Life in the twenty-first century has become chaotic — hellish, if you will. The planet is quite literally burning and we are reaching the point of no return. We are constantly bombarded with byte-sized chunks of information and the never-ending news cycle seems like its only intensifying.
How many times a day are we supposed to check for Trump’s latest ego-maniacal tweet? Or tune in to the next failed online social movement? It seems as though we are living through an apocalypse and watching it unfold in realtime through social media. It is no wonder that we find comfort in memes that revel in our nonsensical political landscape — they are the only outlet where we can communicate our frustrations and fears, and more importantly, know that others feel the same.
Perhaps meme culture in itself has become a form of religion. Similar to most religious denominations, the objective of meme accounts is to gain followers and to spread their message. These meme pages rely heavily on their loyal followers, who share and like nearly every post, to ‘enlighten’ their friends and family with the truth. In the case of the @uoftmemes page, its posts underpin many truths here at the University of Toronto, whether they be about the immense academic pressure, or the relationships between community members. Unexpectedly, meme culture has fostered hope and a sense of sanctity.
But this seems awfully strange. We have always had other forms of media at our disposal, and yet, humans have never expressed such foreboding nor subversive messages before — not for the past few decades, anyway. This leads me to believe that there must be an underlying reason for the rise of meme culture and its relationship with the way we receive information.
In just a few decades, our society has become far more digitized as information and technology have become more readily available. This has proven to be very useful in community building and information campaigns, however, such a sudden shift in knowledge acquisition inevitably creates chaos.
From religion to new ways of meaning
Throughout most of history, humans have come to understand themselves and the world through ideas that extend beyond the material world. However, modern societal values have since shifted and are now focused on more concrete ideas of identity, stemming from facts and figures, such as salaries and other measurable life goals.
Religion has traditionally provided social order, as it gave people purpose and assigned each person a role that they could fulfill. However, without religion, we begin to question what our purpose in life is, and our role in society. In turn, our social structure begins to falter.
Religion also gives explanation as to why tragedies happen and how we can recover from them, but when we no longer subscribe to these readily-available answers, all we can see is inexplicable suffering and hopelessness.
It may come as no surprise that the Pew Research Center came out with a study in 2018 confirming that adults under 40, especially in North America, are less likely to identify with a religion, affiliate themselves with a religious institution, or say that religion is important in their everyday lives.
While religious devotion has seemingly declined, students and young people have turned to other forms of social organization for culture and comfort. Consequently, young people are responsible for the growth of meme culture.
Memes at U of T
Even in our own community at U of T, we can see the traces of religious expression in our meme culture, and how it has been integrated into this new form. These memes seem to draw upon religious figures and embody religious meanings.
For instance, a post on the @uoftmemes page from March 29, 2019 reenacts a scene from The Simpsons, labelling the group of students as representatives of each college as they surround Bart, who has been labelled as former Varsity Editor-in-Chief Jack Denton. All the students are chanting, “Say the line Jack!” and once he complies, they rejoice as if celebrating a god-like act.
In another post, Jesus Christ himself is radiating a beam of light which is touching a woman who is bent down on her knees. There is text on Jesus that labels him as the “food truck lady,” the light as “Anything to drink for you,” and the woman as a dehydrated student.
While these images are intended to be jokes, they reinforce the notion of our community as sacred and whole, with each member embodying their role in this microcosm of organized religion. This is also evident in another post, which depicts orientation leaders as nuns.
Many find that memes have a reassuring presence in their lives, and as such, the rise of meme culture at U of T has not only brought positivity and community-building humour to our campus, but has also helped us reconcile ourselves to the hardships of university, and struggles in our own lives.
This is related to the fact that memes have provided a simplified, more digestible alternative to otherwise overwhelming information. Memes have also become more inclusive, and expanded beyond smaller inside jokes. Rather, the student community controls this narrative.
Meme groups allow us to not only communicate ideas of community, but to share feelings and concerns that might otherwise be lost within the sometimes-alienating experience of university life. Memes have undeniably become a staple of our culture here at the University of Toronto and have proven to be immensely beneficial for those involved.