All through 2017, a pretty eventful year in my life, I went down a rabbithole of memes across various Facebook pages, groups and sub-reddits. This was before the Cambridge Analytica scandal turned me off the evil social networking site completely — but until then, I enjoyed the glorious absurdity of these corners of the internet and what they taught me about humanity and culture. (Originally published on Sanjana Ramachandran Tells the Future, my WordPress blog.)
24 January, 2018
It all started when, sometime soon after the middle of 2017, I realized I’d engineered my own personal, super responsive method of browsing memes. Most people I knew, myself included, mainly got their dose of memes from such varied sources as Reddit, 4chan, Tumblr, Twitter, 9gag (lol), etcetera. To the extent of my own knowledge, we were all essentially individually curating memes we found funny, from many different sources, using different methods for each. Casual conversations with my friends told me that for most of them, there were certain subreddits they frequented more than others, with Reddit’s saved or upvoted posts serving as their chaotic repository for referring to the memes they’d appreciated over a period of time.
I will now outline my own infinitely more sophisticated method of both accessing and retrieving as a constant stream arguably the best memes of our age. It is only reasonable for me to expect a certain amount of shock, perhaps even a spate of condescension, as the aftermath, for my technique typifies the age-old Rumi quote about not needing to look for something out there but needing to see within by involving something that all of us are accustomed to, perhaps too intimately, on a daily basis – Facebook. I could hardly have foreseen that the app I had vainly installed on my new phone in July last year to continuously monitor my galvanizing social life would become the superior engine it is for delivering the most absurd, outrageous, surreal, out rightly LOL, imaginative memes. Facebook functions as a quite astounding source of various types of humour, with its highly satisfying recommendation system taking me from the mainstream and/or only slightly offbeat Facebook pages I already followed to increasingly obscure, extreme pages… pages that made me wonder in amazement at how a stranger across the world had managed to create something that made me feel like a really close friend would if we’d constructed a particularly keen inside joke that combined elaborate layers of previous inside jokes while somehow interweaving the world’s current zeitgeist. These strangers are touching me in ways I mostly would not press the “Report Abuse” button for.
Facebook and Some Memes
With this system in place, I now open my Facebook app to see meme after meme after meme, interspersed with the occasional slap in the face about someone else’s latest achievement or the latest feminist movement or advertisements or the almost always bipolar opinions on recent headlines or weddings.
Needless to say, this high ratio of memes to reality is quite ideal, for now, and I am convinced that social media no longer poses to me those threats that the world at large should be extremely concerned about. On the other hand, I seem to have found an inexpensive, perennially available, and very astute personal comedian in the prime meme-makers around the world, who are, somehow all together, acutely aware of the contentious, almost satirically absurd nature of our times. Let’s start with a few examples, in no particular order.
This meme rode on the waves of Ajit Pai’s recent decision to repeal net neutrality rules in the USA, exploiting the “Understandable, have a nice day” format, which typically features Shaq rolling up in a car and asking for some X, only to be told by the smiling waiter that X broke, to which Shaq replies with the eponymous catchphrase. A deep-fried version of the meme conveys more drastically the same essential message; the shaky appearance and the font on the meme go beyond their initial dramatic effect, not unlike the virtual earthquake of outrage caused by Pai’s decision, depicting the volatility of freedoms we’ve come to take for granted (People who want to indulge in perverse Japanese anime should be able to, damn it!). Hopefully, the replacement in the third panel of the typical cool-Shaq-in-a-car with a distraught black man uttering the superficially cheerful phrase will not be reflective of our own helplessness in coping with what happens around us.
The next meme is about the internet’s observation of how people’s behaviour online has changed over the years.
