the message that Bernie Sanders was inexplicably cooler.

Another popular political meme was the “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” meme. This meme jokingly accused Ted Cruz of being the Zodiac Killer, and was one of many memes online that made fun of Ted Cruz. While this meme did not suggest that Ted Cruz was actually the Zodiac Killer, it sort of made Ted Cruz into a joke. People mocked him relentlessly, and eventually it was hard for anyone to take him seriously. I am not suggesting this directly impacted his lack of success in the Republican Primary, but it certainly didn’t help him.

When memes start to become part of political discourse online, it is necessary to consider their negative impact, even if that impact is unintentional. UConn Journalism professor Marie Shanahan likens memes to billboards, and notes that a popular image plus a few words is a recipe for “topic oversimplification and distortion.” She comments that memes are used in a variety of ways, including propaganda, satire, hate speech, political weapons and political protests, and believes that memes, as well as other political discussion online, have contributed to the current polarization of political debate in America.

So does this mean memes are bad? Generally, no. Memes are funny and amusing, and they can be used as an effective method of communicating ideas. However, as with any other form of communication, social media users need to consider what they’re sharing, reposting, or retweeting, why they’re doing so and how it may be perceived by their friends or followers.


Katherine O’Shea is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at katherine.o'shea@uconn.edu. She tweets at @koshea527.