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What's in a Meme?

Pop Culture has birthed a new, all consuming trend. It influences thoughts and captures imaginations. It’s not a song, a movie, or a fashion accessory. It is the Meme.

It seems that memes are everywhere nowadays; they appear most obviously on social media sites such as facebook, instagram and tumblr. Some memes, like the grumpy cat, have soared in popularity until they can be found on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and posters. Others have entered mainstream dialogue as popular catchphrases, such as the now trending idiom ‘cash me outside’.

However, memes are not as new as some may think, and the basic construct was in place long before the internet. The word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins, who defined it as a rapidly spreading cultural idea. Ideas have been spreading through cultures and jumping from person to person for a long time; for example, look at any number of widely held superstitions in western culture. These are merely ideas which have spread and multiplied, eventually blending seamlessly into established culture.

Due to its astonishing ability to reach large amounts of people in record time, the internet has become the most common vehicle for the modern day meme. Before we had the world wide web, however, we had the world wide wars.

Propaganda during both world wars bears a striking resemblance to what we think of as memes today. The structure is surprisingly similar - an image with text placed at the top, bottom, or both. Both memes and propaganda convey ideas to an audience quickly, concisely, and effectively.

Memes today are often used in a way not unlike the propaganda posters of the 1940’s. Memes are designed not only to amuse audiences but to reflect political stances, provide a platform for social commentary, and to influence popular opinion. Memes encouraging viewers to vote or think a certain way are not that far removed from posters of Uncle Sam encouraging young men to join the service or Rosie the Riveter encouraging citizens on the homefront to do their part.

Whatever the vehicle, ideas will continue to spread. The ways in which we share these ideas are ever evolving, changing, and morphing into something new. In times to come, students in history classes may study internet memes in the same way we study propaganda posters, as relics of the past.

In whatever way the idea travels, however, at heart it is the same beautiful, unalterable thing; human thought, shared across distance, time, and social barriers. Long Live the Meme.


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