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What does it all meme?

The original screen capture for the meme commonly referred to as “Arthur’s Fist” was posted to Twitter on July 27, 2016. Photo Illustration by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

College students love memes. Memes are not only funny jokes or stolen images but units of cultural information. Easily shareable and easily laughable, they lurk on your mom’s Facebook, are etched into bathroom stalls and are even displayed on the Wendy’s official Twitter. Memes, most importantly, are here to stay.

MEMES MAKE MONEY

In 2007, Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami launched I Can Has Cheezburger, a blog that would grow to become one of the largest web comedy platforms. It began when Nakagawa published an image to the web forum Something Awful. The image, now infamous, was a grey cat with eyes pleading in a direct address to the viewer, asking the eponymous question, “I Can Has Cheezburger?”

Cheezburger was successful. As of the time of this publication, web data analytics company Alexa has cheezburger.com traffic ranked No. 1,585 nationally.

In March of 2011, Cheezburger, Inc. bought web-culture etymology website KnowYourMeme.com. In February of 2016, Cheezburger, Inc. was bought by an unnamed holdings company, now addressed as Literally Media. They claim to be starting a collective platform for all millenial and Generation Z media. Sounds nice, but first #BringBackVine and then we’ll talk.

MEMES MAKE COMMUNITY

Prue Benson studies public policy at the Andrew Young School of Public Policy. He founded an unofficial Georgia State meme group on Facebook, “GSU Memes for Sleepy, Woke Teens.”

“I wanted to increase school spirit and create another community for students,” Benson said.

He patterned his page after other university college meme pages. These pages are memes themselves, a self replicating and mutating idea, complete with a fun naming scheme, abundant subject material and the captive audience of college students.

“I was inspired by other schools’ meme pages like Yale memes for special snowflake teens, UC Berkeley memes for edgy teens, and GT memes for Buzzed teens,” Benson said.

The first use of the word “meme” occured in British biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene.” In the 1989 edition, Dawkins elaborates on how he invented the word:

“’Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’,” Dawkins said. “I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme … It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.”

Memes, like genes, copy, replicate and reform in odd ways. Take for example a meme that culture magazine The Fader called “The song of the Summer.” Rapper Playboi Carti leaked a video of an upcoming single “Cancun” to Twitter on July 1. On July 2, a Twitter user posted an isolated clip of Carti rubbing money on his belly, singing the lines “My stummy hurt.”

The meme gene was isolated. It would spread across YouTube, Spotify and Twitter, morphing and recombining with sympathetic memes as it went.

“Uh Mr. Stark, my stummy hurt,” from a Twitter user would combine the meme with a popular “Avengers: Infinity War” reference circulating at the time.

A comic appeared, first on Twitter July 18. It featured Playboi Carti in dialogue with an anime girl.

“What’s wrong, Carti-kun?”

“Stummy hurt nee-chan.”

MEMES MAKE ART

Joelle Bouchard is the artist behind @namaste.at.home.dad on Instagram. In September, she spoke at Know Your Meme’s Two Decades of Memes at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.

She began making memes in 2015, posting them in the Facebook group “Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Meme Makers.” She left the group to start her Instagram in March of 2016.

Now, she’s connected with meme makers across the country. Bouchard is a member of Bottom Text, an art collective of meme makers hosted on Instagram. Bottom Text has had two exhibitions in 2018 at The Bakery in Atlanta’s West End.

Bouchard is a self-admitted perfectionist. When talking about memes, she fascinates over what has been done before, what is interesting and what is just easy. She began making memes on Microsoft Paint. She continued on Paint as an intentional limitation to reign in her perfectionism over an image she knew most people would scroll past.

“It’s meant to be a s— image. People are only gonna look at it for like 20 seconds,” Bouchard said.

Now, avoiding her virus-ridden computer, she makes memes on a collage app on her phone. Fitting, since that is the platform on which most of her audience will enjoy them. Bouchard said she began using stock photos, the found footage of the corporate web until she wanted more. Now, she said she tries to avoid using people altogether.

“I use a lot of 3D renders,” Bouchard said. “One of my most frequent searches is for ‘3D sl–’.”

She used to troll through image boards and forums looking for images that inspired an idea. Now, she starts with the idea, and makes the images herself. She makes memes with in-depth composition: with characters, setting and themes fully fleshed out.

“Say I’m making a meme about people who shop at Whole Foods … you can’t just Google image search a ‘hipster guy,’ the results aren’t that good,” Bouchard said. “You have to think about a weird way another person would describe that person.”

Her memes are a collage of symbols with importance in their interactions and placement. As an idea develops, she begins to focus on details, matching elements and images to fit the theme.

“If I wanted to get a woman in dreads, I would find the woman, photoshop on sh—-, 3D render dreadlocks and then maybe give her an annoying T-shirt,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard contends with those who would deny her access to the use of the word “art.” For her, art is in the process, not the form or formality.

“I have to create an image and pay attention to the juxtaposition between image and text, or start from scratch and create a new image with graphic design,” Bouchard said. “If you thought about it for more than 10 seconds with an open mind, it’d be obvious.”

Memes are effective. It is a genre that spans generations and continents. If high art gets defensive, then high art needs to step it up.

MEMES BY THE ERA:

2005 – Pepe Frog emerges.
2007 – lolcats become popular, solidifying the Top Text/Bottom Text genre of image macro memes.
2008 – YouTube Poop videos, remixing and re-dubbing popular media.
2008 – Twitter user @dril debuts, tweeting “No.”
2009 – Super Mario parody video of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” published on Youtube.
2011 – Floral Shoppe album released by Vektroid, starting Vaporwave.
2014 – “REEEEEE” meme first posted on 4chan.
2016 – Brandon Wardell tweets “d—- out for Harambe,” and starts a movement.

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