Memes have been at the very epicentre of millennial social media scrolling for the last few years. If you are unfamiliar with a ‘meme’, then this article is a good place to start (and maybe finish).
In Richard Dawkins’ 1976 best-seller, “The Selfish Gene”, he coined the term ‘meme’ – that is, an idea, style or behaviour that spreads from one person to another, non-genetically, within a culture. Since this, Dawkins’ definition has been hijacked by the millennial generation, whereby it now refers to an image accompanied by some text, which has comedic and often sarcastic intentions, sent around social media or the internet.
This modern descriptive usurping of the term ‘meme’ does, however, show some pattern. During a show with Saatchi and Saatchi, Dawkins worked with installation artists Marshmallow Laser Feast to produce a theatrical performance with the goal of creating a meme. In his short speech, he quotes: “Memes spread through human culture, as genes spread through the gene pool.”
The similarities between the original, Dawkinsian definition of a meme (being a non-genetic trait as a result of imitation) and the modern meaning of a viral internet image are closer than one may first think. Essentially, in both instances, memes are replications of ideas within a culture, disseminated from person to person (or, now, app to app, site to site, etc.).
Having witnessed meme culture for a number of years, merely dipping my toe into what I had all but decided was a weightless, fairly unfunny concept, I decided to explore them in slightly further detail, so to ascertain any potential societal value to the modern meme.
In doing this, I stumbled across dankmemes4homecountiesteens, an Instagram account with over 26,000 followers, that posts regular memes about teenage struggles and personality genres. Run by a 19 year-old girl from London (who will remain under her Instagram alias), the account has rapidly shot to popularity, so I got in touch to find out why:
What is dankmemes4homecountiesteens?
“It’s basically just where I vomit up my average middle class brain contents in fun colourful word art form.”
Why did you make the account?
“This sounds deeper than it is but I was getting frustrated at not having anywhere to articulate the random thoughts that fly through my head, so I thought, well, what’s the most basic and lazy format I can use? And then the whole meme thing happened.”
Why do you think it has gathered such a large following in such a short period of time?
“I have no clue, maybe because of the sheer volume of stuff on there? I was using it as an exam procrastination technique and it was good because the (hollow) validation you get from social media is way more instantaneous than waiting like a month and a half for these exams to be marked, obviously, so I was making loads and people liked it and wanted to see more, I guess.”
Are your memes autobiographical?
“Some of them 100% are, like the really basic words and pictures ones that I make in like 30 seconds based on something that’s just happened to me. Then some of them take ages, but they’re designed to visually articulate my thoughts in an aesthetically pleasing way (god that sounds so pretentious but it honestly calms me down) so also autobiographical, then some of them are designed more specifically to call problematic people out on the shit that they do (myself 200% included). So yeah, with the exception of the very few that I make out of anger and bitterness towards certain people (which stand out pretty blatantly and I mostly regret), they are autobiographical.”
I’ve spotted a number of other accounts similar to yours. is there a meme page culture/community?
“Yeah there are millions now, definitely a culture, like my average follower probably follows 20 other accounts. There’s a culture, but I’m not so sure that it’s headed in a good direction.”
Is it a comedy account or is there a more serious, societal dissection going on here?
“Definitely not a societal dissection because, like i said, I just base it off my own thoughts and I’m literally a million miles from being educated or calm enough to form balanced opinions about society, but, i call myself out on the stuff I don’t like in how I act in certain situations that other people may also find themselves in, so I guess in that way it might be kind of serious. I don’t know, I’m not on the interview skill level where I can answer this question and make any sense.”
Despite her denial, I believe that some of these memes offer a very real dissection of modern society and the types of people within it. It is clear that what makes these accounts so popular is how relatable the content is – followers can identify with the diluted ideas portrayed in these images, as they jovially depict a type of person in society.
Although they are obviously heavily simplified and contain sweeping generalisations, the memes rely on these qualities, and I believe that it is what makes them so popular and important to the young generation. You can log onto Instagram, scroll down and within 10 seconds, can digest one of these memes that describes an entire section of society through calling out its most defining features.
So, although Richard Dawkins probably can’t relate to some of the memes above, a lot of the younger generation can. These memes are funny, because we see the people they describe in daily life – sometimes we are the people being described.
They are light-hearted, easy-to-digest pieces of content, offering reassurance for some, and humour for others. Relatability is the key to success for viral internet content, and meme culture is the leading driver of this model.
When asked “Do you see many internet memes?”, Dawkins replied: “I suppose I do. It’s viral. I get infected by viruses as much as anybody else, so yes I pick them up from time to time.”
I can’t help but admit that there seems to be a science (albeit a shallow one) behind meme culture today.
words and interview by Will McCartney