I remember reading an article from the Washington Post a few years ago with a headline that read something like “Why is Millennial Humor so Weird?” Now, any headline that uses the word millennial gets an automatic heaping helping of salt from me. I’ve found the ability of traditional news outlets to understand the “millennial” to be lacking. But I enjoyed this article because of its deep exploration of the nature of internet memes.
The memes you see your third cousin posting on Facebook, the ones with a Minion and a quote about politics, are far removed from the kinds of memes that you will find in areas of the internet younger people tend to frequent like the problematic pages of Reddit or the endless scroll of Twitter. Those memes are truly weird, often dark and increasingly surrealist. But before we take a step down that rabbit hole, let me break down a few ideas to their simplest forms.
First of all, in case you’ve been too afraid to ask, it is pronounced ‘me-em’ not ‘me-me’ or ‘may-may’. The word itself predates the internet by decades. In fact, the concept is as old as the Greeks, if not older. You know how everyone always says that life imitates art, well the Greeks had a word for that: mimesis.
Mimetic words imitate, or mimic, ideas. Like the way onomatopoeias mimic the sounds of animals. Some of the greatest scholars in history have devoted themselves to studying mimetic theory and the way that ideas and concepts are passed on through generations via non-genetic means.
One of those scholars, Richard Dawkins the famous evolutionary biologist, coined the phrase meme in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.” Without getting too deep in the weeds, Dawkins theorized that evolution doesn’t always rely on DNA, but simply on “repeating structures.”
Picture a game of telephone, that old children’s game we all used to play where you start off with a word like “banana” and whisper that word to the next person in line, and slowly as the word goes down the chain it evolves until it reaches the last kid who says the word was “breadsticks.” That is the process of mimetic evolution, an idea that evolves the more it is mimicked.
Memes as we know them, the image/word combinations that spread like wildfire across the internet, have existed since before the world was connected by computers.
The one I remember most vividly from my youth was “The S Thing.” If you’ve ever seen it, you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes called “The Superman S” or “The Stussy S,” everyone had a different story about the S, but regardless of where you went someone could draw one. The S was the pen and paper meme of my childhood, a concept passed from kid to kid through mimicry.
Today’s memes are much more complicated. Remember those Minion memes your cousin was posting that I mentioned earlier? Well, I bet you didn’t know there is an entire community dedicated to creating post-ironic, meta-fictional forms of those memes. That, my friends, is millennial humor, an absurdist inside out world where we simultaneously explore concepts of nihilism and hope through jokes about dead gorillas, which itself is a meme so dated by internet standards that to use it is to be self-deprecating by ironically pointing out your own lack of knowledge about the current meme-meta. And if all of that sounds like a big ball of nothing crammed into a nothing hole, well, it is. That’s what millennial memes are. They are at once both meaningless and the only things that create meaning.
If you’re wondering “why” millennial humor is so dark, simply take a look at another headline I read recently: “Millennials are Facing a Second Once in a Lifetime Financial Disaster.” Things pretty much haven’t been good for us since the turn of the century, so forgive us is we get a little surreal with our internet memes.
If you really want to dig into the never ending pile of millennial memes I suggest a visit to knowyourmeme.com. It’s my go-to site whenever I stumble across a new meme. It functions, essentially, as an internet archive, tracing the origins of new memes and cataloguing them for future generations. Some of the most popular trending articles on the site right now are “Dancing Pallbearers,” “Money Printer go Brrr,” and the ever popular “Karen.” If none of that sounds familiar to you, well, welcome to the millennial internet.
So, the next time your cousin Rick puts a Trump quote over a picture of a Minion, reply with a gif of a glitched video from FRIENDS where Ross’s face appears to be melting into an infinite black abyss, Rick might not get it, but we will.