There is more than one point of interest in the phrase the meme uses to describe 2017 – fucc is a good place to start. The practice of altering words to end with ‘cc’ instead of ‘ck’ can be traced back to 1990’s Los Angeles, when the Bloods, a street gang notorious for its rivalry with the Crips, called themselves ‘CK’, an initialism of ‘Crips Killa’. With the rise of the world wide web in the late 90’s, the trend found its way into internet culture, perhaps most commonly popular today with “thicc” and “succ”. While “succ” is usually used in tandem with weird facial expressions to make strange jokes about fellatio, it also works well as a non-sequitur punchline in situations where the word “success” can humourously be halved.
Things became surreal when this famous Layers of Irony meme originated on Special Meme Fresh, a Facebook community, in 2015, soon after which the namesake Tumblr page exploded in popularity.
It’s not easy to appreciate why Layers of Irony, or its arguably more curious element, Meme man, is so funny. It’s definitely not for everyone. Even to those who find the theme hilarious, there seems to come along with it an implicit warning that analysis is best kept at bay, for it might not help and may even detract from what it has to offer. Looking for help, a Reddit comment brought me closer to understanding how this kind of thing might have started and why it catches on. Through it, one may very well develop a framework for stretching a joke, which I call the Big Stretch. Consider this: Your friend cracks a joke. You, as a good friend, listen to it and enjoy it and laugh. A better (funnier) friend might recognize a connection between the current joke and some previous concept or other joke and build on it to develop what friends call ‘inside jokes’. But how can the internet at large, an entire world as big as and perhaps more confounding than the real, collaborate to make such jokes?
Level 1 of the Stretch is no level at all and should really be called Level Zero. It’s the level where the main point of the joke-teller is the joke or meme itself, his original intent. Level 2 of The Stretch is doing level 1 ironically, poorly, or aggressively, with the fundamental aim of attacking, contradicting or satirizing the point of Level 1. From the effort to ironize Level 2 is born Level 3, all future levels, which are planes of jokes, memes, or intentions where anything goes, as long as it can aggrandize, annihilate, confuse, or make no sense at all.
What Whomst, Commitment and Stairs Have in Common
One of the most prolific proponents of Meme man content, a YouTube user called BagelBoy, also helped popularize another word from the phrase that describes 2017 (“lmao whomst the fucc eat ass”). Early in 2017, search interest in ‘whomst’ exploded as, yet again, the internet managed to collectively tropify superior, otherworldly levels of intelligence. Urban Dictionary simplistically defines whomst as “For times when you want to ask ‘who or whom’, but need a fancier connotation”, which while efficient and succinct in its description, fails to capture the potential of the word: if this definition of whomst is analogous to a 2D plane, what whomst really is is analogous to the n-dimensional world we don’t know and can’t prove we’re not a part of. If reading about such a concept and contemplating its existence feels too surreal, watching a finite subset of BagelBoy's other videos can lead to an understanding of what is unique and iconic about surreal humour, and how it manages to characterize a range of human tendencies, such as anger, sipping, sucking, and superior, ironic intellectual enlightenment, in the endlessly horizontal beaming red eyes of a disembodied mannequin head or the static distortion of a sepulchral voice saying the word succ. What I started calling the Whomst Escalation format, before I knew it was actually called Expanding Brain (which won Meme of 2017 and was even used in a Dominos ad), lends itself very well to punchlines across diverse genres and themes.
One of my favourite variants of the format and a favourite meme from last year is a Whomst Escalation featuring a sudden doggo entry.
The fourth panel in the image on the right derives from the meme on the left about somebody appreciating a doggo regardless of what he’s occupied with, because doggos are great and deserve everything in the world more than any human ever. It’s impossible for me to remember which Facebook page shared the left one and which the right, but that is not relevant. There is a shared universe of memes and ideas that is accessible to the entire internet, including these Facebook pages, which both create their own content as well as spread existing content that they identify with or believe their page stands for. In a manner of speaking, these pages behave much like your neighbourhood group of friends sharing links on each other’s Facebook walls and letting the world know what they – as individuals and as a group – find funny.
