on memes

by ataylor1in6

on memes

it’s always meme meme meme with you

 We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Rev. Dawkins


strawberries and cream

a meme, in its purest form, is an idea passed down from generation to offspring; a cultural gene. Religions and superstations obviously fit into this category but, less obviously, so does all of our meta-narratives of progress, of dress and arches. However, it has come to also describe a mode of communication popular on the internet. If one knows where to look internet memes can be found in there thousands. Scratching under the surface of facebook, where some often appear and twitter, where they are slightly more popular, you will find sites like 4chan, reddit and 9gag. These sites represent the culmination of the ‘bottom half’ of the internet that forms the comment sections of most other sites such as YouTube, but constitutes the main body of the aforementioned sites.

Here, users post, often anonymously, whatever they wish into categories or onto the continuous ticker tape stream of the page. These sites contain a huge spectrum of emotions, from tales of suicides, loss and redemption to humour, irony, pastiche and just what someone thought was cool. This being the bottom half of the internet, however, guarantees a healthy serving of homophobia, sexism and racism[1]. In fact, along with the rest of the internet, the current fashion on these sites seems to be highly anti-feminist as if they have got bored with targeting harmless religious believers.

Of course, nothing is true in the network and it is easy to see the immaturity of some of the users and every story must be taken as just that, a story. An internet meme is the distillation of the network, there is only surface with nothing supporting it underneath. This does not mean that the messages they carry are not human, or that they are less important, only that they are illustrate the way our language meme is mutating and, at the moment, like the internet, we’re not sure whether we like it. Sure, we are disgusted at what we see sometimes but we still caress our screen down and chuckle at the ones we find amusing. If we don’t like it we move on.

That’s part of the appeal though, like a game of candy crush, a mobile game, they are so digestible. In fact, some users often point to the game-like nature of reddit and 9gag, noting their similarities- another writing, another time. This is about memes.

A Taxonomy for the un-educated and interested


A meme contains between 2 and 3 parts.

  1. the vessel
  2. the inserted message
  3. (optional) the addition

First is the vessel or unit which carries the message, the vessel itself both relates to and sets the tone for the message. The vessel serves as the first half of the message, before someone has even begun to read, if they know their memes, they have already received and understood what tone and type the rest of the message will be. In this way, the vessel is both medium and message as the medium is also an integral part of the message. Picture it as a transparent envelope, overcoded with its own writing, carrying a letter. Or, perhaps, an overcoded piece of laminate over a piece of writing.

We are swallowing ourselves.

the vessel is the sugar coated capsule that melts so we can swallow the rest.

examples include;

success kid- a young male child clenching his fist, looking down the camera and bring his lips into his mouth- used to describe a ‘win’. preferably an epic one.

confession bear- a sad looking bear, his shoulder and head visible over the log his paws are resting on- used to admit a guilty secret

‘actual advice mallard’- a male mallard duck- used to give advice

‘am I the only one around here’- John Goodman playing Walter Sobchak from the big leboswki, cocking his pistol- always start with the quote ‘am I the only one around here…’ followed by what the author feels alone in doing and is angry about

‘philosoraptor’- a raptor, with his ‘finger’ touching his chin- used to ask philosophical questions/ask paradoxes.

There are hundreds, spend a week on reddit or any other equivalent and you will soon become well versed in the ones popular at the time. As a side note, the last three have the highest potential to reveal bad-thought, immaturity, arrogant illogic and other sour tasting things.

The inserted message is then the part that the individual user adds themselves. In order for it to be successful, however, they have to fit their message into the vessel, incongruence is not accepted…unless it’s intentional. There are clearly two ways of approaching the inserted message, either come up with the message first and find appropriate vessel or, on the other hand, fit a message to a vessel.

Generally, inserted messages are presented as first hand stories, however, there is no way of knowing or validating this, only going along for the ride.

These stories are usually self-deprecating but can be viewed as humorous, an epic win that they feel complleded to share, or they can conform to the nerd/geek stereotype. Another popular form is the rage meme.

Finally, the additional content can come in any form but usually involves a title that introduces or adds more information to the message. For example, let’s say someone posts an awkward seal meme and explains that he caught his mother and father having sex, the meme itself may read ‘came home from school/ walked in on my parents having sex in the kitchen’ but the title above the meme could read ‘I just slammed the door and ran’.


There is, we believe, a poetic quality to internet memes. This may be a controversial statement to some crowds, perhaps they fear the relative value of what they deem ‘poetry’ if lowly internet memes are brought to their level. They have no reason to be afraid, we do not seek to, in anyway, elevate the status or standing of the internet meme. Mainly because raising it up, away from the bottom of the internet, would ruin it. Memes belong at the bottom where they can say whatever they like, enshrining them would defeat the whole object of them. The whole point of them is that they are relatively easy to produce, easily digested and disposable.

