Updated: Jun 10, 2020
Written by Stella Rozenbroek
Decades from now, historians may struggle to capture the zeitgeist of the current decade. Memes will be their answer. Memes are a modern mode of transporting ideas, jokes and meaning across online users, and have become increasingly important in the digital age. Memes are a complex thing - never before has such a symbol for entertainment, enlightenment, and generational solidarity emerged from any cultural shift. A mainstay of the internet age, the history of one’s favourite meme can seem inconsequential, but not to legendary scholar Limor Shifman, who created a “six-pack” of meme criteria, a definitive guide to understanding why the memes we like become the memes we love.
Ethologist Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ in 1976, and compared the concept to whistling a catchy tune: one hears the tune, whistles it elsewhere, and passes it on to another recipient. The tune gets ‘stuck’ in somebody’s head. A meme possibly worth analysing is the neanderthaloid variation of cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants. This loincloth-clad sponge, known as ‘SpongeGar’ became a meme in 2015, and displays feelings of sudden distress and confusion. In the case of SpongeGar, this image was seen, replicated, and injected into different contexts whilst its symbolism remained the same, therefore deeming SpongeGar a meme in the most primitive sense of the word.
Limor Shifman’s ‘six-pack’ of factors go some way to outline this slippery concept. The first element, Positivity, relates to the example of SpongeGar because he represents the everyday human who has been caught off-guard in a moment of confusion. Memes are popular, in part, because they make us laugh about experiences in life that are painful to think about. When we realise that humiliating encounters don’t only happen to just us, we feel a sense of positivity and are thus inclined to share SpongeGar’s bewildered expressions with our friends. The sharing of memes prompts a sense of solidarity and contemporary camaraderie. We are also probed to consider the meme in the context of our own lives, encouraging the replication of memes into other embarrassing predicaments. SpongeGar mirrors one of the basest human reactions: we almost automatically apply his disorientation to our own experiences. This, Shifman goes on to assert, makes the content ‘Memetic’ as it “generate[s] user-created derivatives”, in other words people replicate the meme to fit their own experience, and these are then passed around online, often going viral.
As reluctant as one might be to admit it, memes are a reflection of what makes our time on earth memorable. A quick Google search of SpongeGar and the variations seem to be endless. Awkward sexual encounters and the ongoing War on Terror take the cake for being the most successfully circulated variations, which is no wonder when looking at millennial culture. Millennials, the custodians of online meme circulation, are supposedly undergoing a sexual revolution, deeming the proliferation of sexual memes an important reflection of the adolescent sensibility. Similarly, the War on Terror reflects the turbulent political climate of the digital age. According to Shifman, the appropriation of these themes in the context of SpongeGar is structured around the elements of content, form, and stance. The actual content presents a sentimental figure of a typical millennial’s childhood, which is formally injected into a series of juxtaposing situations (a terror attack; a sexually charged encounter). SpongeGar memes directly address the viewer and supposedly mimic their reaction, should they find themselves in a similar situation. The meme reflects the humour with which society desires to view awkward situations, as well as their tendency to fill the void of positivity in the world’s issues.
SpongeGar and his variations, as trivial (and offensive) they may appear, are just scratching the surface of the expansive online landscape of memes. The internet is forever churning out new tunes to whistle, and tuning into them is what many of us call leisure. Scrolling through our phones late at night represents a strange ritual which many of us are ashamed of. Finding, sharing, creating and discussing memes is a discussion of digital culture at large, and a cultivation of generational kinship which has been unprecedented by those who came before us.