Pages such as Amphetameme pt. II, which produces such gems as this intimate picture of a pregnant Ash sharing a sweet moment with his protective, spousal Pokemon husband (Wife? Child? Pokemon?), keep tagging Amphetameme pt. III (a personal blog, not ‘Just for Fun’) and
These are pages that, due to their overlapping likenesses for weird memes, end up actually emulating human group behaviour amongst a set of Facebook entities, which is not surprising when you consider that the pages are all run by human admins who could very well know each other or, since this is the internet, be the same goddamn person.
I must admit that I sometimes don’t understand the posts that Amphetameme and Living in Asia Ironically share. These are blatantly and undeniably weird pages, whether or not they subscribe to Level 3 of the Big Stretch. That framework, in fact, is clearly and definitively applicable only to certain categories of memes, and while it is easy to identify whether or not a certain category can be stretchh, there is scope for a more robust framework (I have one) to identify these. Using the classification I am about to postulate, I aim to regularise the meme world I see imploding before me. I am fully aware there exist scholarly papers on meme classification, penned by international theorists and students of Meme Studies, but those are beyond the scope of this article. What follows is my humble attempt to outline a classification methodology for our meme universe, as I understand it. I am neither a scholar nor an expert, for I have but four dimensions about which the Meme Scheme is centred, unlike those of the scholars, who I’m sure have infinite or infinite plus one dimensions.
The Meme Scheme and A Thought Experiment
The four main dimensions which define a meme are depicted in this explanatory diagram below. The figure is, I think, subjective enough to incite debate over
(a) the exhaustivity, (b) the exclusivity, and (c) the extensibility of these dimensions and the Meme Scheme. Here I resolve them.
Indeed, I considered a fifth axis for ‘Academic’, for there is a great movement in the type of humour that references principles from math, engineering, chemistry, botany and several other disciplines while making jokes and memes . But if the aim of this classification scheme is to be able to define a meme based on its quotients with respect to these four scales, ‘Academic’ would be an illogical addition: most memes we see daily would end up scoring a 0.0 on this axis. More than some basic quality of a meme, a meme that makes an academic reference or joke nearly always does so with the aim of being relatable or, perhaps, ironic – academic memes are relatable to a subset of all meme consumers, and for them would therefore rank high on Relatable more than others. Adding an axis for this alone is akin to adding a dimension for Movies or Doge or Rick and Morty or, basically, any other descriptor whose function is more the subject or the format of a meme than its fundamental intention or stance. With this in mind, Relatable, Wholesome, Dank and Ironic, and Edgy I believe – for now – define the four-dimensional world we live in.
If this dealt with the exhaustivity of these axes, we come now to their exclusivity, which is to say – is Relatable really different, in meaning and essence, from Wholesome? Can we be sure that none of these four terms can be used in a definition or explanation of the others? The answer to this is not so straightforward, but it is a “Yes”. One way of proving this would be to first define each dimension and then verify that none of the other terms relate to these definitions. A definition can take many forms, and in this case, I choose to attribute to each axis an archetypal standard in order to define it, i.e. if the axis is Relatable, its archetypal standard would score an (R, 0, 0, 0) in our meme geometry. Similarly, Wholesome, Dank and Ironic, and Edgy would be represented by (0, W, 0, 0), (0, 0, DI, 0), and (0, 0, 0, E) respectively, where R, W, DI, and E are real numbers each representing the equivalent of +infinity in their respective spectrums.
It is obvious that there could be several such standard memes for each axis, and that one’s person Relatable, Wholesome, Dank and Ironic and Edgy could be vastly different from another’s. How can we be sure then that the axes are universally mutually exclusive? We know that, by definition, an (R, 0, 0, 0) meme cannot be a (0, W, 0, 0) meme or any other, because if a Relatable archetypal standard was also Wholesome, its coordinates would accordingly change – it would not be a standard and would be an entirely different meme in the eyes of the rater: Appreciating this distinction forms a crucial role in understanding why proving exclusivity is not quite straightforward. Just as an individual’s experience of a meme is coloured not only by the context that memes are so expert at encapsulating, viz. its basic brand of humour and the current socio-political scene, but also the consumer’s understanding of the meme itself.
