Let’s talk about memes, shall we?
Frequent visitors of BuzzFeed and 9GAG are familiar with memes: they can instantly recognise the unique images that are used to describe certain situations, such as a cat with the body of a PopTart gliding through space while farting out a pixelated rainbow, a girl with psychopathically staring eyes, a Shiba Inu staring at the viewer through the computer screen, and a simple cartoon face of a sinister grin. You probably guessed it: I’m talking about Nyan Cat, the Overly Attached Girlfriend, Doge, and the Troll Face. Although the imagery conveyed by memes is memorable, the reason they manage to sell themselves to the cyber-market is the simplicity of their images, which makes them instantly recognisable in virtually every relevant sensory aspect. But how are these memes so iconic? Are they just funny?
The obvious part is that they serve the purpose of entertainment, but is that it? Even though they really just make us laugh, do we even know why? Maybe people choose to ignore it, or they simply overlook it, but there is a hidden (perhaps educational) value in memes: these memes are able to market themselves perhaps subconsciously, insofar as they have become so prevalent in our social lives in ways other than their imagery. This self-marketing trend can be exemplified by countless memes, but I will only cite a couple of my own favourites to illustrate my point.
One element that viewers tend to overlook is the inter-textuality employed in some – admittedly, not all – memes, which allows the audience to grasp the meaning of the meme with greater ease due to their prior understanding of its context. Such memes generally involve either certain characters or a particular scene in popular entertainment sources ranging from children’s shows to viral videos. One example is the Slowpoke meme, which is a direct reference to the Pokémon Slowpoke. The humour primarily derives from the implication in its name: it’s slow. Thus, it is primarily used to mock those who are slow to catch on with pop culture or recent events. Those who are unfamiliar to this meme but avid Pokémon fans – I, myself, was a slowpoke, as I found the meme a year after it became viral – can quickly understand the humour of this just by looking at the image and its message, such as, “Hey guys, did you hear? The Civil War just ended!” or “Hey guys, did you hear? Jesus was born!” This meme uses text that announces events that happened a long time ago and are well known, thereby adding to the silliness of the meme.
In very limited cases, the linguistics of memes is what makes them so popular amongst its audience. One such meme is “Doge,” which has been very prevalent this year as a means to describe or respond to various situations. Its silliness and humour is derived not merely from the photograph of the Shiba Inu or its usage of the culturally disdained font Comic Sans, but also from the combination of using deliberately broken English that challenges existing rules of English grammar. Instead of saying “I’m so excited,” you say, “Much excite.” Likewise, you can say “Many amaze” instead of “This is amazing!” In some cases, the broken grammar can create a somewhat dim-witted, or at least sarcastic, tone, which essentially makes anyone sound like a nincompoop to fit the Shiba Inu’s expression. This is the very essence of Doge: the irregularity of its grammar creates humour.
Although memes are meant to be more entertaining than educational, there are indeed some underlying elements behind the aforementioned “meme-tic lingo” that make them so well received. Of course, this analysis isn’t perfect, but it’s enough to show how memes can sell themselves and go viral in ways other than images. There are countless other reasons why memes are memorable, and these are a few others among the countless out there that have yet to be discovered (by me, anyway). Hopefully, I didn’t ruin your perception of memes for eternity.
Evelson, Nicholas. “Cultural Contempt of Comic Sans .” University of Massachusetts, Amherst. May 1, 2013. http://people.umass.edu/nevelson/comicsans.pdf.
McCulloch, Gretchen. A Linguist Explains the Grammar of Doge. Wow. February 6, 2014. http://the-toast.net/2014/02/06/linguist-explains-grammar-doge-wow/.