Memes have become an inextricable part of online culture. yet, they have not received the analysis deserved as the fastest-growing form of art.
Although technology has mostly helped to consolidate power to already-powerful actors (think privileged, white, male from the Global North much like whoever came up with this idea), it also holds the potential for creating utopian-like spaces. Social media pages, such as Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter obviously have their issues (political polarisation, negative impacts on self-esteem, misogynistic harassment, to name a few) but also offer safe spaces for people to explore their identities and share their thoughts with online communities. These spaces can, for example, provide young LGBTQ+ with the badly needed support, encouragement, and information they may not otherwise be able to access.
Memes are the chosen art form of these spaces, and like no other art form before them, memes are a truly democratic, even an anti-capitalist way of producing art.
Memes are the chosen art form of these spaces, and like no other art form before them, memes are a truly democratic, even an anti-capitalist way of producing art. Memes arise from the need for self-expression. The only materials memes require are access to the internet, some basic knowledge of technology and an idea. Memes can be posted anywhere, from a company’s Facebook advert to a single-topic focused Instagram meme page. They can be anything from absurd to history-inspired, to being warped from their original meaning into something completely opposite. This is exactly what happened with the viral Tweet-turned-meme “This is the future that liberals want.” The original Tweet, which included a photo of a drag queen sitting next to a woman wearing a niqab on the subway, was meant as an insult to “liberals” but was quickly re-claimed and re-purposed as a joke instead.
When I say memes are truly a democratic form of art, the case of “this is the future that liberals want” is exactly what I mean. The original intended meaning of the tweet was to frame the photo as some kind of a dystopian vision, ridiculing the “liberals” who wanted such a threatening future. Instead of responding with anger or offence, social media turned the phrase into a meme that featured different images and meanings, ranging from funny to absurd. The popularity of the image was directly indicated by how people responded to it – in this case, by making fun of it. The original idea, that there was something wrong with a drag queen sitting next to a Muslim woman, was deemed ridiculous. Memes turned this attempted insult into a joke through popular action, with social media users liking, commenting, sharing and creating their own versions of the meme, with the success of the insult/joke depending on their popular support.
Memes turned this attempted insult into a joke through popular action, with social media users liking, commenting, sharing and creating their own versions of the meme, with the success of the insult/joke depending on their popular support.
Memes are also increasingly used in marketing. For companies wanting to come across as humane and trustworthy, memes offer a way of communicating with the youth in a fun, hip way. The way in which memes are spread, however, means that no-one has total control over their meme once it starts spreading. This is evident in the Turning Point USA memes, which have gained popularity due to their easiness of being photoshopped. Turning Point USA is a right-wing, conservative organisation, that has been widely ridiculed on social media. “Fake” versions of their memes, in which the original, right-wing message has been changed to ridicule Turning Point USA, have become widespread. This goes to show that memes cannot be controlled by their makers, be they companies or organisations.
Memes can also be used to spread information. As football clubs are trying to make the news of their player signings go viral online, some clubs have taken a different approach. The football club AS Roma began to share their player signings in a picture format, combining the photo of the signed player with a poster of a missing child. Using the club’s fame to share information about less well-known missing children, in an easily accessible form, has already resulted in several children being found. Although the format AS Roma uses for their player signing announcements is not strictly speaking a meme, it helps showcase just some of the possibilities of memes, as they get circulated quickly and widely. It is precisely in situations like missing children, when relatively simple information needs to be conveyed as far and quickly as possible, that memes present themselves as a viable solution.
In the summer of 2020, memes calling for arrests of the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor were widely circulated on different social medias. Although the “memeification” of Taylor’s death led to unprecedented public pressure to arrest her killers, it also helps highlight the inadvertent downside of memes. Just as “this is the future liberals want” meme was co-opted and re-purposed, memes calling for “arresting the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” became increasingly tone-deaf and even commercialized. Using topless selfies and t-shirts to “raise awareness” about Taylor’s death became less about the death of a real, existing person and more of a way to highlight one’s “Wokeness”. This way of engaging with an issue, known as “slacktivism,” has become more widespread on social media in general.
…memes offer an exciting new way of doing and consuming art. If we want to create a more egalitarian future, our art needs to be egalitarian as well.
The case of Breonna Taylor raises the question of what memes are good for. Although they can be used to circulate information, opinions and shared experiences in a quick and approachable way, they are no match for actual mobilisation, whether that means protests, fundraising, or voting. Memes are a form of art that can be used productively in specific situations, for example to generate awareness about unknown issues and to create a sense of community. Memes are, however, not separate from the rest of the (online) world. Memes are still used to re-enforce sexism and misogyny, and can even legitimise harassment as “humour.”
Despite these issues, however, memes offer an exciting new way of doing and consuming art. If we want to create a more egalitarian future, our art needs to be egalitarian as well. Memes offer this outlet, by allowing everyone to participate in the creation, consumption and critique of art.
Art by Darcey Joyce
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