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A Tale of the Meme Generation

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by Bramantyo Indirawan

Once upon a time, the internet was born into the modern world and change it for better or worst. Robert E. Kahn and Vinton Cerf, the fathers of Internet, developed Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) for the communication model and set standards of how data can be transmitted within multiple networks.

Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, adopted TCP/IP on January 1, 1983. After that defining moment, the blueprint was made and researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” and eventually took the form of modern Internet as we know it today.

With just a click away, we can learn something new and explore the vast data the internet has to offer. From Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, facts about Borobudur Temple, to lessons on how to draw a simple picture or how to replicate the Monalisa.

In the midst of it all, meme spread itself like wildfire. Meme is  a phrase(s) or a word(s) that seems to appear from somewhere and no one really knows who makes it in the first place, even though it is traceable. It can take in many forms: a photo of a grumpy cat, an edited 9/11 footage that envokes dark humour, a joke in the  form of 80s music video, a brief scene from a movie or television show, and fictional horror stories are the examples of an internet meme.

Yes, we can find an array of seemingly limitless information online. Internet meme itself can spread ideas that manifest into photos, videos, stories, or other forms that also spreads in the internet; side by side with other information such as news and scientific papers and articles.

Although there are some sites that can’t be accessed by minors due to age restriction, most of the information in the internet including memes are accessible to anyone; from younglings to elders.

The meme generation is molded into this world where anything can be shared. It could give different effect: it could be bad if the content is inappropriate, such as taunting a disabled person, but it could be good if it is entertaining and brings laughter and happiness and it also can be both – when people laugh at a disabled person, thus blurring the definition of morality.

Arguably, meme could be nothing. It’s neither bad nor good. It is a meaningless thought that “replicate itself” in the human mind that brings people to a state of nowhere.

Stabbed Because of Memes

Two reasons internet memes can be entertaining are because of their humorous nature and they relate to people. Hence, people share it, and became viral.

But meme can also has an unexpected, troubling impact. One meme that tells a fictional horror story could trigger two 12-year old girls to kill their schoolmate in Milwaukee, United States.

The meme is called Slender Man, a story about a tall and thin blank face creature wearing a suit. He can stretch or shorten his arms and have tentacles protruding from his back. The creature was created in an internet forum on 10th June 2009  by Eric Knudsen and replicate itself, becoming an internet myth.

Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser took interest in Slender Man after they learned about the creature in Creepypasta Wiki, a website dedicated to horror-related legends and images. Apparently, they came to believe that the Slender Man was real and wanted to prove their loyalty to him so they could become his followers, prove his existence, and prevent him from harming their families.

The two believed that the only way they could become the Slender Man’s followers was to murder someone, so they attempted to kill their schoolmate, Payton Leutner, in a forest on the 31st May of 2014.

After they stabbed Leutner 19 times with a 13cm kitchen knife, Weier and Geyser fled the area. Leutner miraculously survived the horrendous attack after a cyclist found her in a ditch nearby the forest where they stabbed her. The underage murderers were finally caught and claimed they were mentally ill at the time. In 25th December 2017, Weier was sentenced to 25 years in a mental hospital while Geyser is still waiting for persecution.

Although both the receiver and the content is responsible for this gruesome mess in the forest of Wisconsin, it also shows how a superficial meme have a serious and troubling impact on real life. The randomness, shallowness, and the lack of “real” lessons that memes has to offer can make a simple joke or cheap thrills into an abomination.

Apart from triggering a homicide, creators of internet memes often stole pictures of other people and put inapropriate text to it only to amuse the crowds. Case in point, Heidi Crowter. Crowter is a girl with down-syndrome whose photo was once exploited and became a meme, captioning her disability. Her mother acted out against this vile attempt and tried to fight the internet, only to get attacked herself in a form of a meme.

If we separate the internet meme such as Slender Man and the stabbing case, we still have internet meme as a form of media or content that doesn’t stand as anything with depth or morals. Although it has proven to be a communication tool; expressing thoughts and even mental illness such as depression, it is still just a shallow replicant with no clear function and meaning whatsoever.

Internet Meme vs. Everything Else

Before the internet came to flourish, an evolutionary biologist named Richard Dawkins coined the term meme on his book titled The Selfish Gene (1974). According to the Briton, meme is the spread of ideas, tunes, behaviour, or style from person to person within a culture.

“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” wrote Dawkins in his first published book.

The word meme itself derived from the Greek word mimeme, meaning ‘to which is replicated’. Dawkins also thinks that it could alternatively be thought of as being related to “memory”, or the French word même.

