Memes: the language of a lost generation

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Nothing in human history has brought people together quite like memes. The internet allows us to share our stories and jokes with the entire planet. For a little over a decade, those jokes have slowly taken on a life of their own. The memes of today almost have their own language and certainly have their own culture attached to them. So let’s dive a little deeper into how internet humour got to where it is today.

In January 2007, a blog titled “I Can Has Cheezburger?” launched, forever altering the destiny of internet humour. Its first post, made on January 11, was a single, simple image. A happy grey cat (now known as happycat), with a caption in the now infamous impact font: “I can has cheezburger?”.

Eric Nakagawa, the superhuman intelligence responsible for this website, set a chain of events in motion that could not be undone. His humble contribution to internet humour established a template, perhaps even put forth a commandment. “We will share funny images of cats with the world,” the website begged of us. “And these cats will have a poor grasp of spelling and grammar.”

How naive we were in those days. We weren’t even calling these images memes yet. A year after “I Can Has Cheezburger?” began, more websites were added to create an entire network. “FailBlog” captured mankind at the precipice of its deepest, most embarrassing failures, for our entertainment. “Picture Is Unrelated” showed us some of the most bizarre and hilarious things our species has decided to do. Before long, there was a meme blog for almost every niche interest, ensuring no one would be left out. I’m sure your elder relatives are still sharing the now-ancient memes from these websites on Facebook.

It’s worth mentioning that these websites did not invent this style of humour; Nakagawa is not a divine creator so much as a prophet. Images of this type were circulating on the online message board 4Chan (and later, Reddit) and Nakagawa simply had the intuition to put them on a platform that was accessible to the general public (4Chan is the unsettling home to the internet’s most heinous trolls; abandon all hope ye who dare to tread into its territory). Nakagawa gave memes to everybody and now we’re all in on the joke. It is impossible to escape them, but they’ve been getting weirder and weirder with every passing year. Older generations still share the innocent fails and lolcats of yesteryear because they’re easy to understand. The memes of today are so complex and layered in irony that I truly believe they deserve their own anthropological study.

What has made memes so scary and complicated? Well, for one thing, they have been adapting and evolving through the years. The various websites of the Cheezburger network are forerunners of what we now recognize as meme “formats;” a specific image and rough template of text establish what the humour of a specific meme is. It’s like having genres of memes, previously delineated by separate websites, but now all together in a huge melting pot.

Secondly, over the last few years, meme humour has become entwined with our generation’s nihilist dread and love of dark comedy. In short, they have embraced chaos. One meme format that was popular a few years ago was simply the face of YouTuber Markiplier and the letter ‘E,’ in what I can only assume is an ironic deconstruction of memes themselves. A recent craze of “deep fried memes” derives its humour from distorting images to the point where they are barely recognizable. Anti-joke memes are also on the rise, often including a character like Family Guy’s Peter Griffin to over-explain the joke of the meme, killing the frog by dissecting it as it were. Memes are even self-reflexive now: the format itself has become part of the joke and new avenues of humour are found by playing with those formats or combining them to create something new. We even make memes about memes.

It is, in no uncertain terms, completely bizarre. It’s also affected other humour on the internet. A lot of YouTube stars have made a name for themselves in embracing a style of comedy that hinges itself on being completely ridiculous. A good example is the McElroy brothers. Their podcast, My Brother My Brother and Me, is built on seeking out the silliest questions posed to sites like Yahoo! Answers, then providing even sillier answers to those questions. In a similar vein, their show Monster Factory for the website Polygon saw them abusing the character creation tools of certain video games to create eldritch nightmares far beyond what the game intended to be possible.

I don’t claim to understand half of the memes that I come across, but I do understand why they have become so popular. We live in scary and ridiculous times. The problems our generation faces are so large in scope that they almost defy belief. It’s hard to make sense of the challenges we have to face and harder still to make sense of how unwilling older generations can be to do anything about it. This generation is struggling with mental health issues on a scale hitherto unheard of and one only needs to scroll through some headlines to see how that might happen. The strange, nihilistic humour that memes channel is a response to that. Millennials have assimilated the world around them and processed it all into a weird, at times dark strain of humour that reflects how we feel. If you find yourself lost trying to understand memes, don’t worry about it too much. In a way, that’s part of the fun.

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