The previously mentioned poetic nature is brought about by its limitations and constrictions. Much like a haiku or a sonnet. A haiku is limited by its three lines and syllable count, the sonnet is limited by its line count, it’s syllable count and it’s iambic pentameter.

dum de dum de dum de dum de dum de

these are the chains that make the form to allow the poetry to be free within it.

An internet meme is limited to its form, it is tied to its picture, it’s single sentence brevity and, most importantly, it’s vessel. A meme writer (can we call them poets or will your ears sting?) must fit his/her message into the rhythm of the vessel.

we need the glass and we need the milk

in order to create an effective meme the writer must be aware and respond to the form just as a poet must.

we need the glass and we need the milk

Modern poets have created a tradition of referencing and pastiche, from Eliot stealing verses and languages to construct the wasteland to Carol Ann Duffy paying homage to Wilfred Owen (not to mention the contemporary poets whose main concern is with the production and reproduction of signs). Our current form of capitalism thrives of off pastiche and re-appropriation; it swallows everything to the point that even a counter culture movement can be used to advertise clothing and a touching moment of human history can be used to sell chocolate bars. Capitalism references itself to the point of self reference, to the point of the hypereal.  Memes are the culmination of this aspect of our culture. Even an ‘original’ meme is usually an idea or phrase attached to a picture or photo not created by the writer. Mostly, however, memes rely on pastiche and self referencing to persist, it relies on the memes that came before it to create its message. It simultaneously portrays it’s message as well as draws power from the memes that came before it. Every advice mallard draws its meaning from every advice mallard seen before. All memes are purely imitation, a sign system of self-reference[2]; they swallow themselves.

There is, of course, no original. I could go on 9gag now and see an advice mallard meme from years ago but be none the wiser. Memes, like most new media on the network, does not respond very well to archaic copyright laws or notions of possession. There is no sell by date to a meme, it lasts forever but it also lasts only one use. Its form makes it both permanent and temporal. The internet swallows it and preserves it but it moves down the feed once (if) viewed into the obscure mass of information. This means that they date very quickly and this essay will surely be outdated as soon as we post it.

Could we argue that a site such as this is a collaborative performance? A never-ending improvisation around a topic? Like poetry, memes have a strong penchant for play. Even the angry ones are constructed to at least cause us to laugh at the imagined authors failure or share in their rage. Often they are constructed like a joke, leading our expectation one way before pulling us the other. As well as this, they possess a fascination and exploration of neologism. Words are often misspelled and their mistakes left in place, as if revealing their own artifice, letters are missed and words are combined to create new ones. They consistently play and show an obsession with language, just as a poet would. but that’s none of my business.

Like everything on the network, memes have evolved rapidly and taken steps that took art forms generations to achieve. This is probably due to their playful nature but  memes often subvert their own messages/form. This is visible in anti-memes that, much like anti-jokes, instead of pulling a reader in a different direction just lets their expectations fall flat. However, this subversion is most evident in the evolution of a certain meme which created its own sub section of memes. What started as the ‘socially awkward penguin’, which consisted of a left facing penguin which a blue (typically meme triangle) background and was used to describe socially awkward situations or social failures. The awkward penguin, however, was quickly subverted into the opposing ‘socially awesome penguin’, a right facing, red background-ed penguin used to describe social wins and general social successes.

After this, these memes were subverted once again into a hybrid ‘socially awesome awkward penguin’. The meme community’s inventive improvisation created a half’n’half meme with a socially awesome red right facing top and a left facing blue awkward bottom. The text on the top describes a social win but the text on the bottom flips it on its head, where usually the author misses the opportunity or the scenario is revealed to be different than previously thought.  The hybrid also fits into another meme category where the meme creates a feeling of glass half full logic, or where the outcome is confusing and could count as a win or a fail depending on the perspective. Interestingly, the meme can also, of course, work the opposing way. Which is nice.

Memes are a fascinating part of networked culture, they are poetic and serve as microcosm for the way contemporary language is heading. They represent the current reiteration of what started with text speak (txt spk lol) where technology allowed us to communicate faster and more efficiently than ever. Language is increasingly becoming commoditized and distributed in pre-packaged, cellophane wrapped, chunks. The internet meme is exactly this, a sign system, a language, of compartmentalized easily exchanged messages. However, unlike other illustrations of this new kind of language, memes are not inherently elitist or exclusive. They do not suggest or propagate the hierarchy that managerialism language creates. Anyone can be a creator, a critic, a comedian, a commentator and a poet.

We do not pretend to know whether internet memes are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Such binaries are inappropriate and useless. We are unsure. A meme is an empty glass, it is what fills it that defines its morals. That is as far as we can go.


[1] often in the tone of intellectualism and pseudo-logic made popular by the inventor of the term and procreated by youtuber users such as thunderf00t and theamazingatheist.

[2] isnt all language like that?