Excuse Me, Do You Speak Meme?

Pop Culture

Excuse Me, Do You Speak Meme?

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

When Richard Dawkins first coined the word “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, using lolspeak in public could land you in a mental asylum. The evolutionary biologist was using the term, wholly scientifically, to talk about any behaviour or idea that carries cultural symbols from person to person. He compared it to the gene, in the sense that it was a biological process of self-replication, only related to human behaviour and culture and not biology.

What Dawkins did not possibly anticipate was that this jargon-filled sentence would take form as a tackily dressed Japanese man singing about a pen and a pineapple on the internet 20 years later. Dawkins’ reaction might possibly have been, “Y u do dis?”.

The word meme actually started gaining popularity on the internet in 2012 (as evidenced by this handy Google trend graph), and it took only six short years to go wild with Dawkins’ theory. Today, the meme has become an inside joke that spans countries and languages, and took the stock photo industry to never-before-seen levels of success. Meme culture has become so huge that it is normal for people to ironically identify as a communist just for the meme lulz.

In India, the culture has evolved to such an extent that meme pages are threatening media sites they are in disagreement with – which is so typically Indian culture, it’s poetic.

As collective attention spans reduce further, it’s not hard to imagine that memes might one day be more popular than the biggest TV shows and the most well-regarded literature. Already, almost every meme that’s posted on a semi-decent Indian meme page, matches sales/TRPs of bestseller books and hit TV shows. So would it be too much of a stretch to say that one day, people will start communicating solely via memes?


Language is constantly evolving; Shakespeare wasn’t trying his best to piss schoolkids off, he actually spoke like that. No one talks like Shakespeare anymore though, people talk lyk dis. So why do we assume memes are low-brow creations? They contain as much societal context as good literature, more jokes than a stand-up comedian after a beer, and a more developed backstory than the last 10 The Fast and the Furious movies. Memes give out a lot more meaning, in far fewer words. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a meme is worth a thousand and five or six. Imagine the potential!

Say for example you want to express to your friend that Baba Ramdev’s flexibility is much like yours when you get excited at an EDM concert, simply use this meme…


…rather than alienate your friend with a ten-minute-long, poorly hashed-out recreation of your muddled thoughts that everyone stopped listening to the moment you said Baba.

Much like language, phonology also plays an important role in the creation of a meme. Just ask any meme connoisseur and they’ll tell you that punchline is key. There’s no point creating an audio meme if no one is going to understand the reference. To give a meme meaning, it’s important to take note of the way it is structured, and the way the audio works in tandem with the visual.

Imagine if a polished girl sat on a chair and said “Catch me outside, how does that sound?”, people would have thought “Man, wouldn’t want to catch her outside”. But since she said “Cassh me ousside, how bow dah’”, people immediately think, “Hey this is a girl who assumes she’s hardcore but is actually only 13, making this whole situation humorous, and much like this other person I know.”

Much like preparing a sentence in a different language, when preparing a meme, it’s important to remember that context is key. No one is going to understand what the hell you’re saying if you walk up to them and say, “Sonam Gupta Bewafa Hai”, and crack up for 15 minutes. Show them the crumpled 10-rupee note with her name scribbled on it, and and it starts making more sense. With the right context, Sonam Bewafa becomes a huge conversation point.

Beyond all of this, just like language, memes have the power to evoke emotion. See the “It’s Wednesday, My Dudes” meme from Reddit once, and it makes no sense. See it every Wednesday of 2017, and suddenly there’s so much meaning to it. Make a minor change to the frog (make it a toad for instance) and suddenly 20,000 people from across the world are baying for your blood. In this politically correct age, it’s fair to say, memes can hurt as much as words.


Some memes, like Pepe the frog, go on to ignite feuds between left- and right-wing nutjobs. Others like the man checking out the girl with his girlfriend in tow, spark conversations on sexism. And as we have learnt from the feminists online, sparking a conversation on sexism is like trying to set fire to several wet blankets.

The word meme itself implies that it is going to be replicated. This gives rise to increasingly self-referential jokes that once you’re in on, it’s hard to get out of. Sometimes this can go too far and memes can become increasingly self-referential. There’s the meme about how you should tag your friend in a meme, the meme about how you didn’t tag your friend in a meme, the meme about how stupid it is that someone makes a meme about you forgetting to tag your friend in a meme, a meme about how you have no friends to tag in your memes anyway, ad infinitum. Much like language, a dialect can be formed between groups of just two to three friends, and spread almost everywhere.

All things considered, memes might actually be a more effective way to communicate. Considering the humble emoji’s journey from the keyboard to the dictionary, it doesn’t seem too unlikely that official communication will one day be carried out via memes, and professional meme generators will be elevated to the status of authors. As for me: