Here’s your primer on a newly integral part of pop culture
By Afrika Lethabo Bogatsu
The word ‘meme’, pronounced like ‘dream’ (if you continue to mispronounce it after reading this, there's no hope for you), was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as an attempt to explain the way cultural information spreads. In 2017, the word is used to refer to content that is shared by masses on the internet. Memes can come in many different forms, of course: if something is shared amongst a large group of people and spreads like wildfire, inspiring more people to share it and even alter it with additional meaning, then it’s safe to say that that thing is a meme.
We use them to communicate as they say all the things we wish we could say but don't have the vocabulary, time or energy for. They’re also a brilliant storytelling tool: if you’ve got a juicy story to thread on Twitter, memes will add the perfect amount of sugar and spice to your tea. One could even say that memes are an art form. Classic art has inspired existential memes in the same way that memes have inspired artists like Alim Smith (aka Yesterdaynite) to skillfully-painted Afro-surrealist oil paintings.
Beyond expression and communication they also help us define, explain and perhaps even understand the world we live in.
But let’s start at the beginning.
That doesn’t meme what you think it memes
Anything can become a meme, for example…
Phrases: “Oh no baby! What is you doing???”
Songs: Remember Psy’s 'Gangnam Style' way back in 2012?
Symbols: The smiley emoji to sarcastically describe pretending everything's okay, when it’s clearly not
Fictional characters: The widely misused Pepe the Frog, or SpongeBob
Videos: "Damn, Daniel"
Starter packs: Two of the most popular being “Can I speak to the manager” starter pack or the very apt “Braam lord” starter pack.
Animals: Smol doggos and angry cats are meme champions because they’re both entertaining and relatable.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets dragged
Memes are great in many ways and while we can and should enjoy them and the comedic relief they provide us in a world where Donald hecking Trump is president of America. It’s also important to consider how we use them and how they can perpetuate negative stereotypes, normalise violence and promote racism, classism, sexism, ableism and queerphobia. Think of how #RIPHarambe was used in reference to the police brutality and the mass killing of black Americans by police officers. While most of us are using memes with reasonably pure intentions, all in the name of laughs, you have white-supremacist right-wingers who use memes to troll us and waste our data. Block and report.
Safe meme-ing is important.
Can we all refrain from using pictures of children when talking about sex and other NSFW topics. Sexualising children is just nasty and borderline R. Kelly-esque.
Like with all things, when used carelessly by people with power or privilege in terms of who has the louder voice, memes can be a very dangerous tool. To ensure that everyone has a reasonably good time and we all get our daily laughs, it’s always important to follow the most important of all commandments, on and off the internet: Do no harm. If you think of memes as a sort of superpower, remember that with great power comes great responsibility.
Is it really that deep?
The internet has become a home for people of colour, queer bodies and so many people who’ve been marginalised and overlooked by mainstream media. The internet and memes provide the representation we all need and appreciate. Online, you have the freedom and the voice to live and speak your truth shamelessly and without the judgement and prejudice experienced in real life. If we’re honest the internet isn’t all that safer than real life, you can still be bullied and have the life dragged out of you. But there’s consolation in the fact that there’s a whole community of people just like you with similar interests, making life less lonely.
Communities have been built online and memes are just one of the few ways in which those communities express and identify themselves.
For any black person who was raised on SABC 1’s Jam Alley and Selimathunzi and whose Sundays are defined by Mzansi Magic #OPW and #DMF, you owe a very big thank you to Lelo Macheke, popularly known as @SuburbanZulu on the internets, for coming up with #GifsforSA. We finally have memes that truly represent and reflect South Africa and its people, because really no one does it like we do, in parliament or reality TV, we’re unique – and that’s something we should be proud of.
Beyond being a tool we use to creatively express ourselves, there’s therapy in memes. Memes are healing. They serve as a distraction from our collective anguish, making the weight of the world a little more bearable, lighter.
Yes, it really is that deep.