Socially Awkward Internet: How Memes Create Community Online

by: Courtney Rust

Internet memes are one of those things I’ve come to understand and recognize, yet don’t quite know how to describe. They are something to be learned without explanation, but rather with repeated exposure. But to attempt a very general definition, memes are the images, videos, phrases, and ideas that circulate and seep into the vocabularies and reference banks of those who come across them. Memes can provide a schema for processing what we encounter on the internet, for translating what can seem to be a foreign language until you begin to pick up some of the essential phrases for communication. Memes are a difficult concept to pin down because they very quickly take on lives of their own. Their origins are often shrouded in mystery. Memes are fluid creatures, rising and waning in popularity at remarkable rates, continuously evolving and somehow permeating the farthest recesses of the World Wide Web. I just hope that no one ever manages to harness the power of memes to use them for evil. Memetic research is a growing area of study though, so who knows? Maybe a group of researches are currently hatching a plan to use memes to brainwash us all.

While difficult to characterize, it is undeniable that memes occupy a central place in internet culture. Ultimately, they are the inside jokes of the internet. And as inside jokes, they make no sense unless you’ve been around long enough to understand their context. When I first forayed into the jungle of online content, I pretended to know what memes were so as not to seem out of the loop, when in reality I didn’t even dare use the word in conversation because I was unsure if I was pronouncing it correctly. Admitting a lack of understanding means admitting that you aren’t part of the internet in-crowd. Instead, you feign comprehension and search Google and www.knowyourmeme.com until you, too, are part of the meme-using community.

My favorite memes are the ones that invoke that feeling of community for me. They’re the ones that make me pause from unblinkingly bouncing from hyperlink to hyperlink to think in stunned astonishment, “Wait, other people do this too?!” A few of the memes I most enjoy and identify with are as follows:

English Major Armadillo

I stumbled across this meme at a time when I was having a bit of a mid-undergraduate-life crisis, feeling that I had misjudged my entire existence and wasn’t’ cut out to be an English major after all. English Major Armadillo restored my faith and helped convince me that I did indeed belong to the group of people who get a bit turned on by Norton anthologies.

When ______, I’m like ______

There are numerous sites such as www.whatshouldwecallme.tumblr.com where people list a situation and post an animated gif[1] of the way they respond to it. As someone who has actually started to think in gifs, I thoroughly enjoy this meme and can see myself reacting similarly in many of the situations. To illustrate the speed at which memes can take off, a site following this format but specifically celebrating Obama’s statement on Wednesday that he endorses marriage equality has already been created.

“I can’t hold all of these feels”

 I really don’t understand how the source material for this meme came to exist, but no phrase describes my life more accurately. I spend a great deal of my time in a heap on the floor being so full of emotions for things and people (usually fictional) that I lose the ability to function.

Socially Awkward Penguin

I’m pretty sure that this petrified-looking penguin is my spirit animal. But seeing the number of times images featuring this earthbound bird get reposted and reblogged brings me relief, comforting me with the knowledge that I’m not the only one who experiences the excruciating awkwardness that at times foils me in my social endeavors.

Most of the time, the people who experience the situations described in these memes are the ones who create them. There are frivolous, silly memes, and there are memes created to bring a bit of humor to serious situations so as to let others know that these things are actually experienced by a great number of people.

Courtney Rust is an undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago pursuing a major in English and minors in Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies. She leaves her room every now and again to take part in Advocate, Loyola’s LGBTQA organization, where she serves on the advisory board. She is continually attempting to learn what it means to be a good ally to the LGBTQ community. Courtney moonlights as a barista, and has a strong love for musicals, coffee shops, big cities, exploring,Doctor Who, the internet, and most everything else in life. She hates olives though. With a fiery passion.

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[1] animated GIF: for those who don’t know, GIF stands for graphics interchange format and refers to a short, looped cycle of images, sort of like a virtual flipbook

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