It’s way more complex than it initially looks.
If you’ve spent any time on the Internet, there is an overwhelming and significantly large chance that you’ve been exposed to a meme. Now, a meme doesn't have to be a cat picture or Bernie asking for your financial support, nor does it have to be Goku with drip or chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura facing off against an opponent who sacrificed his king.
No — not at all. A meme goes back much further than that. The term “meme” was actually coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene in 1976 -almost 35 years ago.
A meme is described in Dawkins’ context as:
“…a unit of culture that is hosted in the minds of one of more individuals, that can reproduce itself by jumping from individual to individual.”
This all actually falls under a field known as memetics, otherwise known as the study of information and culture, especially with a focus on how they evolve and transfer between individuals. Think of it like this: any time you’ve seen a conventional meme on Facebook, a retweet on Twitter, a piece of digital art, someone’s Medium article (thanks for reading), or hear an analogy in conversation, all of those are memes. Memes have the ability to transfer between individuals, evolve within their hosts’ consciousness, and make themselves prevalent in society. Sound familiar? It’s like microbiology! And just like microbiology, there are pathogens that are harmful to humans (e.g. disinformation/hate), and beneficial organisms like gut bacteria that are symbiotic with humans (e.g. wholesome Bob Ross videos).
To further the microbiology comparison with memes, research has actually shown that people can be inoculated against misinformation (otherwise termed by this author as “adverse memes”) by pre-emptively exposing people to a weakened persuasive argument, to build resistance against future manipulation. What do some types of vaccines do? They expose the host to a weakened version of a virus in order to stimulate the immune system against the real thing. Information has a very similar effect — what we consume, what we imbibe, it forms the basis for our thinking (or lack thereof).
Think of how much distorted “truth” can be spread through memes, as well as actual truth — it’s a double-edged sword. According to an article by Forbes, Facebook spreads misinformation faster than any other social search engine, worse than Twitter or Google. Wouldn't that be a good testing ground for the research above?
So, in summary: a meme is a piece of information that can be transferred and transformed, accepted, or guarded-against — so what?
Memes are the basis of our society — they are our fashion, they are our cars. They are our opinions, and they are our expressions. They are our politics, our dogmas, our stigmas, our values, our beliefs, and our hopes. People are being exposed to these on a scale not seen before the Internet, and many are especially savvy at monetizing memes. Digital artists draw commissions and design websites, personalities make YouTube videos and TikToks, people sell classes online, news gets published and consumed, and stock investors bet on GameStop (🦍💎 🙌). Anything can be a meme — so what?
Our information ecosystem evolves at warp-speed in league with capital. People are able to witness, think, and feel things they never have before — and it is both a blessing and a curse. Small-scale expectations are becoming less and less as maximalism of all sorts sets in; a neverending search for the next “big thing”.
The phrase “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” applies well to memes, the developing digital ecosystem of the Internet, and especially decentralized Web3 — not all things will become the next “big thing” for a vast majority of people on the planet, and here’s the cool thing: they don't have to be!
Sure, Fortnite skins might not mean a lot to people that don't play Fortnite, but to those within that community, they mean something. Same principle with digital art and property collectors (one example of applied NFTs — Cryptovoxels is cool), and heavy industrial metal fans of a band called Rammstein (shameless plug).
Now, with the Internet and Web3, all these things are coming within reach with how information is spread today and will be tomorrow — people can scratch their figurative itch just -that- much easier. In the digital world to come, there will be much less “garbage”, precisely because everyone can find access to their specific something. Creators will be creating niche and specific content for their 1000 superfans, versus trying to appeal to 1 million music streamers for a $3,000 check lorded over by large centralized companies.
Memes will cut deeper into the soul than ever before.
With the realization of higher Internet access (only 64% of the world population has an Internet connection) and decentralized technologies taking a foothold in our daily lives, we eventually will no longer have to settle with what leaves us with a lukewarm “meh”, or “cool story bruh”. Generalization does not favor the entire population. You ever have a song on your Spotify that you don't mind being there, you don't play it often, but you can't bear to take it off your list? In the future, that probably won't be as likely the case, because if you want something specific, no matter how esoteric, more than likely, you will be able to get it. You will be able to find your perfect meme.
(Rammstein, pls release more music videos, I will buy your NFTs)
With that, I will leave you with a quote from Getting Over It, a frustrating video game that has a monologue on culture and creation as you ascend a nigh-untraversable mountain of random objects. I find this points out an interesting digital culture problem that hopefully, Web3 will be able to solve.
“When you’re building a video game world, you’re building with ideas, and that can be like working with quick-set cement. You mold your ideas into a certain shape that can be played with, and in the process of playing with them they begin to harden and set until they’re immutable like rock, and at that point you can’t change the world- not without breaking it into pieces and starting fresh with new ideas.
For years now, people have been predicting that games would soon be made out of pre-fabricated objects; bought in a store and assembled into a world, and for the most part that hasn’t happened, because the objects in the stores are trash. I don’t mean that they look bad, or that they’re badly made- although a lot of them are- I mean they’re trash in the way that food becomes trash as soon as you put it in the sink. Things are made to be consumed and used in a certain context, and once the moment is gone they transform into garbage. In the context of technology, those moments pass by in seconds.
Over time, we’ve poured more and more refuse into this vast digital landfill that we call the internet. It now vastly outnumbers and outweighs the things that are fresh, and untainted, and unused. When everything around us is cultural trash, trash becomes the new medium- the lingua franca of the digital age- and you can build culture out of trash, but only trash culture: b-games, b-movies, b-music, b-philosophy. Maybe this is what digital culture is. A monstrous mountain of trash, the ash-heap of creativity’s fountain. A landfill with everything we ever thought of in it. Grand, infinite, and unsorted.
There’s 3D models of breakfast. Gen Xer’s fanfic novels. Scanned magazines, green-screen Shia Laboeuf, banned snuff scenes on Liveleak. Facebook’s got lifelike bots with unbranded adverts and candid shots of Kanye and Taylor Swift mashups- car crash epic fail .gifs, Russian dashcam vids, discussions of McRibs! Discarded, forgotten, unrecycled. Muddled, rotten, untitled.
Everything’s fresh for about six seconds- until some newer thing beckons- and we hit refresh, and there’s years of perservering disappearing into the pile; out of style, out of sight. In this context, it’s tempting to make friendly content that’s gentle- that lets you churn through it but not earn it. Why make something demanding if it just gets piled up in the landfill, filed in with the bland things?