It’s easy to disregard memes as the scourge of your news feed — which used to be populated with nothing but narcissistic diary entries — but they have a much richer history than that.
Memes are iterative visual jokes developed by a community. Confined to the internet, where the tools to remix and republish are in the hands of every user, they should technically see more innovation as distribution increases. As we’ve seen with the explosion of memes of Facebook, this is no longer the case.
Memes, which rise and fall democratically, are often jokingly referred to in economic terms. While insincere, the rapid rise and fall in popularity of certain memes (and the longevity of others) shows this holds a certain truth. In the early stages of a meme’s development, the community of 4chan or reddit might accuse the creator(s) of forcing the meme against the will and participation of the rest of the community.
For a meme to survive and flourish, it needs support and innovation — not just distribution. With this in mind, we can define memes as codified symbols which offer no intrinsic explanation for themselves. Audiences might find the meme in the late stages of development and fail to understand how it’s evolved over the course of its iterations, or they may be following along with every mutation and re-purposing. If you were to take a video of your child saying “Charlie bit me” and send it to your friends, that doesn’t make it a meme.In the hands of the internet, where it is remixed, mashed up, and decontextualized, it becomes a meme on its own merits.
Most popular events will spawn memes; remixes and mashups follow along with any major news cycle, public mishap, political embarrassment, viral video, or new popular movie. That, along with everything I already described, is essentially what a meme is. However, as is usually the case in the new grounds of the internet, the word has come to be overextended. Especially in the realm of Facebook, which is often the first touchpoint of internet initiates and is used actively used by 79% of the online U.S. population.
The original version of a previously-uncodified visual joke — whether that’s a penguin getting shat on with the caption “life be like” or a Vine compilation — is referred to as a meme, whether that’s the case or not. The reality that all of the old meme community wanted to avoid has come to be. Memes are mainstream, pushed with money, anti-innovative, and misunderstood on a scale far larger than previously possible in times where memes were confined to the domain of 4chan and similar underground boards. The nature of Facebook’s activity feed, which shows recent comments and tags by friends, has become flooded with memes at an alarming rate. That’s for a few reasons:
- Facebook gives algorithmic priority to posts that are considered popular — a large amount of likes, comments, and shares.
- Facebook makes the act of sharing content privately within its network more difficult and less attractive than engaging in a public conversation, further encouraging users to tag their friends in the comments rather than make the extra clicks required to share it privately
- The friend tagged in the comments feels obliged to respond, giving the meme further social proof and perpetuating the cycle. Any post that directly or indirectly persuades the original user or friend to engage with it is tapping into this viral loop. It so happens that memes are the most common kind of content in this category.
Memes used to be the in-jokes of the internet. Sightings of these original memes, which often have more complex and iterative backgrounds, are rare on Facebook. Not just because they are now played out, but because they require a level of niche understanding that gets in the way of them reaching widespread visibility. Instead, memes of the broadest variety are the ones which travel furthest — simple ‘fail’ videos, clips from popular films and TV shows, quotes from films and political speeches.
Is this a new content phenomenon, or just a new trend in distribution?
Anyone on the receiving end of forwarded emails in the early 2000s knows that this kind of content has always been popular. The first hyper-popular YouTube videos were of a similar caliber, requiring little in the way of context to understand. A cat screaming “no”, pit-kicking scenes from 300, a man mouthing a shit Moldovan pop song, a child off his nut on anesthetic. The Dancing Baby was propagated even before the days of social media. In fact, I remember being shown the video in a school bathroom by a particularly forgettable classmate who had it bluetoothed to him by the class’ resident memelord.
Facebook, with its overwhelming power to connect similar groups of people, has simply brought this desire for shallow, bite-sized internet content into the forefront and enabled users to easily perpetuate its popularity. The need was always there, but the ways the need is satisfied is now transparent and easily visible on the timelines of anyone with mutual friends who get a kick out of a cat falling off a table. As I looked at in my dissection of one particular viral video, content is often engineered to go viral by marketing departments, who combine a strong emotional sentiment with something funny, shocking, accessible, or sympathetic with the views of the target audience. It’s a formula, and one that has been extensively tested and proven by research, coupled with millions of dollars of in advertising money.
Facebook’s recent meme explosion goes directly against a publicly-documented algorithm revision from 2013, which stated that it would filter your news feed to display higher quality content. Its definition included language specifically geared against asking users to help promote the post and memes.
It was essentially a move to stop pages gaming the system, but recent developments seem to indicate Facebook has either ignored or rolled back these changes. In 2016, The Information shared research that showed how the amount of users sharing personal details about their life (Facebook’s original purpose) was dropping drastically.
This is a development Facebook has historically fought against. Research from BuzzSumo shows Facebook engagement dropped 20% in the first 6 months of 2017 and early reports of Facebook being overrun by memes come from late 2016, showing correlation at the very least. Since the closed nature of the platform resists large-scale research into the habits of average users, I can say anecdotally that the average like-happy Facebook user doesn’t seem to be phased by the meme explosion.
Perhaps Facebook is no longer the world’s public diary, or a milestoned timeline of life events. According to the data shown above, if Facebook refuses to reign in its runaway, meme-weighted algorithm, it could find itself in possession of nothing more than a re-branded version of 9gag with a messaging app tacked on.