Meme Theory

By Bronwyn Kelley

Originally postulated in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’, meme theory proposes that, much like a gene mutating and passing between generations, thoughts and ideas can mutate and spread between people. While the memes of which Dawkins’ originally referred to may not exactly resemble what we in the modern age have come to denote as ‘memes’, this theory still rings true to how we conduct ourselves and interact with others online.

What sets modern memes apart from other similar phenomenons is their inherently high-levels of visuality as a medium of communication. Unlike traditional textual language memes often rely more heavily on the connotations of images more so than the denoted meaning extracted and inferred from written language. This is important as it means memes are inherently more accessible and easily digestible than it’s contemporary alternatives. Using memes one can express complex, nuance ideas with only a single or a series of images. This is possible because memes rely heavily on contextualizing, and re-contextualizing. Below I have included a video in which a man explores this topic a little more in-depth in reference to a specific type of meme that was popular in the mid 21st century,

It should be no surprise that the most popular memes are those which the widest swaths of people find relatable, this is true of contemporary media as well, however memes specifically speak to this language of shared memory and cultural identity, building off of widely recognized cultural images and signifiers, and re-interpreting that context to construct a new narrative.  One currently popular example of this trend is with spongebob memes.

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Spongebob, a cartoon aimed at elementary school children and has been produced and airing on nickelodeon since 1999, was and still is highly regarded for it’s more abstract and often clever style of writing, setting it apart from other contemporary childrens cartoon, leaving to its mass success. Due to the relatively ‘newness’ of internet memes it should be unsurprising that they are most widely used by teenagers and young adults, the exact demographic of people who would have grown up watching Spongebob as children. Because of this, among those people who most frequently use, distribute, and consume memes and meme culture in online spaces, Spongebob is a wide-spread and instantly recognizable icon of childhood nostalgia, with many of the specific episodes and jokes even able to harkon strong enough emotional responses and memories in the meme community to function as individual memes of their own accord.

Of course for many while Spongebob was or remains funny on its own accord, it is hard to ignore the perfect storm that allowed Spongebob memes to take such a dominant grip on the internet as of late. As memes require a shared cultural conscience to function, one with as large a demographic as possible, a widely-popular, still-airing children’s cartoon featuring one of the most distinct and impactful cartoon mascots of the last century within American culture, of which hit peak popularity during the time that the largest demographic of current meme-makers were school-aged children, makes spongebob almost a perfect candidate for internet memes. Since spongebob is still airing, it is inherently still relevant within the collective conscious of contemporary society, because it was so popular with children it has an innate nostalgia-boost factor that allows people to associate a stronger positive emotional trigger than they would with other characters, and by sheer luck the peak of spongebob and the evolution of the internet, digital culture, and memes just so happened to line up in a such s way that the children who spongebob had the biggest influence on as an icon of American children’s culture, would be the same people coming into adulthood with the rise of internet memes, being the demographic most accustomed to and with the most influence over internet memes.