Meme culture: a look into the new side

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Ally Zacek|The DePaulia

For years memes have been the source of entertainment for many people, but for some, it has become something entirely new. 

Recently, World War III memes have ruled the internet and jokes about a possible military draft flew around. While it may seem odd, for those who rely on humor to deal with difficult emotions, memes have become an important coping mechanism. 

The function of memes allows us to reflect on certain events and common emotions that connect people on a larger scale. Humorous jokes about Grumpy Cat and 4Chan ruled the early days of memes. However, as the internet has evolved, so have the memes. While simple and harmless memes like the beloved Nyan Cat still exist, so do more complex memes like “Jeffery Epstein didn’t kill himself” jokes. 

A more recent example of this use of memes is the Iran conflict. When tensions between the United States and Iran began escalating earlier this month, memes about a possible World War III and a draft began spreading like wildfire across the internet. Social media seemed to have endless content of videos, pictures, and drawings of what it would feel like to fight a war. 

“Someone shoot your shot before Iran does,” reads one post. “Nobody:  Me in WW3: I’m in the ghetto ratatata” jokes another meme. 

Using humor to discuss more serious topics is one of the many ways to process intense emotions. Before memes there were comedians. Standup comedy and satirical talk shows joked about serious topics such as racism and abuse. Many memes have assumed this role, and have transformed into a form of a coping mechanism.

I think people have always used humor as a coping mechanism for a long time. There’s a lot of comedians who have committed suicide, but they used humor to cope with a traumatic past,” said 21-year-old DePaul University student Michael Zapata.

The popularity of memes can be attributed to two key reasons: they’re relatable and accessible. The internet and social media has made information available faster and easier than ever before. It’s convenient and effortless to find content at the touch of a button. 

Breanna McEwan, a professor of Communication Studies at DePaul University, says the availability and simplicity of memes make them easy to consume. 

Memes allow people to easily remix images and words to create short, easily consumed opinions,” said McEwan. “Memes are what Henry Jenkins might call highly ‘spreadable’ media; the underlying format is simple to grasp, allows for personalization and editing and the way that they build upon each other allows us to understand them within our cultural context.”

Many people consume memes because of the ability to relate to the emotions conveyed in the media. 

“The relatability of memes definitely connects people,” said Zapata. “It’s basically the whole purpose of them – it’s something that everyone can relate to and find funny.”

The connection of shared experiences that memes can build between people is why it has become a popular coping mechanism. 

“Memes can be beneficial because they serve the functions of idiomatic communication – understanding a meme helps us know we have shared interpersonal understanding of someone else,” said McEwan.

Relating to someone else about a difficult emotion is why memes are sought out. DePaul University student Su Nandar, 22, felt this way about World War III memes. 

“People were really anxious about the possibility of a World War III, so they used memes to connect with other people through humor,” said Nandar. 

This function of memes is generally perceived as harmless. However, there are some concerns over the consequences of using humorous media to discuss serious issues. 

One thing I worry about with memes is that when they are used to communicate a particular position on a political or social issue, they tend to be very low quality information,” said McEwan. “This low quality information can be perceived very differently by people on different sides of the debate and can cause negative attributions about the meme sharer from people who are on the other side of the debate.”

McEwan believes these possible miscommunications can lead to increased polarization on serious issues because assumptions about the lack of intelligence of the opposing side can be made. 

Others don’t mind the use of memes to discuss serious issues. Nandar believes that of all the coping mechanisms, memes may be the most harmless.

“Memes can be helpful because it can be used as an outlet for negative feelings and things,” said Nandar. “They can use humor, rather than drugs or violence, to process things.”

Zapata believes coping memes can help a person build online connections. 

“Maybe at school you’re the shy kid that no one talks to, but on Facebook you’re like the ‘meme king’ online,” said Zapata. “It really just depends on the person and how they want to use memes.”