To some extent, there are parallels and similarities between his proposed theory and the internet meme. Both replicate itself from people to other people and stuck into their brain and the form is more or less the same; from ideas such as fictional stories, tunes such as songs, and behaviour such as a viral dance move.

Although they both has the same characteristics, we must separate both meme and internet meme. Meme comes from an argument that emphasize another replicant in human other than genes and can spread to any medium.

Meanwhile internet meme differentiate itself by successfully transcend into the mainstream and use the word “meme” as a category of popular consumption for the masses. It chooses a media that spreads at a fast rate and linger on people minds. People pass it around, share it on different social media platforms, post it for likes while hoping that it will relate to everyone, fishing for attention, and distract yourself from the real problems; the meme generation is here to stay.

Luckily, there is always a way to be rid of this aimless endeavor: steer away from the mindless internet meme and open your horizon to meaningful ideas that matter.

We can argue that stories with a set of values and morals stand opposite the internet meme because the depth that it brings. When growing up, children learn simple but fundamental lessons such as good or bad, the importance of working hard, to follow your dreams, crime does pay, and be kind to others from stories told by their parents.

A valuable guided* lesson is given when parents read their children stories before going to bed or other occasion like teaching them how to listen, read, and speak,  preparing them for the real world.

Even some myth can give us lessons due to the moral values contained in it. In Myth: It’s Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (1970), Geoffrey Kirk defines myth as tales that have been passed down from generation to generation and embedded in their tradition.

In addition to that, myths usually address daunting themes such as creation, life, death, and answer major life questions. “Myths often include deities and other supernatural beings in their list of characters, and they may tell cosmic events such as the birth of the universe” wrote Josepha Sherman in his book titled Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore (2008).

Take a look at Greek mythology; the stories are rich in teachings and moral values. The story of Pandora opening a box that shouldn’t be opened teaches us about temptation, the moral of value of Sisyphus is bad deeds will ultimately lead to punishment, and Hercules’ 12 feats shows us how a good life can be accomplished if we can prove our worth.

The Indian mythology Mahabrata tells a classic, epic war between good and evil and its consequences. Indonesian myths mostly tell stories about supernatural or spiritual beings such as Nyi Roro Kidul who rules the sea. Obviously, stories are not limited to myth only.

Folklore serves the same functions as mythology. The lessons that unfold in the story can inspire people to do good and grow up with “pillars” of morals that make them stand strong.

Archer Taylor in Folklore and the Student of Literature, as quoted by Mazhar-ul –Islam, says that folklore is the material that is handed down by tradition either by word of mouth or for custom and practice. It can take in various forms of folk literature and art, such as:  folksong, folktales, riddles, proverbs, and so on.

Indonesia, obviously, has its own folklore (which is called “dongeng” or “cerita rakyat” in Indonesian language). Some of the notable ones are Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, that tells the struggle of a woman who finally finds happiness, Malin Kundang teaches people to be good to their parents, and Roro Jonggrang teaches us to never cheat or lie. All these tales teach people moral values to be implemented in their daily life.

When technology takes over, children are remain guided by their parents but not with the means of stories since televisions, smartphones, and tablets take over that role. Those gadgets provide attractive audio visual to keep children busy. Actually, it is not completely bad since the programs still contain educational and moral lessons. However, as they grow up and become more adept at technology, they will be more exposed to internet memes.

Without value or morals to stand on, internet memes will sip into the minds of children, where they ‘consume’ it for everyday entertainment as their means of communication. Critical thinking is a basis for how we see the world and the process of consuming a worthwhile content like stories can prepare us for this.

It doesn’t mean that we can’t laugh off a joke that an internet meme gave us, but if it is the only thing that fill the space of our mind, isn’t that troubling? Balance is the key.

Whether we like it or not the meme generation flourishes. If internet memes survived throughout the ages and passed on from generation to generation, will it became a myth too? A modern myth of nonsense that is. Internet meme is here to stay and replicate itself into a daze of confusion.

*  According to Sacred Bridge Foundation, one of the most fundamental elements in storytelling is the guidance element. This element emanates from the nature of storytelling, in which the storyteller and his or her listeners have a face-to-face communication.



Bramantyo Indirawan

Author: Bramantyo Indirawan

Freelance Journalist and Writer

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Ferdinand F Zebua
I recently read an article* where historians have trouble differentiating between the myths and facts surrounding the 17th century Netherlands Tulip Mania bubble. The trouble came about because English-speaking historians had had trouble interpreting Dutch-language newspapers, being unable to differentiate between actual news articles and satire articles. Some forms of humor gets lost in translation, even as far back as the 17th century… Maybe even further? Anyway, just a piece of trivia for you. I’ll maybe add a link to the history article if I ever manage to find it again. — *I swear I read it and it wasn’t… Read more »