Internet memes serve as a commentary on our digitally mediated existence, inviting us to ponder the significance of language, culture and meaning in a relentlessly evolving technological landscape.
Recently, a friend of mine was introducing me to a new friend. Excitedly, she said, “You are going to love her. Her brain works just like ours”. I knew instantly what she meant. Just like ours meant “internet brain”, or someone who, just like us, was chronically online. I felt a sense of ease wash over me – I would have an intimacy with this person by default; I would be able to speak in vague references, without awkwardness, explanation, or judgement. What makes our shared language different is that it is based on various allusions to internet memes. Unknowingly, we, and I’m sure many other friend groups, have created a new code of language to communicate with one another. And to be part of this code meant you had to be just as online as us. It is a well-established belief in new media studies that the technologies we use shape us. In a time of unwavering technological progress, the future of our languages is bound to the technologies we use to communicate. Digital communication has impacted not only the mediums in which we communicate with one another, but also the messages, or language, we use with one another. The infamous and misunderstood internet meme, a by-product of our digital communication through social media platforms, is subverting how we use language and make meaning. Media theorists marvel over it, linguists deliberate over it, and philosophers remain defeated in their attempts to understand it. Are internet memes merely images, or can we perceive them as a new form of language? Perhaps they are a secret third thing. Maybe, memes are symbols.
The study of semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, and thus the process of creating meaning. A sign is defined as something that is used in the place of something else, while a symbol is something that can shift in meaning according to the context in which it’s found. The symbol makes a useful framework to conceptualize the internet meme. Conceiving internet memes as symbols allows us to understand them as generating meaning through their context within a larger network of meaning. Memes have largely been viewed through the lens of memetics – a discipline that focuses on the evolution of culture by studying how and why memes spread and evolve, rather than the semiotic focus of memes as pieces of information that are relational in systems of meaning. What this highlights is the relational or intertextual nature of some internet memes. Put more simply, the meaning we make from one internet meme is related to our understanding of other internet memes. What makes memes symbolic also makes them intricately political. Their ability to act as political symbols, and to convey political messaging as memes that exist within a system or language, makes them a vigorous medium for political communication. One meme can exist as a soldier in an entire army of memes, which together function as a sign of protest, a light-hearted form of critique, or as a vehicle for a broader ideology by its relation to other memes.
The memes that I find the most profound are those that appear not to be political at first glance, but through their reference to a broader genre of memes, political meaning can be generated from them. Such a meme might subtly and simply convey a complex political ideology. For example, I have recently acquired a taste for memes that comment on the current state of technological advancement, tech monopolies and the political, social and cultural realities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These memes generally express uncertainty and disenchantment with technology in late-stage capitalism, revealing how capitalism has co-opted new technologies in the pursuit of profit and at the cost of individual human agency. What makes these memes particularly poignant for me is that they play with the paradox of being transmitted through a medium that is a product of the tech companies that they seek to criticize. Tweets that criticize or play with Elon Musk's rebranding of Twitter to X perfectly portray this paradox. Similarly, poking fun at Apple products through memes that are highly likely to be viewed through an iPhone are inherently ironic.
A recent example that caught my attention occurred after a TikTok live clip broke through its niche corner of the internet and went viral on Twitter. To an outsider (or our ancestors), it is a comically incomprehensible artefact of the modern world. The clip was the catalyst for a series of memes that, beneath their humorous facade, express a disturbing disillusionment with the realities of living in a highly technologized society. TikToker Pinkydoll’s livestream shows her making popcorn with a hair straightener and hauntingly repeating randomized phrases, like “gang gang, yes yes yes, ice cream so good”, on a loop. The seemingly random phrases she repeats correspond to stickers or gifts that her audience has paid for, allowing Pinkydoll to generate profit with each command she fulfils. The clip captured the attention of the internet as it unlocked a new and weird cultural phenomena called NPC (Non-Playable Character) streaming to the rest of the internet. NPC streaming gives the audience control of the streamer’s words and actions as if they are playing a video game, and the output is bright colours, cute sounds and dopamine rewards, ultimately creating a mesmerizing and uncanny human slot machine.
The memes that unfolded after this clip became viral convey a deep disenchantment with already heightened fears surrounding technologies like AI that appear to transform what it means to be human. They reveal the impact that Big Tech platforms like TikTok have on the way we communicate, earn money, and entertain ourselves by exaggerating its consequences on human language and meaning in our highly technological age. One meme shows the clip with layers of filters in the post-internet style, and with a computerized feminine voiceover stating:
“Human language is evolving to become real and beautiful. The newest trend online is called post-language, and billions of people are choosing to forget how to speak words and embrace the divine beauty of pure sound. Words are becoming like emojis, real and beautiful shapes that serve no purpose other than to make a smile. Anyone who remembers words a year from now is not gonna make it. You have to stop reading. Stop thinking. Stop explaining things. There is no need for knowledge or understanding. We are all writing an infinite song together.”
These memes eloquently capture the alienation of living in our highly technologized society by exaggerating the impact of technology on society, the degradation of language, labour, culture and, inevitably, meaning. Playful renditions of Pinkdoll’s clip appear in memes that are made in reference to other memes, such as the release of the highly memeified Oppenheimer, or cultural theorist and memed intellectual, Slavoj Žižek. The blending of these cultural moments and the meaning generated from these memes are dependent on our knowledge of other memes, and make up the corpus of a broader ideology.
This realization leaves me, and probably other millennials, romanticizing the early days of the internet, when we were naive to the horrors and wonders that we would discover on the internet as it developed through the 21st century. They capture the absurdity, reality and sometimes disbelief of how intertwined our lives have become with the technologies we use – through the iconic and nostalgic image of autumn trees that was once a Windows98 desktop, to an image of a gentle stream juxtaposed with text referring to how Wi-Fi is made. These memes pull us out of our internet brain and ground us in the reality of human existence.
Internet memes offer a window into the complex and sometimes paradoxical relationship between technology and humans. A wide range of human emotion lies within them. Through their humorous facade they convey deeply disenchanted political perspectives of the world. They serve as both a mirror and a commentary on our digitally mediated existence, inviting us to ponder the significance of politics, language, culture and meaning in a relentlessly evolving technological landscape. Gang Gang.