What Memes Mean: Why Memes Are Important (Part 1)

Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.

Commenting on pop culture is an interesting task. Making sure you’re viewing something from the right angle, interpreting it in the correct fashion, and saying things in a way that is interesting can be daunting. Sometimes the biggest issue doesn’t seem to be the commentary itself, but simply deciding what to comment on.

We are constantly barraged by pop culture: television, music, periodicals, and their respective advertising branches follow us wherever we go. The Internet combines all these elements of pop culture in one place in one search bar, compounding our issue of the overload. And this is the main problem in discussing memes: There are so many memes to pick through, it gets difficult to sort things out. But memes tend to fall into a few easy categories that make clean up a bit easier.

Sometimes memes are inane, or at least become so quickly. This is commentary in itself on Internet culture, where easy digital sharing fosters the temptation to share anything and everything always, thereby diluting the medium. For example, the first fifteen Bad Luck Brian JPEGS were funny, but the fiftieth JPEG starts to lose its sheen. Usually the inane can be sifted out and left alone.

Other times, memes bring to light problems in our culture we’d prefer to ignore, like the recent viral video of bullied bus monitor Sharon Klein, whose YouTube-posted mistreatment is downright disturbing. Often this sort of meme can actually lead to positive change. When something like this goes viral, the whole story eventually comes out, and it can be flabbergasting enough to lead to something meaningful, like this indiegogo campaign to send her on a dream vacation. These are always memes worth looking at.

And sometimes memes are wholly encouraging and all feel-good. Many memes are evidence that not all pop culture is bad—in fact, much of it is very good. From elaborate, meaningful marriage proposals to flying pop tart cats, memes are often playful and fun ways to share a laugh. Sometimes (though not always) these memes are worth a look as well, giving light to the strengths and positives in our culture that we can easily overlook or ignore.

With all of this, one of the most important things about memes (and part of what makes them important) is this: Memes are one of the few elements of pop culture we are constantly sharing and passing on. Memes are pop culture on the ground, they are the elements we view and share with the click of a button—it is pop culture at its most impulsive. Playing Freud with meme, treating it as one of the entrances to our cultural subconscious can yield a rich reward. Whether inane, troubling, or encouraging, each Facebook Like and Twitter RT is a revelation of what digital tidbits fascinate us enough to share with our friends—and why we do so.

Jesus spoke often of the heart—His way of speaking about the soul or inner person. At one point, listing off some heinous and not-so-obviously heinous sins, Jesus made the simple point that these all came “out of the heart” (Matt 15:19).  This was contrary to the more “complicated” view of righteousness of the Pharisees, which was largely based on complex external actions. The memes that fascinate us reveal much about our passions and our values, what we as a culture love and allow—sort of our cultural heart. This revelation is sometimes encouraging, often convicting, and usually well worth our time and effort.

About Kirk Bozeman

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