For the United States, 2016 has been a bit of rough ride. As one online meme so elegantly puts it, “It all started with the death of this !@#**! Gorilla.”
In traditional meme fashion, this is more than a little hyperbolic (Harambe earned his wings on May 28th, after all). Yet in the grand scheme of things, human memory and experience are not always chronologically represented. Harambe may not have been the first teeth-gnashing event of 2016, but for many armchair observers (read: most of us), he sits statuesque as the figurehead for a year that we Americans just wish would go silently into that good night.
The never-ending story of 2016 is not just one of near constant disappointment for pretty much everyone. No, 2016 is the year we repurposed memes, making them the new digital tableau of our public consciousness. We discovered how our society can utilize them as a humorous panacea for all of our woes.
The History of the Meme
In 1976, noted controversial atheist writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his book The Selfish Game. Likely yelling "FIRST" as he wrote it out, Dawkins attempts to use his newly-coined concept -- one that would prove to eventually outlive him -- as a method to explain how information spreads within a culture. In the book, he states:
When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.
It would be some time before Dawkins’ concept of the meme really took off (much like a meme?), although it continued to parasitically latch onto the minds of academics for another two decades until the invention of the internet.
In a 1994 Wired article, during the infancy of the World Wide Web, attorney and author Mike Godwin proposed the concept of the “internet meme”, one that he believed differed from the biological meme in that it arose, not organically, but with purpose, and at times with ill-intent. Godwin is, of course, more well known for his "Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies", which arose from the aforementioned article, and which represented his attempt at finding a way to curtail the Nazi-comparison meme. Of this insidious trope, Godwin stated:
The Nazi-comparison meme, I'd decided, had gotten out of hand.
Indeed. One may only wonder what he thinks of the Harambe memes and pretty much most memes that have developed since then.
Granted, the first real internet memes seem to have been political in nature (if calling someone or something you disagree with a Nazi isn’t politically charged, I don’t know what is), but the exponential increase of them, and the development of image macro memes seems to have slid the preponderance of memes noticeably away from overwhelmingly political commentary. At least, that may have been the case until 2016 rolled along.
Memes tend to directly follow the course of public consciousness and thought. For 2016, the public consciousness (for better or worse, likely worse), has been overwhelmingly focused on the negative feelings within the body politic. We’ve all been hurting this year for various reasons, many of which are political. Clinton scared us. Trump frightened us. Harambe made us weep for humanity. So we’ve turned to memes to make light of all of those situations, to make us laugh at what we fear and at what we hate.
Hillary Clinton Memes
Take the Clinton memes. Those afraid of a Clinton presidency, and what seemed like an inevitable coronation ceremony for the much-maligned career politician, turned to memes to make light of the situation.
For Clinton detractors, much of the memetic focus was on her emails and the supposed mysterious deaths surrounding the Clintons over the years.
Donald Trump Memes
Meanwhile, anti-Trump memes have followed the now President-elect from the time he first entered the race, even before most people expected him to actually win the Republican nomination.
For many of Trump's opponents, his subtle and not-so-subtle racism and misogyny, as well as his often "cartoonish" behavior, made him a bit of a low-hanging fruit (an orange, likely), with most anti-Trump memes somewhat less substantive than those lobbed against Clinton.
Joe Biden Memes
As the year progressed toward its end, and November’s election came and went, it became clear to many people that the pains inflicted by 2016 were not over yet. For some, the only way to preserve some hint of sanity was through the ever-jovial and somewhat handsy Joe Biden.
Even still, the election caused many Americans to become overwhelmingly self-reflective. And in a self-reflective world, the only memetic character we could turn to was the one we could trust to tell us the truth, who’d been "telling it like it is" for a few years now: Kermit the Frog. Only now, Kermit was intent on showing us our truer, darker selves:
Perhaps it's appropriate that 2016 ends with a self-reflective Kermit meme. As Time so elegantly puts it, “These Evil Kermit the Frog Memes Are a Hilarious Reminder of the Dark Side in All of Us”. In truth, 2016 has placed many Americans in the uncomfortable position of having to think long and hard on the nature of evil -- both our own and perhaps more so that of our neighbors.
The Final Stretch
With one month left in the “Year of Woe,” there’s still plenty of time for the internet’s wittiest denizens to drum up a few more ways for Biden to ruin Trump’s transition into the White House, or for Evil Kermit to draw us even further to the dark side than he already has. There may even be time for a few new memes to pop up, helping us reflect what we really think of ourselves, our society, and our culture.
At the end of his Wired piece, Godwin wrote:
While the world of the Net is filled with diverse critical thinkers who are ready to challenge self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing memes, we can't rely on net.culture's diversity and inertia to answer every bad meme. The Nazi-comparison meme has a peculiar resilience, in part because of its sheer inflammatory power ("You're calling me a Nazi? You're the Nazi in this discussion!") The best way to fight such memes is to craft counter-memes designed to put them in perspective. The time may have come for us to commit ourselves to memetic engineering – crafting good memes to drive out the bad ones.
Perhaps our reinvigorated obsession with humorous memes is just that. After a year of constant anger, angst and infighting, we may need a few good laughs to help ease the pain.