In the past, online humor was typically reserved for comical and non-serious postings, but it has rapidly come to make up a large portion of conversations surrounding more intense topics online. Those using memes and online humor as their primary response to issues such as politics, war and disease are typically Gen Z or millennials. This humor has been criticized by older generations and those who don’t agree with its usage as being insensitive, ignorant and immature. However, the influence of modern humor, memes and online jargon has found its way into higher academia and societal conversations, warranting major validation as a legitimate means of discussion, no matter the level of seriousness. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization listed the “OK” hand symbol as a racist hand sign and the Pepe the frog meme as a general hate symbol. Corporations and even political candidates use memes as a form of social media interaction with their followers. Images and jokes that originated as strict comical material have become a serious part of our everyday conversations. Yet, despite the evidence of the significance and impact of meme culture throughout conversation and in our society, a prevailing critique is of the lack of maturity or respect that comes from using this form of communication.
The use of meme culture as a means of conversation in more intense discussions has become incredibly evident in the past few months as news outlets have covered an array of significant issues our world is facing. When news of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani’s assassination broke and fear of a potential third World War was spreading, the overwhelming response by Gen Z and millennials consisted of videos, jokes and memes about the tension and potential war. Teenagers were having a field day creating content which made light of an incredibly consequential situation. Now, as fear of the coronavirus is sweeping the nation, memes about the deadly virus have gained popularity on social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. It isn’t unreasonable to view the memes that are being created as responses to something that has taken the life of over 100 people and see them as insensitive. However, the application of humor to more serious or even tragic events by Gen Z and millennials isn’t a display of immaturity or lack of understanding. Instead, it’s a response to stressful and fearful situations that the general population is given insight to and then left to sort out by ourselves. A 2011 study by Stanford psychologist found that comedy was an effective coping strategy in the face of stressful imagery and that positive humor was better than cynicism. Being constantly subjected to news updates about impending wars and rampant viruses calls for some amount of coping. Responding to and discussing to these stressful situations in a manner that encourages humor and light-heartedness isn’t in anyway a dismissal of intelligence. Instead, the visual intelligence, the ability to make sense of digital aspect of an image, needed to decode and understand memes and jokes that cross cultural boundaries is actually quite impressive. It would be difficult to live in our world today, one that is so incredibly saturated with digital content, and not have some level of fluency in memes and their applications, even if the context varies.
There are universal themes throughout varying meme trends as different news stories gain and lose popularity on social media. At the height of WWIII conversation, hypothetic responses to the draft were prime creative material. Now, a lot of memes are making light of the coronavirus focusing on Chinese clothing retailers like SHEIN or Wish. A meme is often posted and then changed to fit various viewpoints about the subject or to convey the poster’s own emotions about the topic. Being able to participate in a conversation about larger issues through a seemingly creative and personalized manner makes the poster feel more invested in the conversation on a global scale. By partaking in the conversation by using popular images or videos, you are a part of a larger response to something that has the potential to affect everyone.
As our world becomes increasingly more digitized, our reliance on images and the use of memes will surely continue. This isn’t a display of regression in intelligence or even our generation’s inability to take part in significant conversations. Those who view memes as an unconventional or ineffective form of communication will eventually have to adapt and learn the contextual meaning. Gen Z’s and millennials’ use of memes as a response or as a larger conversation surrounding topics is a great example of visual intelligence and exhibits a universal understanding of humor which transcends cultural boundaries.