“Great Political Cartoon” by coneybeare—CC BY 2.0In 1975, well before the internet, memes and Facebook, Muhammad Ali delivered some memorable words at Harvard University that still resonate today. Of course, this is hardly surprising. Ali’s tongue was as quick as his jab, leaving opponents and observers floored. The man was a legend in and out of the ring, and attracted attention everywhere he went.
This time, the speech — a celebration of selflessness and making a difference — ended with what has gone down in history as one of the world’s shortest poems, an expression of both ego and unity. Two simple words, expressing so much. The poem, made up on the spot after a student in the crowd yelled a request, went like this:
On screen, it doesn’t look like much. But imagine the powerful voice of Ali echoing through the ears of Harvard seniors, Ali pausing after the “me” to add gravitas to the final “we,” which he asserts with his fist raised in the air. Despite not being captured on camera, it is a great historical moment relayed by those lucky enough to have been. Now imagine that profound moment captured with an image of Ali, and the poem as its caption.
That’s quite the meme.
Memes are ubiquitos. We have all chuckled at them, rolled our eyes at them, and in some cases, had our eyes opened by them. In their relatively short lifespan, memes have run rampant on the Internet. Some are calling the meme symbolic of the disintegration of language and thought in the digital age, while others think they are harmless tidbits that can brighten up a day. But let’s stall all this rumpus about memes and their affect on our culture, with a fundamental question: are Internet memes a legitimate form of communication in the 21st century?
First, let’s look at the word itself. “Meme” was first coined in 1976 by biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Selfish Gene. In a nutshell, Dawkins used the word to explain the way cultural information is spread. And as we all know, the dissemination of information is one of the primary purposes of communication. The Internet meme is simply words and a graphic meant to convey a message. (It is worth noting that you can bet Dawkins is less than pleased about his high-brow cultural meme de-evolving into the low-brow Internet meme). However, we can go back even further in time to trace the origins of the Internet meme, because like all language forms, the meme is simply the latest stage in a long evolutionary trail.
And that evolutionary trail might look something like this:
“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” —Plato
“Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.”—Confucius
“I am the true vine, and my father is the gardener.”
“I think; therefore, I am.”—René Descartes
“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”—Mark Twain
“To be or not to be: that is the question.”
In each case, a pithy, succinct expression is used to convey a message. The message has a purpose and a meaning, and if you slapped the text over some kind of simple graphic, you would have a pretty effective meme. In this way, the author of a meme is no different from the author of a song or a poem or a news article or — gasp! — a Biblical parable. The message is still sent and received. And like other forms of communication, the meme can inform and, more importantly, form discourse. The meme becomes both a product and reflection of our digital culture.
Communication is a two way street, and everything written — be it a book or a meme — has a writer and a reader. The job of interpreting and filtering the writing is wholly up to the reader. In his seminal 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” French literary theorist, Roland Barthes, argued that the intentions of the author have no bearing on the interpretation of their work.
In other words, the intentions of the writer are somewhat irrelevant because once the message is sent, it is placed in the hands (or eyes) of the reader to do with it as they please. This is also true of Internet memes. The reader may laugh, they may frown, they may form an opinion, they may ignore, they may share on Facebook, but in all cases legitimate communication has occurred.
So call them trite or meaningless or a certain sign of the apocalypse, but keep in mind: memes have a history, and considering our ever-shortening attention spans and ever-increasing methods of receiving communication, they will undoubtedly have a long future as well.
Now if only we could get that “Me, We” meme created.