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Is This… An Insight? The Power Of Memes Through The Eyes Of A Future Historian

Rachel Elphick

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is perhaps not an analogy we’d initially think to use when describing our 21st century meme culture.

Such a literary turn of phrase should be reserved solely for deciphering meaning behind political cartoons published in early Victorian newspapers, or tenuous unpicking of government propaganda from the Second World War, or earlier. Surely?

The rise of the internet has heralded the rise of the meme, which, arguably, scuppers any chance of our elders considering memes to be cut from the same cloth as the cartoons studied in history class.

“The internet is the domain of the youths”, they cry, along with the rest of your new-fangled technologies and general, inexplicable leaning towards socialism.

Communicating online just through pictures? How lazy of you. The beauty of language is there for a reason. If you carry on like this, you’ll all forget how to read. And then, youths, then where will you be?

The irony, I hope, is glaring. Gleaning meaning from pictures is not a new concept, internet life has merely streamlined it.

Understanding a meme can feel a bit like taking a six-second art history class; except we, as the youths, have enough social context installed in our internet-surfer brains to understand almost instantaneously a joke which might one day take an entire lesson to explain.

Or indeed, a couple hundred words, as I intend to illustrate this point with an example.

My boyfriend sent me this when I put out a call for memes on our group chat, in preparation for writing this article.

To put this one meme into context, though, a futuristic history class would firstly have to be aware of the events of the 2020 US presidential elections, and the role that single individuals sharing memes on social media played in spreading Trump and Biden’s political messaging.

They would also have to understand the running ‘Trump is constantly orange because of his god-awful fake tan’ joke that has been lurking on the internet for far longer.

On top of this, they would also have to discuss the popularity of the online multiplayer game ‘Among Us’ during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They would have to specify that this is where the shape of the little space-creature comes from, and that this is also the origin of the ‘[X] is sus’ phrase (‘sus’ as an abbreviation for ‘suspect, or ‘suspicious’), as players of public games of Among Us would attempt to discuss the identity of the impostor over only text chat.

Memes are hardly erasing language; they are becoming their own, one that spans across continents in a way spoken or written languages are yet to achieve

Then, hypotheses could be drawn over the real-life events that caused these two separate internet entities to collide and birth a meme.

While a case could be made for how they both link to the American experience of the pandemic, the most likely culprit would have to be New York senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and her public streaming of Among Us to raise awareness for voting in the US 2020 elections.

The fact remains, however, that the majority of us alive today, myself included, would have made sense of all these points in a heartbeat, smiled a little on the inside, and continued our daily doom-scrolling.

While not every meme has quite such a comprehensive backstory (see below), memes are hardly erasing language; they are becoming their own, one that spans across continents in a way spoken or written languages are yet to achieve.

From a historical perspective, newspaper cartoons and propaganda were often seen as indicators of the public mood, or, indeed, of a particular government’s agenda.

They help to give us insight into the lives of those who have come before us, but they are also only a reflection, created by the cartoonists for publication, to emphasise or criticise.

There is a level of cultivation, of finessing for media purposes, that makes it nearly impossible for historians to declare: “this, this is exactly how people were feeling”.

This is literally our internet; there are no reflections here of the public mood, we take to our memes to mock politicians, share funny anecdotes and comment on world affairs first-hand

When we look at our own meme-making in that light, it must look like every day is Christmas for historians to come.

Here, splattered across the infinite vastness of the Internet, lie the opinions and everyday amusements of hundreds upon thousands of ordinary human beings, coded in Kermit the Frog, Pikachu, stock images, snippets of TV shows, and communism.

This is literally our internet; there are no reflections here of the public mood, we take to our memes to mock politicians, share funny anecdotes and comment on world affairs first-hand.

However, this is also the Internet, and one does not simply walk into these vast caverns of culture unchallenged.

Trends rise and fall weekly, sometimes daily, delving ever further into sometimes incomprehensible absurdity, as more and more of the internet youths come to fear that the world outside the screens is heading down the same dark path.

To become an expert on meme culture for even a short segment of our internet history would not be a task for the faint-hearted future historian. And, yet, these seemingly illogical creations also seem to be the clearest, widest window into our simple human souls.

Because, unlike the seemingly inaccessible worlds of newspaper cartoonists and government propagandists, everyone who is anyone can make a meme about a grumpy cat, and laugh about it.

Rachel Elphick

First in-article image courtesy of SouthernCard via Twitter. No changes made to this image. 

Second in-article image courtesy of  author made via Mematic. Original image is not their own.

Featured image courtesy of Arran Bee via Flickr. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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