Twitter is the pillow in which we all go to scream.
Like a therapeutic device, it’s a place where we release our anxiety. But it’s just that, instead of muffling our screams, Twitter amplifies them. So what’s therapy to one is torture to several thousand (or million!) others. Not to mention, Twitter’s the b-side to everyone’s worst opinions, meaning what we read is even worse than what the person probably meant to say.
The tricky thing about words is they’re imprecise. They can be easily misinterpreted, and online, they often are.
You know what’s not imprecise? Memes.
Younger generations — hi, I’m a young 🙋♀️ — intuitively recognized that words are not always the best vehicles of meaning on a site where people post their most deranged thoughts. Oftentimes, memes are a better shorthand for what someone’s trying to say, or better yet, what they’re trying to make someone else feel. Where words alone fail, memes succeed in articulating the infinite wonder and weirdness of human emotion.
These microcosms of metaphor are the internet’s one true love language.
“Meme” comes from the ancient Greek μίμημα, pronounced mīmēma, meaning “imitated thing.” It was first used by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to explain the proliferation of cultural trends and ideas. Memes on Twitter, Instagram and the like aren’t so academic, but they do capture the ephemeral nature of ideas, albeit in a different capacity.
Surprised Pikachu, for example, isn’t really about an electric-type pocket monster — it’s about knowing you should’ve seen something coming.
The concept of love languages, meanwhile, comes from Gary Chapman’s best-selling 1999 book, aptly titled The Five Love Languages. The premise: everyone has a “love language” that signifies their preferred method of expressing and experiencing affection.
- Words of affirmation
- Acts of Service
- Receiving Gifts
- Quality Time
- Physical Touch
Appropriately enough, there are five main categories of meme meaning that directly correlate to the love languages. But I made them, not Gary:
- Words of affirmation → i.e., “I’m posting this because you’re absolutely right.”
- Acts of Service → i.e., “I’m posting this because we hate the same thing/person!”
- Receiving Gifts → i.e., “I’m posting this because I love the sound of your mirthful laughter”
- Quality Time → i.e., “I’m gonna stay up until 3 a.m. sending you links to my favorite meme accounts about why birds are a government conspiracy”
- Physical Touch → Well, memes don’t literally touch us, but they touch our hearts when executed correctly.
The great thing about memes is that they move at the speed of the internet, while *also* conveying emotion. They’re easily digestible, visually arresting, and most importantly, tap into an experience or emotion words can’t — or at least, can’t *as quickly*.
Memes meet their audience where they are. Sure, the images themselves aren’t romantic — quite the opposite, in most cases — but they do convey our basic human desire for connection. Words are like golf; slow, disjointed, and increasingly maddening the more you play the insufferable game. Memes are ping pong; they’re a rapid-fire back-and-forth of “I feel that” and “I feel that, too.”
Take this image of a turtle in an oversized pair of denim jorts. They might just be regular sized jorts stretched out to turtle proportions but that’s not the point. To me, this picture is Rothko: it’s not about what it says, it’s about how it makes me feel. If I saw this on my Twitter timeline, I would be hit with a tidal wave of emotions about how this stylish turtle I have presumably never met relates to my life. This isn’t just a turtle, it’s me getting ready for a night out in Greenpoint. This is what I feel like when I find a pair of jeans that were actually made for short people. This is how I feel when I’m scared to do something, but I’m doing it anyway. I got all this from a picture of a turtle wearing a human’s denim diaper.
Please don’t take my exaltation as an excuse to mindlessly churn out memes for your brand’s social media accounts. For the love of all things unholy, don’t do this. I’m instead imploring you to think about what makes good memes good: empathy. Incorporate more empathy into the way you solve problems, no matter what your job title is. People don’t want brands to be memes, they want you to feel more things before you ask people to buy something.
Memes are a tip of the cowboy hat to the feelings that connect us all deep down in these meat cocoons we all pilot. No matter who you are — brand marketer, creative director, or golden retriever who has quietly learned how to masquerade as a human online — there’s room for us all to be a little more empathetic in the ideas we bring to life.
Happy Valentine’s Day.