‘Understanding’, it must be stated, is used here as a broad term for everything from actually viewing and appreciating the meme to the consumer’s innate perception of the world around him, what he alone identifies as relatable, wholesome, ironic, and edgy. In a nutshell, a proof would require a definition of each of the terms using a pre-defined construct (existing memes, for example, as done above) such that, ideally, checking for the other terms’ presence in these definitions is trivial. For this to be consistent, every person who has ever looked at a meme and felt something should be induced to define these terms himself and check that they can’t be used to define each other. This is a painfully tedious and potentially unfruitful exercise because memes are an experience so laden in context, involving both the consumer and the era he lives in – itself very hard to bound and define, – that it could be quite challenging for even one individual to first identify a construct for his definition, actually define all four terms using this construct, and then check their exclusivity. One would do well to accept a degree of generalisation in this issue, using the pictorial definitions above to understand the term’s meanings as intended here, and accordingly agree or disagree.
The third aspect regarding the validity of the Meme Scheme also goes some way in answering the question. Extensibility, or standardisation, addresses the question of whether the scheme is applicable across people, geographies and cultures. As I earlier mentioned, different memes have different degrees of RWDIE for different people, but that does not imply the Meme Scheme cannot be used to understand ourselves and the people around us better.
In fact, the scheme provides a means for comparing what two people may think of about (a) the four dimensions and (b) any particular meme. This comparison is first brought about through the lens of a single meme, as the two fictional people dissect their RWDIE placement of the same. They would discover not only how their understanding of the very same meme differs, but also, through discussion, understand what the other infers from the four dimensions. Having established their individual meanings for them, the dimensions could over time become the lens through which they compare how they feel about any meme.
I believe the potential for such a scheme is high, but I'll reserve the full grandeur of my ambitions for the event that my thesis receives global recognition and the clamour of multinational conglomerates. For now, consider this: In addition to Facebook being a key source for original meme content, it is also primary in the spread of all memes. The biggest minds at Facebook now get together; after many days spent devising the next big bait for users, they arrive at the MEMERATER. It is a floating Arnold Schwarzenegger figurine, just hanging out on the side of the News Feed. The icon comes into prominence whenever a user hovers over a meme, encouraging him to place it on the holographic RWDIE graph that zooms in next to it. The user drags the meme to where he thinks it should be on the spectrum, effectively giving it a rating - he basically informs Facebook, in seconds, just how much he relates to it, how wholesome it is and how comforted by the meme he is, or how ironic and provocative he thinks it is. With enough time and user-given ratings to millions of memes, superior algorithms would do their work in collating and analysing what their 2.07 billion users really think – not just about what they find funny, but what they identify with, what moves them, what they share or tag their friends in, what angers them, what offends them, and what makes them happy.
With this, as they already do, they infer the implications of our social status, incomes, lifestyle, habits, and, most importantly, our emotions, on what we buy, whom we vote for, and what we believe.
As with many of the things Facebook gives us, we, in return, give them everything about how we feel and what we think. For them, it is a matter of reverse engineering what about what we think make us react the way we do. What is the difference in between the posts we choose to simply ‘Like’ and those we ‘Love’? What makes us sad and what makes us angry? What makes us laugh? An input and an output later – Walla! The next People You May Know could be People You Wish You Knew, or People You Should Know Because They Find the Same Things Funny. But actually, grouping based on sense of humour is rather basic – Black Mirror Level Zero, really – because what Facebook could (would) really do is engineer the formation of the optimal group.
