In early April, when Elon Musk randomly and very briefly replaced the Twitter bird logo with the face of the “doge” meme, the value of the dogecoin both increased by billions of dollars in value in the crypto market.
Internet users loved the idea that a simple doge meme could impact the real world in such a dramatic way. This relative absurdity is also coupled with the fact that dogecoin itself started as a “joke coin” in 2013, but has now become the seventh largest cryptocurrency in the world.
The fact that a meme, based on a “unusualbut largely unremarkable rescue dog, could rule over the fate of billions of dollars in market value, speaks of the totally remarkable nature of the strange phenomenon of internet memes.
At one time in the history of our internet, memes may have been regarded as merely playful and unimportant by-products of online culture. Now, however, it’s clear that memes have a very real impact on our world. Things that have an impact also leave history.
So not only do memes play a clear role in public discourse, but we now realize that the family tree of memes exists memory. Memes are both a fascinating historical record of digital culture and the trash of the cyber age at the same time.
What is a Doge?
Originally, a random internet user posted a picture of their shiba inu dog on their blog, then another user saw the picture and posted it on the Reddit platform. This is where the image was first combined with the word “doge” (and the word doge has its own word separate history).
Some memes come and go and end up as cyber garbage in the internet graveyard – these are the cringe memes like Minions or Bad luck Brian that haunt the early Facebook timelines.
Other memes have the ability to carry so much meaning that they have impressive longevity, traversing endless iterations, mutations, and politics. The reasons for this are many and varied, but my research shows that in the case of doge, as in the case of Pepe the Frogthe anthropomorphic nature of the icon is part of its longevity and adaptability.
We laugh at animals because they remind us of the frailties of human nature. They are easy to laugh at because they are not but they are enough like us that we can project our weaknesses and vulnerabilities onto them – and laugh at them.
What is a meme?
I say of course internet memes because the term “meme” actually existed before the home use of the internet.
In a research project by James Hall and myself, we explain that while there is some dispute over the initial use of the term, as well as its usefulness in theoretical applicationIt is widely admitted that Richard Dawkins coined the term in the iconic book The Selfish Gene published in 1976.
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from an appropriate Greek root, but I want a monosyllabic syllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I shorten mimeme to meme.
Of course, at the time of writing, Dawkins was not referring to the classic image macros commonly thought of as memes. He referred to other cultural units, such as: “… tunes, ideas, slogans, fashions of dress, ways of making pots or building arches”.
Dawkins believed that:
Just as genes reproduce in the gene pool by jumping from body to body via sperm or eggs, memes reproduce in the memepool by jumping from brain to brain through a process that can broadly be called imitation.
As many concepts do, the term eventually faded from the academic realm and entered the vernacular.
What’s in a meme?
So, what is it about memes that is so impactful?
The answer lies in understanding one of the most basic human drives: communication. The desire to reach beyond the self. To be heard and, if we’re lucky, understood.
Tens of thousands of years ago, prehistoric people painted on cave walls to communicate what was important to them. In 2023, we’ll be scribbling memes across the internet. These two practices are essentially the same.
Media theorist Mark Deuze has made this point before:
It’s like cave paintings; what do we paint on the wall – stories about who we are, where we belong and what really matters to the community we think we are a part of – that is the definition of any status update (…) it used to be just a few privileged people could paint the walls of the cave; now we all do it.
Just as we use cave paintings today to reflect on the origins of the human condition, in time we will use the archive of memes as a tree of knowledge to appreciate the complex web of communication we are building for ourselves on the big internet project. They will help archive the very first incarnations of how people thought about communication on digital platforms.
For those of us who grew up before the internet, it’s almost bizarre to think that memes are not only a legitimate genre that contains loads of cultural information, but that they historyeven memory.
They may not be high art and they may be completely organic and spontaneous, but maybe that’s why we feel them so authentic. They document – in fantastically messy and complex ways – how cultural material moves, grows, dies and, in Doge’s case, is born again.