For those of us born into the digital age, we have developed unique characteristics that allow us to communicate on the internet. Many of us knew how to use a computer by age six or seven, and it wasn’t long before we started using our tech-savvy ways to surf the “World Wide Web.” The internet allowed us to form connections with people from all over the world who shared our interests.
Once social media platforms began to take off, the importance of visual communication became evident. Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook all relied on images to form a cohesive interface that captured people’s attention and their desire to share. At first, these platforms might have mainly been used to share family pictures and important events, but it wasn’t long before meme culture began to take root.
Humour is an essential part of the human experience. It is no surprise that our need to engage with the whimsical took form in the virtual world. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, memes are “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” The idea of memes came long before the internet did, but the reinvention of the word came from the phenomenon of quickly spreading images online.
At first, memes followed simple structures or formats: comic grids or repeating templates with different captions. 9gag is one such app that pioneered many of these trends when it still felt like the banter was somewhat formulaic and predictable. However, as time passed, the internet evolved, and so did its memes. Nowadays, there are entire accounts on different platforms that are dedicated to any one subgenre of memes ranging from surrealism and intellectualism to political mockery.
As a self-appointed “meme curator,” I recently carried out a mini-investigation — which is really just an excuse for my doom-scrolling — to explore some of the jewels that “memery” has to offer these days.
The abundance of surreal humour in memes caught my attention during my search. It seems like these days, the lack of context for a photo, drawing, or video is a genre in and of itself. I have to admit that I am partial to this trend. There is something about seeing a biblically accurate angel in my feed that brings joy to my day.
What does it say about our generation that we find so much beauty in the absurd? I would argue that it speaks to our ability for abstraction. It’s that or we truly lost it during the pandemic years.
If you’re looking to dip your toes in the world of surreal memes, I would highly recommend you follow @thesurrealbank on Instagram.
Another subgenre I encountered that I greatly enjoy and am curious about is intellectual and philosophically-themed memes. These images allude to deeply reflective or profound concepts, such as nihilism or existentialism. One of my favourite meme formats in this genre is when someone pairs an image of the Greek mythology figure Sysiphus rolling the boulder up the mountain with a caption describing a minor struggle of modern life. The juxtaposition of a seemingly serious idea with silly text is outrageously entertaining and is very much needed when the world seems like a lot to take in. Perhaps this illustrates our need to mock the things that feel too severe. If you’re looking to scratch a similar itch, I would recommend you also check out @freud.intensifies on Instagram.
Ultimately, memes showcase a variety of different sociological trends that speak to the way we communicate nowadays. They are symbolic structures that have been around long enough to depict complex ideas. Although memes are mostly meant to be taken as a distraction from real life, they are important tools to connect with different communities worldwide. Moreover, they are a way of analyzing and processing information in a way that is more accessible.
In a time when it’s easy to feel isolated, it stands to reason that people would turn to humour to feel a sense of kinship with others. When you laugh out loud at something you see through a screen, it means that someone somewhere managed to express a sentiment you could relate to. So, the next time you look at a meme, I urge you to think about what it means to be able to share small snippets of amusement with people from all over the world.
Future historians may one day sit at a table analyzing the significance of Shrek imagery in our society, and they may never know.