On a scale of quite utopian to hacking deadly artificial bee colonies to get them to kill whichever latest personality social media hates most, the optimal group could be a balanced one that consists of people with diverse senses of humour so as to enable dissent and meaningful discussion and growth, or maybe sets of groups made based on what your humour can indicate about you: Who is to say that a liking for wholesome memes and/or an aversion for Edgy doesn’t mean you’re generally quite agreeable, and that agreeability begets agreeability, and that groups and groups of agreeable people becoming more agreeable together aren’t more susceptible to leading political messaging and targeted corporate advertisements? Who is to say that spreading apart those who appreciate edgy or ironic memes, perhaps an indication of a penchant for scepticism and discord, could isolate antisocial behaviour, or foster a sense of loneliness amongst those elements of society and decrease the scope for protests and uprisings? Or that likers of edgy memes aren’t better kept together, perhaps coming from a community of those who’ve experienced or can understand mental illness, or even have a genetic predisposition to contracting it? While arguably beneficial for the rest of the population for society’s insecure, sad, and lonely to be dispersed and away from ‘spoiling’ the normal, it would be certainly wonderful for a company that owns three of the most widely used social networks of our day for similar groups of people to feed off of a common pool of anxiety, measured and aggravated by the yardstick of a society they largely don’t, and perhaps cannot, identify with.
I’ve clearly been watching too much Black Mirror.
First Corollary and Last Thoughts
But going back to the picture shared by Amphetameme pt. II, featuring pregnant Ash – I find it quite difficult to place this meme on the MEMERATER, because, as I mentioned, it’s fucking weird. There are a lot of such memes that are impactful simply because they’re extremely weird – they seem to have the ability to trigger some deep, unexplored receptor of absurdity and oddity we don’t understand but do succumb to. These memes are, of course, different from those that are ostensibly unfunny, or too weird to ever make sense of or be arrived at from a logical system of interconnected jokes and themes – and this distinction is crucial in understanding why Weird isn’t an axis on its own. Think about it: Weird could just mean a level of completely unrelatable for some people, which might not be amusing at all, or some combination of RWDIE that we don’t know enough to comprehend or recognise yet but is above the threshold for activating that invisible receptor we are fortunate to have. Using Weird as an axis would terminate the exclusivity of the dimensions and make it altogether too easy to rate memes one does not fully understand – for that, the Meme Scheme would rather encourage, through a usage of (-R, w, di, e) than some final pronouncement of total weirdness, a more open attitude towards understanding what we think we cannot.
What about these surreal memes?
These memes are unquestionably surreal and are seemingly impossible to classify satisfactorily using the other axes.
However, going back to one of our earliest starting points will lead us now to our first corollary: We saw that some of the most notable manifestations of surreal came about from an attempt to
ironize severe, otherworldly levels of intelligence and knowledge. Whomst Escalations often flip this idea of superior intelligence by relating the final level of expansion to the most stupid level of activity, as in this meme on the right, where Notepad is matched with the most brain. This is meant to be ironic. But given the underlying relation between the expanding brain and ironic infinite intelligence, and between surreal and infinity and all such things that challenge our interpretation of reality – there is clearly a strong connection between extreme irony and that which is surreal. This lemma leads us to our proof:
At the asymptotic level, Dank and Ironic memes tend towards Surreal.
Mathematically, that is:
At the very core of surreal memes is an emphasis on a disconnect from the real, perhaps obtained by an almost spiritual level of knowledge about reality that renders it quite trivial and, on the flip side, could cause you to question the very foundation of what we claim is real. There is evidence of it everywhere.
Finally, it is time for more light-hearted things. Remember that meme about appreciating doggos no matter what you’re doing? I’d rate that meme at a (0.6R, 0.9W, 0, 0), because memes featuring doggos are almost always full on Wholesome for me, because, as I said, they’re inarguably the best. The spirit behind memes involving doggos, even the less obviously wholesome ones, is in stark contrast with the general cynical tone of the internet, with such main sources of original content such as 4chan, Reddit and Tumblr being associated with dark, extreme, weird and ironic humour.
