There’s not a single university student who wouldn’t know what memes are if I said ‘meme’. Memes have been part of our daily life and youth culture for a long time that it’s hard to imagine that this new internet category was invented only around 10 years ago. But have you ever paused your endless scrolling on Instagram – where you sniff air out of your nose while you press heart on some memes about university students cramming the night before exam with a shake made of red bull and coffee and tears – to think why exactly memes are so relatable?
Perhaps the answer to this question is very straightforward – because people want to find a common ground of belonging. There are various types of memes on the internet varied by languages such as in English or in Russian and other memes relatable to people from certain communities only. For instance, the “Polemical Polish memes” page and the “justMongolianthings” page on Facebook are found highly funny by people from the said countries or the “yon_sei_shinanigans” and the “yonsei_memes_for_songdo_teens” pages on Instagram concentrate on sharing memes related to student experiences in Yonsei University. These pages are all processed, accepted, and shared by people who fall into the category of certain age group, certain job, certain nationality, or certain community. In short, they all have a common background. And who can blame them for laughing hours and hours at memes on a social media? It feels good to belong.
But there is another answer to why memes are widely received and popular. As the survey did by New York Times in the Missouri University of Science and Technology in 2012, the survey group recruited 216 undergraduates to see their internet surfing habit (New York Times). Two major findings were made from this survey – the identification of several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression and that Internet usage was statistically high among participants with depressive symptoms. These features of depressed people’s usage included high level of sharing files like movies, music, and photos, high level of e-mail usage which correlates to anxiety, and high “flow duration entropy” — which often occurs when there is frequent switching among Internet applications like e-mail, chat rooms and games. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In short, the most common ground of meme culture is that the majority of the people (the youth) who look at memes daily suffer from mild to severe depression, social anxiety, stress, and other mental struggles such as the burned out syndrome which indicates the feeling of helplessness and inability to make change. To put simply, as a way to cope with the toxic environment they’re in, people joke about the situations they can’t change or highly ashamed of.
So it’s no surprise that the mechanism and delicate art behind building popular and relevant memes, per se, requires a funny photo and a short explanation sentence, and the two combined has to possess the bitter irony, the sad scam of what we call existence, and so much pain that the audience will have no choice but to laugh at it because there’s nothing they can do to change it. Any older person who is in their late 30s or 40s and more won’t understand the reasoning behind memes at all. Memes are, after all, invented and shared by younger people those who are currently in their late teens to early 30s who also has the highest rate of mental illness compared to the older generation.
Hence, the mechanism behind memes is simple— it’s a humor dipped in black, the bitterness clogging one’s chest, and a laughter that’s sharp enough to cut. Meme culture is a cry for help from the younger generation. This culture is not just the youngsters fooling around and being useless – it hides the pain and insecurities and anxiety and the fear of failure in this overly perfectionist society behind funny photos and outrageous descriptions.