Whenever I open my Facebook or Twitter for a quick break in class or at work, I always find myself looking at strange images, sometimes with witty captions, while other times filled with speech bubbles delivering ironic or even unapologetic banters. If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’m talking about memes.
When Richard Dawkins first coined the idea of memes over four decades ago in his book The Selfish Gene, I doubt he had any clue that the Internet subculture would redefine it in the way it has today. While its spirit of being an idea or behavior transmitted from person to person still holds true, its incorporation of crude visual representation surely was not part of its original intent.
Memes are arguably as old as the Internet itself, its earliest form spreading even in the days of message boards and email threads as interpersonal jokes, but it was only in recent years that people took its impact seriously in more ideological and political discussions. The 2016 US elections, for example, has been a subject of controversy after Facebook had allowed Russian hackers to disseminate biased information on their platform to sway public opinion through memes.
Even in the local landscape memes have begun to crop up here and there. How many times have we seen people lament the traffic situation in EDSA, or the number of times the MRT has broken down through memes? Even darker news stories like the anti-drug campaign have their own fair share of memes.
It is no surprise, then, that the same is prevalent in DLSU. After all, before it even reached the wider population, it was already “hip” with my generation. It was only a matter of time before it crossed over and became widely accepted on more serious topics. During the recent enlistments, for example, students expressed their dissatisfaction of not having being able to enroll the class they needed or animo.sys being unresponsive through memes. When the administration pushed for U Break, students vented their frustration by joking about how out of touch the proponents were with the rest of the community.
So what’s the deal? Why are memes so popular? The whole idea of memes, I believe, is what makes it so enticing. It is quick and easy to make; it does not take much effort to understand the context; and it is funny, most of the time. It’s no different from cracking jokes with friends in casual conversation.
Further, perhaps memes became so popular because it reflected our cynical worldview so well—that when left with problems around us that never seem to be solved, we have nothing better to do than whine about it. It became an outlet to release angst and to sympathize with others who feel the same way.
While it is mostly harmless fun, it does raise some concerns on how we now we synthesize the issues around us. The use of memes makes responses to issues more reactionary rather than contemplative, more stripped down rather than elaborate. How often do we find ourselves reading the headline of a news article, witnessing a lot of negative reactions in the comments, and then reading the actual article and seeing there was more to it than the headline would have us believe?
This kind of behavior also reflects in meme culture: people complained about the U Break, but only few really read up on what it entailed or understood the rationale why it was being implemented. Even in my experience, I sometimes jump the gun despite knowing only a little about the issue myself before looking further and realizing that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
But judging a book by its cover can be dangerous because this means that individuals are forming uninformed opinions on issues that matter and memes can be one way to spread this opinion. And if a large enough group of people agree on this mindset, they can have an impact on society.
On the other hand, memes have made it easier to disseminate information on an online platform, and has reached others far better than traditional means. In fact, in some cases, people would learn of the meme first before they learn of the context it holds. They bring attention to a certain topic by showing us what it is people care about or what it is they relate to. If the joke is lost on some people, they might look into it to better understand it, and in the process, they indirectly become aware of it. From this perspective, memes have provided us a way to gain the attention of an otherwise apathetic audience.
As Lasallians, it is our responsibility to always be prudent in doing our own research before formulating our own judgments, especially now that we are more exposed to socio-political issues. Memes are only one way of getting attention, but it is up to us to see beyond it and act on it.
In this day and age when information is easily accessible, being ignorant is a choice, and yet people still choose to remain that way. We need to be better than that.