“Don’t talk to me or my son ever again!” I once yelled, in response to a particularly egregious pun. I wanted to convey that I appreciated the joke, but that I had also noticed the dreadful nature of the pun. I decided, therefore, that exaggerated outrage was the best way of communicating this specific sentiment.
By referencing a meme, I successfully conveyed the mixture of hilarity and disdain that I felt — a feeling that not even the phrase “I feel a mixture of hilarity and disdain” could have achieved.
Communication is, at its core, an exchange of information. It is a transmission of a message to someone else, the goal being to reach as close to a complete and total understanding as possible.
Since words have a myriad of connotations, and people associate different thoughts, feelings, and experiences to them, we will never be able to reach an identical understanding. Memes are a mechanism that can bring us closer to that ideal understanding, better than words ever can.
Memes represent communicative progress — their meaning is emotive and comes from the collective consciousness of popular culture.
Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, coined the term ‘meme’ in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins described the phenomenon of meme retention as a process similar to the ways in which organisms evolve.
With this interpretation in mind, memes represent communicative progress — their meaning is emotive and comes from the collective consciousness of popular culture. The result is relatability: a compelling form of understanding stemming from the evocation of a shared interest.
Memes are also a symbol of progress in a temporal sense. They lend themselves wonderfully to the technologies of modern communication; they can be sent as an attachment or hyperlink in a text-based conversation.
The rise of social media platforms such as Tumblr, reddit, and Facebook contributed to the spread of memes and created the environment in which they are interpreted. Some of the most popular and successful memes use irony, which relies heavily on the knowledge of their context.
One argument against memes as a legitimate form of communication emphasizes that memes often include non-standard spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This argument challenges conventional standards of communication in general; I could argue that the question “Why did you do that?” is correct and that the question “y u do dat????” is not.
If the goal behind communication is to send a comprehensible message though, and both forms of the question achieve this, then the objection applies merely to the construction of the question. Regardless of how someone may feel about the rules of grammar, the essence of the meaning remains. Thus, communication can be considered successful so long as the recipient understands what is being said.
This contempt for popular culture derives from its accessibility and is driven by a classist moral superiority complex.
In fact, “y u do dat????” may even be closer to the intended meaning. The excessive use of question marks at the end could demonstrate an increase in incredulity or a level of surprise that the ‘correct’ version of the question may not evoke. The non-standard spelling may be a nod to irony, or it may show that the question was formulated under time or space constraints.
On the Internet, we observe a rise in non-standard spelling, whether in reference to popular culture or not. Errors resulting from typing at a high speed, as well as conscious choices in some cases, contribute to this trend.
Additionally, some Internet users are typing to mimic vocal speech patterns. These variations on standard spelling include the inconsistent use of capital letters or an inversion of accepted uppercase and lowercase forms.
For instance, beginning with a lowercase letter and proceeding with capitals indicates that the speaker’s voice is rising in loudness — a contextual addition that could not be attained within the restrictions of proper grammar.
The reliance of memes on popular culture is also used to dismiss them as a lesser form of communication. This contempt for popular culture derives from its accessibility and is driven by a classist moral superiority complex.
It may be ‘edgy’ to decry what others find enjoyable, but it represents a fundamental disrespect for entertainment to apply criticism simply because something is widely available. This thinking is similar to the assumption that, because you don’t need to be formally educated to enjoy things like reality television, such entertainment should be reserved only for those without formal education.
Likewise, the same is true of non-standard spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Many arguments have been made with people who adhere steadfastly to the rules of grammar, who will go out of their way to correct other people’s grammar, in order to assert intellectual and moral superiority. I, too, have been guilty of this at many points in my life; I would weaponize my command of the English language, as though it made the substance of my argument better.
Eschewing memes for their grammatical non-conformity and relationship to popular culture is illogical and classist. Conventions of grammar and other areas of language are constantly evolving to suit modern communicative needs. Memes are simply an expression of that change.
Memes challenge base standards for communication and introduce new ways of relating to others on a fundamental level every day. They ought to be acknowledged as a growing communication movement and not dismissed for their perceived vacuousness. They should be shared and rightfully enjoyed as vehicles for bonding.
In the same manner that a picture is worth a thousand words, a .gif is worth a thousand pictures — and a meme is worth a thousand .gifs.
Iris Robin is a Trinity College alumna who studied English Literature and French. They were The Varsity’s 2015–2016 News Editor.