I strongly believe in good manners and treating people with respect. It is not okay to use offensive language and yet the internet is full of racist, sexist and cruel language. I often think of cyber space as the Wild West – there are few rules, anything goes and there are not enough official monitors.
The fact that you get such huge reach on the internet and there is no cyber policeman almost encourages some people to go feral. I read an article in the University of Melbourne website, Pursuit recently on divisive language called ‘How the toxic went mainstream’. Dr Mark Davis in the university’s School of Culture and Communication explains that people often use ‘memes’ to promote unsavoury or racist ideas.
What is a meme?
It is an image, video or piece of text, usually humorous that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users with slight variations.
Memes posted on websites can be extremely popular and generate hundreds of comments.
Who Uses Memes?
The majority of internet memes are transmitted by 20-something millennials. This is because that age group is a big user of social media. The average age of meme users is increasing, as Generation X and Baby Boomer users discover the entertainment fun of spreading memes.
Who named Memes?
The word meme was first introduced by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in 1976 to describe the spread of cultural information from one person to another. Meme comes from the Greek word mimema (meaning ‘something imitated’). Prof Dawkins described memes as being a form of cultural propagation, which is a way for people to transmit social memories and cultural ideas to each other. Not unlike the way that DNA will spread from location to location, a meme idea will also travel from mind to mind.
How Memes Become Popular
The internet is how we now spread modern memes to each other. A link to a YouTube video of Rick Astley, a file attachment with a Star Wars Kid movie, an email signature with a Chuck Norris quote — these are a few examples of modern memes. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, are behind the spread of memes.
Dr Davis explains that by producing and circulating memes on social media sites, it is possible to generate high levels of engagement. However some memes are cruel and racist and unfortunately they spread rapidly. Through their use of humour and sarcasm, memes are particularly effective in communicating ideas, but the problem is that they at times communicate the wrong idea.
“Often memes are pictorial and are very cleverly constructed. They are almost always designed to be humorous, ironic or sarcastic, and are heavily coded; very rarely do they play it straight,” says Dr Davis.
Melbourne University writer, Lisa Needham, explains, “With the emergence of the internet, memes became an online phenomenon. By the 1990s, these bite-sized nuggets of information consisting of text, images and video became a strong online currency, circulating an array of ideas and helping to shape and form opinion. More recently though there has been a growing currency in sinister and politically toxic memes designed to disrupt, and their effects are being felt well beyond the realms of the internet.”
I think that if memes can be used to spread negative ideas, then we should also be using them to send positive messages about respect and inclusion.
So why do memes matter? Looking at memes is an important way of keeping up with modern culture and current trends. It tells us what people are thinking about and talking about. The ancient Egyptians had hieroglyphics, today we have memes, but they can also influence people and that is why I say never pass on a meme that is racist, sexist or hurtful.
A meme has much more information than just words. Like emojis they convey complex ideas of mood and emotion. Memes communicate complex ideas, states of mind and shared understanding.
Most memes are meant to be humorous but their impact is only dependent on how they are viewed and used. If someone is sending you or viewing memes you don’t understand, then ask them to explain them to you. Ask what the wider significance is. Ask them to think about what they are viewing and reading. All I can say to you is use memes as a force for good, not a force for harm.
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.