And it’s Free.
Okay, so there’s no shortage of addictive substances that the millennial and gen-z citizens of this fine country have popularized as never before (see fentanyl, Percocet, etc.). But, as far as pandemic level addictions that take hold of an entire generation, nothing quite compares to the digital drug of choice for millions of young adults around the globe — the poignant and well-timed meme. The good news is that memes are much healthier than actual drugs, they’re free, and hey, they’re good fun.
For those unfamiliar with the meme phenomenon, here’s a topical example: Today marked the latest in obscure viral cultural movements when a Facebook user invited the world to join him in raiding Area 51 to“see them aliens.” Area 51, as you probably already know, is the notorious military base in Nevada that has achieved mythical status as the keeper of all secrets related to alien lifeforms that have made contact with our little blue planet.
Almost immediately, this Facebook invite produced a flurry of rsvp’s — totaling over 400,000 at the time of this writing — and just about as soon as that, the memes started pouring in. Here’s a few:
The Facebook invite received press coverage from outlets like CNN, TIME, and Rolling Stone among many others. We won’t get into the genesis of this invite, as that is covered in the above linked articles.
We’re here to discuss culture in the digital echo chamber.
Why is the meme game so strong nowadays? Why has this form of expression risen to the forefront? And why does meme culture often elevate the basest and most obscure of human behavior?
Well… We have some ideas.
Upon writing this piece, my wife walked by and said, “Kids are being held in cages and you’re writing about Area 51 memes.” Touche, wife. Touche. She’s right. every one of the hundreds, or thousands, of memes that were created — and then shared by millions — around the subject of raiding a military facility to uncover some possible proof of the possible existence of aliens, and the references to a multitude of pop culture symbols to communicate humor at varying levels of obscurity, all reflect time — minutes, hours, days, even years of collective time — dedicated to something that is not even remotely as dire, and relevant, and important as, say, the immigration crisis, global warming, sex trafficking, actual drug abuse epidemics, and so forth. And yet, these damn millennials persist. Why!?
Well, really, the answer is pretty simple. Sad but true, it’s much easier to create, or like, or share a meme than it is to save the polar bears. We could leave it at that…
But the subject goes deeper.
The digital age, as we all know, creates an immediate sounding board for ideas, conversation, cultural commentary, and more. In the past, one would have to look to a lucky few representatives in society to speak with the voice of a time. When wars couldn’t be stopped, when inequality was insurmountable, great writers and artists took to the page, the stage, the canvas, the screen, and created satire — the universal coping mechanism and intellectual drug of humanity — revealing injustices through the lens of humor and brutally honest dissections of the times. But things have changed. Now we have broadband.
We are our voice.
Don’t get me wrong, the purveyors of culture, like Kanye, or Shonda, or Blizzard, still prevail. But now their pervasive influence on culture serves as a light speed canvas in a way that was never possible before. The imagery, icons, symbols, narratives that they have bestowed upon us all, are now tools in a set, or paints on a palette.
When we see an image of Squidward (for those who know what the hell I’m talking about) with a dialogue box below him, we immediately know it’s going to be a cynical, downtrodden, and most likely hostile statement about...something. That is an example of immediate, culturally targeted subtext that can be applied in the synthesis and communication of any shared social/cultural/political moment online.
We use these offerings of our creative leaders like digital hieroglyphs in a highly efficient conveyance of subtext, irony, and cultural intelligence to share our ideas about a world that is too big for us to control. It’s real-time, democratized satire.
But it’s also just fun.
We’re programmed, as people, to seek communities, to seek contact with our peers. From the very beginning we built clans, and tribes, and gangs, and nations. We seek each other out, we seek to understand each other and to be understood — to feel like we are not alone. We once had to go to a space, somewhere, and physically find those with whom we could relate — share an experience, maybe, and then discuss it. But shared experiences are now just a thumb scroll away. We can connect with anyone anywhere, but the onus is on us to find our tribes with every share, like, follow, and post. So, over time we have developed a really efficient way to find our people online. Reference.
A referential post contains in it the power of identity, the power to know — instantaneously — who gets you and who doesn’t. This, of course, demands an illustrative example. So, let’s get nerdy.
FIRST. Why do we care? Well, here at Tiny Beast, we are deeply involved in the understanding of culture and society. We create branding, marketing, and content that speaks to specific audiences, and our goal is always to tap into relevant cultural movements and become part of a collaborative conversation that engages our audience organically. The days of talking AT consumers are dead. We must, and ALWAYS must connect WITH people and create authentic relationships to help our clients succeed.
In the past, “culture marketing” was a term used by corporations to define solutions for speaking to anyone who was not a White man. But again, times have changed. Culture in the digital era is evolving and fragmenting faster than any of us have time to document and categorize it. So, we approach people of different races, ethnicities, and ideologies like (shocker) human beings first. When it comes to “culture,” we really identify culture as the series of interests and passions that define a person’s bubble. It’s their unique expression of self manifested in the time they devote to various aspects of life. So, as technology has made the world a smaller place with vastly more opportunities than ever before, so cultural groups and subgroups have become more diverse, disparate, and dynamic. And we express about 99% of this online (not a real stat, for the super nerds), through our searches, or shares, our likes, our purchases, and our professions — among other things.
So as a creator, a marketer, a storyteller, Tiny Beast sees a world unfold in a single meme. And that world informs us about the cultural moment that we might leverage to become a part of a movement and actually relate to human beings behind the meme storms.
Okay, okay, let’s do an example from above:
Here’s an easy one: Getting back to the subject of real-life dire issues that are out of our control, as mere plebeians, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has risen to fame and political power as the voice of a generation that is often accused of not caring. She has lit Congress on fire with demands, motions, and bills to seek reform on behalf of women, the environment, and immigrants.
When the Area 51 meme storm exploded this one rose to the top quickly as a familiar image that represents deep meaning for millennials and gen-z alike (side note, the youngest of our generations are the most multicultural in American history — so when we say millennial or gen-z we often mean multicultural as well).
From this one meme we find a collective purging of angst over a social and political crisis that a massive population of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation immigrant millennials — and their sympathizers — have stressed about since a certain orange cartoon character was elected to office. Humor as therapy. Hence, the reference to “aliens locked in cages” that is highly topical and a subject of great concern among many young people around the country. It not only elegantly references the inhumane detainment of immigrant (alien) children happening right now on our borders, but it also points the finger at a historical relationship of opacity and distrust between the U.S. government and its citizens.
We then go deeper into who this cultural segment is with the remaining references. “Naruto runners” is a beacon reference for fan boys and girls in the anime/comic/gaming culture, this also ripples over into art, cartoon, coder, furry, and other subcultural groups who will at the very least get the reference, if not have every other episode of NARUTO imprinted on the back of their minds. As marketers and culture observers we immediately start to see an identity persona emerge from a single meme.
“Kyles” is another reference that rings our bells. This one seems to have originated from a Vine posted in 2015 called “White Boy Fight” and from that point blossomed into the meme gift that keeps on giving. This taps into a pop culture vein that any teen and twenty-something that has encountered an agro white kid who thinks he’s awesome can relate to.
And that’s just one meme in the storm. Because memes like this act as a cultural reference for connection and satirical catharsis, we also see younger generations using the word “meme” to describe a person, or an experience, that smacks of social or cultural tone-deafness — one deserving of ridicule and abasement. Believe me, you don’t ever want to make a meme out of yourself. But likewise, the Area 51 Facebook event invite that started the latest meme storm was a meme in and of itself, indulging in a theory that has floated in the media for generations, and only recently received added attention because our government is treating some of these claims of witnesses to alien encounters a lot more seriously.
We’ve strayed a bit in this analysis, but to bring it back to our main point here, memes are the digital fix we all crave when we need to laugh and relate to others around us. When the difficulties of the world around us become too much to bear, and we feel isolated by the feeling of helplessness, a good laugh (by way of meme binge) can bring us back together — and teach us a lot about each other.
As professionals in our field, we watch these moments to learn about the subjects and behaviors that shape the mindsets of our audience, so we can stay engaged and culture savvy at light speed.
So, next time you see a meme float by your daily social scroll, just remember there’s a world of timely context living behind that post. And it speaks the language of a generation.
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