Some people regard memes as silly images with a bit of text and no substance. But actually, these seemingly dumb visuals illustrate areas of society in often profound ways. Memes are significant in public discourse surrounding politics, pop culture and even mental health. And no matter how much we play down the sharing of hundreds of thousands of these basic, pixelated but charming creations, memes highlight important shared cultural moments for the internet generation and beyond.
While memes have a highly short shelf-life before they're tossed into the meme scrap-heap – sharing an old meme without recycling and adding your own touch will not do you any favours or get any likes apart from that person who likes all of your stuff – they tell important stories about our changing culture, behaviour, humour and language. Y tho?
We explored the most beloved buzzwords from the last 365 days – aka the season of dread – using Me.me's Google Trends-style tool and looked into what memey stats can teach us about you, me and the modern world.
Yearning for connections
The internet's most circulated content is usually the most relatable. From quizzes that tell us what type of dog we are to those listicles that "only people from New Jersey will know" to memes "only left-wingers will get" to just about everything that starts with "when...", since the dawn of the '00s things that go viral seem to understand us.
Vigorous sharing of these seemingly irrelevant pieces of content shows that our collective conscious is desperate for connection. You want to have a webpage "get you". You want a dumb image to shed light on a part of your character. There are memes for even the most mundane or niche concerns in our lives and we want to share those with our friends and family in order to connect.
Because of that, in a way, memes hold the power to make us all feel less alone.
Predictable, we've become
While we value having secure social circles, youth culture hasn't quite reached a point where being "normal" is cool – sticking out is the new fitting in. But, aside from the irony of over half of the world's youth subscribing to the same hip dress code, nobody is quite as unconventional as they think.
Take the hyper-shareability of "starter pack" memes. I probably saw around 50 starter kits on social media last month. But the immense enthusiasm for these identity trope collages reveals just how predictable we really are, even though we all strive for individuality. As we endeavor to feel connected and able to relate to others, the flip side is we are still able to outline whole groups of people with meta sets of photos defining subculture archetypes.
These memes show we're not so different after all. And that's not a bad thing, don't fear. The more in common we have with each other, the more likely it is that there will be some peace on Earth one day. Wouldn't that be nice?
The meme echo chamber
Sharing content on the internet is the online equivalent of slogan badges on collars or entire subcultures dressing in uniform. These affirmations of our identity – or what we want our identity to be – show others what our ideas, standpoints, and opinions are. But this has had its downfalls; social media has become a space where we block people we don't agree with, where our news feeds are tailored to every inch of our personalities and where our own thoughts are reflected back to us.
"If you ask to look in a young person's phone's camera roll, you'll often find many of their photos are saved memes they've found online," Shane Walker, CEO of Me.me tells me. "I think memes show that we collect and share opinions faster than we formulate new ones."
There are memes for any and every identity you can think of: intersectional feminist, alt-right hero, radical socialist, gamer geek, you name it, there's a meme for it. The memes that pop up on our feeds might make us laugh 'til we fart, but they don't challenge our ideas.
"The last year has shown there's a meme for everyone in society, for better or worse," Walker says. However, the echo chamber of memes is real. "As a society," Walker continues, "we've moved towards messages that reinforce rather than challenge worldviews, and memes are no exception: they can catalyze, they can divide, and they can be shared with ease."
A politically charged lot
It's been a whirlwind of a year, with Donald Trump rising to power, Brexit ensuing, monthly terror attacks, and all the rest of it. So it may seem things are categorically shit. But it's thought that such monumental political events have contributed to a more engaged youth.
And memes prove it. The growing use of political terms shows that the meme world is becoming more politicized. According to Me.me analysis comparing how the popularity of certain terms has increased since January 2016, many political terms used in memes have gone from "zero to hero".
From Jan 2016, “libertarian" rose by 22,860%, “DonaldTrump” rose by 21,358%, “politics” rose 15,759%, “conservative" was up 19,571%, and there was a significant spike in the use of “Putin” in memes. Even the phrase "liberal" has increased in meme usage by almost 14,527% since this time last year.
Meanwhile, optimistic (or desperate, whichever way you look at it) terms were on the up, with “freedom” increasing in popularity by 8,354%, “peace" going up in mentions by 5,311% and feminism on the up with a 2,068% increase.
"Memes continue to grow in popularity every year since Google Trends has kept data," says Walker. "Our data shows not only are memes more popular than ever, but that they are increasingly tackling issues of societal importance." Meme ideas are being shared faster than ever, broadening the impact of specific ideologies around the world. "In terms of spread, not many things can travel further or faster than a good (or bad) meme."
We (still) want to have fun
Our gen might all be totally down with discussing the intricacies of election results and political reporting bias, but we still want to have fun, for obvious reasons.
You don't need to look at any stats to remember how funny and entertaining some contemporary memes have been. But here are the stats anyway: meme mentions of Harambe went from zero to 4873 from January 2016 to January 2017; monumemal hit, Cash Me Ousside/How Bow Dah girl, garnered a solid 2313 memes this year alone but her words still won't leave our brains.
Veganism is taking over
More people than ever have made and shared vegan memes over the last year. Whether they're insulting of veganism, in support of it or simply commenting on the furor and controversy that surrounds the lifestyle, it's clear that awareness of the bully-baiting diet has risen furiously, with the mention of "vegan" in memes rising 6,930% since January 2016.
What can we learn from all this?
While our generation is critiqued for being "post-literate", lame and too liberal for words, really we're just as complex as our parents' generations with complimentary snowflake dust. The main difference, however, is that instead of working out who we are all by ourselves, we can consult the latest memes we shared. They say more about us than perhaps our best friends could.
On the surface, it would seem the meme-sharing generation is more switched on, connection-desperate, dairy-conscious and predictable than ever. Our internet personas are a manifestation of our thoughts, sure. But perhaps we should start to question why we're about to share things before we do, instead of blindly hitting post multiple times a day if we really want to have some sort of positive change via memes.
With that said, here's to silly images with lines of sociopolitical text!