At the risk of sounding like every member of a previous generation; I liked memes better the way they used to be.
Probably some of you will be wondering what on earth I’m talking about and that’s fine. Memes as we think of them today pretty much come in a singular format:
A simple Google Image Search for “Meme” ends up looking like a search for “Advice Animals”.
We might call this the “shit sandwich” approach to memes. Except the bread isn’t so great either. But this format hasn’t always been dominant.
I should make a brief distinction here that the word “meme” is not actually defined as what I’m talking about. A “Meme” is a single unit of culture. I am referring to “internet memes” like the above, which I think, arguably, is how the term is used more commonly in colloquial settings.
Certainly there are exceptions and there remains some variety. But largely speaking, creating “memes” has become a rather formulaic process. “New” memes generally just change the “character” at the centre of the image.
Memetic transference describes the way in which elements of culture flow from one person or group, to another. At each juncture there is the possibility for “evolution”, of sorts, where the meme will shift and change and grow.
For at least a decade, online memes had a wide capacity for variation. An idea would appear, like a request to humorously Photoshop a postal leaflet:
Which would lead to initial variation.
Whilst variations of this image might be popularised, something else would happen too. The very shape of the meme itself would warp and shift. People would re-purpose the essence of one variation rather than just the original meme itself. A jump would be made from the original format to something entirely new.
This opens the door to “new” memes , almost independent of their past, that have the potential to split again into something new at each point of creation. Indeed these spread, diverging further and further from the original idea.
Arguably of course, we do still see this with modern memes. But I think it can be argued that the capacity for creativity is somewhat limited by the text-image-text formula used to create them. Certainly it’s more difficult to draw a line between the hamburger dog and the postal document above than between “Scumbag Stacy” and “Scumbag Steve”.
Sites like imgflip, quickmeme and Meme Maker all feed into this process by making simple memes easy to recreate exactly with little room for even minor variance. Even text position and font can often not be varied, precluding such variations as seen above.
Often times older memes (and modern ones too, depending on your perspective) aren’t even that funny. In my personal opinion, part of the humour of older memes lies in their absurdity or lack of clear goal or punch line. They become like “The Aristocrats”: internet in-jokes that seem absurd and un-interpretable for outsiders. Encountering any image in isolation after the second image in the progression below is deeply confusing (the Team Fortress Spy character, pictured top left, often says “Gentlemen“)…
Moot (Christopher Poole), founder of the site 4chan, has commented on in-jokes before, partly suggesting that in-jokes serve as a way for the community, particularly anonymous users, to identify one another and exclude outsiders. Older memes serve exactly that purpose by retaining a theme rather than formula and allowing users to feel a sense of recognition in being able to identifying them.
Perhaps this is the reason the more formulaic memes have been able to move to sites like Facebook whilst the more classic memes have not: formula offers anyone the opportunity to take part and makes identification easier whereas the apparent randomness of older memes can seem exclusive. Newer memes may invite more participation at the cost of creativity whilst older memes may have less participation but higher variance in output. Ultimately, maybe it is simply the exclusivity afforded by the ability ” get the joke” that drives my preference for this older approach to meme generation.