Wholesome memes, on the other hand, are all about love, respect, appreciation and all round 10/10 positivity – they are the latest way of remembering that, sometimes, the most important things in life are appreciating yourself and loved ones and staying positive despite life itself. Interest in wholesome memes first spiked in early 2017 and stayed high through all of last year. I don’t think it’s coincidental that there has been a spike in the search for a wholly unique and admirably cool way to bring about positivity in one’s life at exactly the same time as more people than ever before are struggling with anxiety and depression, at a younger age than ever before. The English National Health Service has reported a shocking rise in hospital admissions for girls under the age of seventeen, for reasons related to self-harm, in the previous decade. People seem to be more stressed, anxious, or depressed – terms all being used here in the medical sense – than ever before, and this is quite alarming. While pages like Mentally Thrill Memes and memetal illest conform to the more familiar way of depicting this phenomenon, viz. starkly, darkly, bluntly, and, most importantly, relatably – I’m also positively thrilled to see the success of wholesome memes. The Facebook page and Twitter handle and subreddit each have upwards of a million followers and the admin of the Facebook page, Elle, talks about how the exercise of making or sharing something cute and positive helps her cope with her own issues.
There was a period towards the end of last year when many of the top posts on /r/meirl were jokes about depression, anxiety, and the challenge in handling our emotions in today’s online age. That Sarahah, one of last year’s biggest fads, went from being a simple anonymous feedback network, whose name literally means ‘Honesty’, to yet another method for rampant bullying and harassment is an unfortunate but poetic irony. There seem to be more and more layers between us and the platforms we use to represent ourselves and the way we interact with others, who face the same layers. This level of abstraction from who we are to what we see of ourselves and others online makes it difficult to trace when and how exactly our own emotions diffuse through feeds, stories, emojis, and walls. That amidst this indiscriminate, hostile environment online there exist multiple ways, wholesome and relatable, for people to find and identify with like-minded thinkers is truly wonderful. It also speaks volumes for the complexity and subjectivity involved in any mental health issue: what is seen in and works for one person may never have the same impact with anyone else. For now, having multiple ways of dealing with what is traditionally a difficult and sensitive subject can only help.
This need to have many different means to attain overlapping ends, however, is an evidently recent phenomenon, and forms a core part of that aspect of the internet that is toughest to digest: that it is, somehow, both the amelioration to and the cause of many of society’s problems today. The internet and all the glaring contradictions it manages to sustain form that complex, diffused reflection of life itself, many layers of abstraction later, just like my various profiles online and the real me, and what I think about the people around me and what they really are. At once, we both control what the internet is and have no control over what it becomes – we are constantly shaped by a force that we constantly shape.
This is exactly as Richard Dawkins had anticipated when he defined the term ‘meme’ in his seminal The Selfish Gene, where he drew an analogy between the gene, as the fundamental unit of biological evolution, and the meme, as a fundamental unit of human cultural evolution. Whether a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, that Dawkins could recognise and formalise the way we would later remember such curious events as Harambe is fascinating to me. Harambe, I believe, was mankind’s pinnacle in memedom history: the video of a gorilla being shot and killed in order to save an entrapped three-year-old’s life, and the series of increasingly absurd jokes and reactions that followed it, formed the sum total of mankind’s coping mechanism – an enduring, historic meme. It is the perfect example of the contradictions and abstractions that automatically morph how we feel into what that becomes.
Dawkins thus not only equipped us with an understanding of how ideas evolve and spread amongst us, but also gave us our most accessible, easy, and low-effort-to-high-returns method of documenting history while also depicting how we feel about it. If a picture speaks a thousand words, a meme is the entire dictionary, encapsulating at once both what happened and how we felt about it – embedded in infinite context. They are all at once our representation of the past, our expression of the present, and a precursor of the future.