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ESSAY: What Does It All Meme?


This essay was written as part of a pretty dry structure writing class in Advanced Expository writing for Classification and Division. I was a student teacher at U-32 this past fall in the class when this was written. Nate Morris chose the subject of memes. If you don’t use the internet, particularly social media, or are older than I am, you may have no idea what he is talking about. I know just enough about technology to think this is very witty, but not enough to really ‘get’ it all the way.

Carla Occaso, managing editor.


by Nate Morris

The internet is an incredible place. It has altered the landscape of business, allowed us to reconnect with childhood friends and given us common (though not necessarily neutral) platforms to discuss our opinions with millions of other users. On a less serious note, the internet has developed its own subculture with its own tropes and its own humor. The staple source of laughs come in the form of what is called an internet meme. On the surface they can seem like simple puns or jokes when in fact they mean so much more to the people posting them or the audience it’s intended for. Memes have distinct audiences, historic icons, mechanics such as the “meme economy,” and oftentimes second meanings that put it in a very different light.

A meme is a concept, catchphrase or piece of media that spreads from person to person, gaining an audience, and with the endless stream of information thrown at you on the internet, memes have become widely accessible by all audiences. Examples such as “grumpy cat” or “rickrolling” have been adapted by all kinds of people, and thanks the the straightforward format of the original image macros, anything can be made into a meme. Everyone is able to use or create a meme, but due to how broad its spectrum has become, not everyone will understand a joke or even the fact that there was a joke. Ironically, in a medium meant to connect everyone, memes can be more divisive than they are connective.

Some internet users go past the base definition of memes, and assimilate with what is called “meme culture.” They dedicate time to studying memes to understand all aspects and corners of the meme spectrum. They see the term meme as the broadest descriptor of one of these pieces of entertainment. In reality, memes can go much deeper than what you see viewing it for the first time. There are subcultures of memes and subcultures within those subcultures.

To get an idea of how deep a meme can go, the perfect example is the rise and fall of “Pepe The Frog.” Over the course of its lifetime, Pepe has been reiterated the most out of any meme, changing appearance and meaning to the point where it has no core message or joke. Pepe became the apex meme because it encompassed broad portions of the humor spectrum. However, every meme that exists will eventually cease to do so, and Pepe went down in flames.

Pepe The Frog originated in a comic called Boy’s Club by Matt Furie, depicting Pepe as a laidback dude enjoying life. A specific panel in the comic shows Pepe saying “feels good man” when asked about why he goes to the bathroom with his pants all the way down. This panel was used as a reaction image on the internet when it started to gain popularity. Users took a liking to the friendly amphibian and began producing their own pictures of Pepe, building their own character over years of reiteration. For the majority of Pepe’s lifetime, he was depicted as a smug, racy frog with heavy depression. From this base, users changed Pepe’s appearance, keeping his general look while altering things such as his color, shape and clothing while making sure it could be identified as Pepe. These are called “Rare Pepes,” they’re referred to by that name because they are posted on obscure sites or forums. Pepe thrived and during this period was referred to as the best meme or the king of memes, until it kicked the curb hard when it intermingled with hate groups. The KKK and Neo Nazis adopted Pepe as a mascot and used iterations of him in uniform for propaganda. Around this time Donald Turnip also began posting pictures of Pepe in his image on twitter. Pepe was marked as a hate symbol because of his adoption by these hate groups and he tanked. The landscape of Pepe memes became barren as no morally-sound person would use them after what happened, and as a result the true Pepe fans got what they wanted. Pepe is considered obscure now and that’s exactly what Rare Pepe creators desire, allowing them to create Rare Pepes in peace.

All memes collect and converge in what has been dubbed the meme economy, a metaphor for how the lifetime of a meme works and its popularity. Similarly to how a new stock acts, a new meme is under the radar at first, and then it begins to gain recognition. It picks up steam and then spikes in usage. Then it plateaus before gradually losing footing before it stops being used completely. Some memes stick around longer than others due to when and how long it takes them to plateau, too fast and people will lose interest quickly. Too slow and its apex will be lackluster. The parallels to the stock market are strikingly close.

Sometimes, memes can have a darker meaning behind the initial joke for reasons other than ironic or black humor. A study showed that the admins running popular internet meme pages on facebook actually use memes as a coping method for crippling depression. Some memes would have double meanings that only dedicated fans would perceive, hinting that they are unhappy; others would straight up be ironic jokes about suicide or self harm. Many Pepe memes alluded to this and became a popular outlet for expressing these feelings.

Groups involved in the the “Rare Pepes” or the “distorted hood memes” take the basics of these memes and further its definition to the point where only those involved after weeks of following the way it changes will understand the humor it has to offer. The most prominent subculture is by far ironic memeing. It takes any meme and uses its first meaning as a mask for a new joke. The original meme will experience either subtle tweaks or a complete overhaul, rewriting the joke while making sure it still identifies with the original meaning. These people create ironic memes as a way to set themselves apart from the regular Joes of the internet, referring to them as “normies” who steal memes and don’t give proper credit to it’s maker, therefore classifying memes as art in a strange turn of events.

When you take a step back, memes really are just a way to express humor or opinions in a variety of ways. The people viewing or creating them all want the same thing whether they claim to be unique or not. “Normie” or “memelord” we all want to laugh, and memes do a great job with that, no matter how many layers of irony it’s on.