Dhaka, Bangladesh
Making sense of Memes

Making sense of Memes

Writes Kalani Kumarasinghe

A meme is an idea, piece of information, image, or trend that spreads through culture. It can be anything from a catchphrase, a piece of fashionable clothing or an emoji on your phone. Basically, memes are ideas that infect minds, but they are anything but a new phenomenon. The word meme was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as early as 1979, in his book titled 'The Selfish Gene'. He introduced the idea as the cultural parallel to biological genes and considered them, as being similar to 'selfish' genes. Like a transmittable disease, memes develop by spreading from one person to another. Dawkins, from an evolutionary perspective attempted to understand why some behaviours, seemed to make no sense but, somehow were very commonly observed in human societies. Around the world, meanwhile, the ways in which generations dealt with comedy and humour evolved. While baby boomers discovered the art of stand up comedies, millennials discovered the online meme. An internet meme usually takes the form of an image, graphics interchange format (GIF) or video. It may be just a word or phrase, sometimes including intentional misspellings, or corrupted grammar. Today, these are primarily spread through social networks and blogs, while early in the internet's history, memes were shared via email, message boards and newsgroups. An expert in digital cultures from Newcastle University, Professor Richard Clay, said "To understand our world today, I think we need to decode memes." That's partly due to the fact that online culture allows more people to get in on the action, make their own contributions to the seemingly meaningless and menacing content, often bringing to light, the unsaid. Memes however are menacing because they are particularly effective at getting people to adopt ideas. And internet memes are effective for several reasons. According to professor of psychology at Western Washington University, Ira E. Hyman, memes are effective when they are presented repeatedly as you scan social media. "An attractive meme will get shared and reposted by many people. Even if it is a false statement, you may see the same meme multiple times. And repeating any statement, whether true or false, can make people more likely to believe the statement," he wrote on the contagious quality of memes. Social media can be flooded with memes. Yet, there seems to be a legion of these images and GIFs waiting to be shared. According to one young meme maker, the purpose of the meme may even be solely, entertainment We spoke to a 24-year-old law student, Harin, who started creating memes, earlier this year. Asked why he chose this particular craft, Harin said it was mostly to relieve stress. "It was mainly because of the stress I suffered from while studying for my LLB finals. But I was already interested in memes. Even when I had my first internet connection at home, which was a home broadband, I used to frequently log into 9gag. That's where I discovered memes first," he said. 9gag is a Hong Kong based online platform and social media website, which allows users to upload and share user-generated content. The platform is extremely popular among young Sri Lankan netizens. "Whenever I looked at them, I realised they made me happy and less stressed. So I downloaded this meme making application. There are different templates, which I started using," he said. Harin uses real life context, such as incidents which occur among his friends, to create memes, which he shares with closed social groups. "It always made them laugh," he recalls. "It made them happy, and made me happy," Harin said. While he doesn't wish to monetize or publicize his creations, Harin updates his friends with new memes, who continue to encourage him. Once, he received a message from a friend, he said is unforgettable. The message read "Thank you for sharing these, it really puts me in a good mood. I'm suffering from depression and it really uplifts my mood." Harin said that it's one of the reasons which inspires him to keep creating and sharing memes. "I know someone will smile or have a good laugh. That makes me happy." he added. Former US President Barack Obama was not the first politician to make use of social media, but may have been the most effective, as Obama has for years been breaking ground on how politicians engage with a digitally savvy electorate. On numerous occasions Obama has used social media as a tool to educate, inform, entertain and shape his legacy. But what about Sri Lanka, we asked Digital and Social Media Marketer Umair Wolid. "There is an estimation of about 1.5 million first time voters waiting to exercise their franchise at this election. This particular segment is not exposed to any other media in terms of TV, radio or newspaper. Their key information gathering platform is predominantly social media. They don't have major knowledge of the political landscape, so whatever message that is communicated through social media could be the ultimate. Their final decision is completely focused on what messages are being delivered on social media platforms. Because of that, this election is predominantly going to be a more of a tight race, with these 1.5 million votes being a decisive factor. Social media therefore can play a key role in targeting these first time voters," the marketer with over 12 years of experience in the digital landscape said. With over 6 million facebook population users within Sri Lanka, general voters too are now starting to believe content on these platforms, according to Umair. "Social media played a vital role in bringing in the Yahapalanaya government, where memes played a significant role. This time memes have mostly been to ridicule a candidate or promote whatever message they wish to. Memes are done by individuals and community pages. But memes have now evolved into various versions of memes. It is not the same thing that happened in 2015, when memes were in full force. This a far more advanced. Social media are constantly evolving. " he said. He said that social media have become the platform for conversation starters and politicians' official facebook posts are the ones being amplified into other media. At least 30-40 percent of the votes therefore will be based on what people have seen on social media, according to Umair's estimates. "One key area is the growth of community pages, which have played a huge role in this election so far. There are multiple community pages which have been posting content on different topics and genres earlier, but with the elections, their key focus is on politicians," he added.

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