Why (some) memes don't make sense to you anymore

This started as a showerthought, but the post quickly became longer than I anticipated as I've tried to cover my bases. If this is a little dry, I might try writing about something more engaging next time, but here are my thoughts about this for the time being.

Something I have noticed happen is the gradual de-emphasis of a meme’s ability to convey meaning by itself, or "the fall of self-contained meme context" put otherwise. There has been a gradual move to create memes that can only be understood/appreciated when combined with the existing context and culture of the relevant memeosphere. I'll refer to this lack of a meme's ability to hold its own meaning as "context-dependence" (and vice-versa) in this post from now on.

Disclaimer: I have not collected any data to back this theory up, it is just an intuition. Also, cultural artifacts have of course always been context-dependent to some extent, so what I'm describing is not a total shift from "complete context-independence" to "complete context-dependence", but a partial shift.

Instead of being a complete package that can be consumed almost as-is, many memes now require previous knowledge of meme conventions and formats, as well as a potential smorgasbord of internet culture “common knowledge” to be fully appreciated. Some memes take a step further, and assume that the audience is already deeply familiar with a specific subculture. So if a meme doesn't make sense to you, it's probably because you're simply not the target audience.

An example of earlier, context-independent memes are demotivational posters (popular in the 2000s-early 2010s). They contain all the information you need to get its message.1
Demotivational poster. Via: https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/5053-demotivational-posters

^ 1: Even your grandma will get this.

In contrast, the "literally no one" meme (2019-present), while quite easy to read for the literate memer, relies on the implicit understanding that the blank space after "literally no one:" represents some form of non-initiation or non-proactiveness on the part of everyone except for the subject.2 (An alternative interpretation of the format could be that "literally nobody would express/do X", which of course nobody uses (at least un-ironically).3)

^ 2: You would probably need to explain this to your grandma.

^ 3: Example: No one uses the meme format like this (maybe except for makers of r/bonehurtingjuice-style memes?)

Okay, I think I might have gone a bit too into the nitty-gritty there. Thanks for sticking along.
I have a few ideas about why this is:

• Internet culture/niche maturity
One reason could be the increasing maturity of internet culture and memes, creating a larger pool of shared experience to draw from and reference when making meme content. No longer is the memer speaking to just the common netizen, forced to appeal to all levels of meme literacy (and therefore make all aspects of the meme instantly digestible) to become viral. An example of this is the fact that meme culture is large enough to house the most obscure niches.4

^ 4: "niche memes" are an example of the maturity of meme culture reaching out to even small social circles, creating more context-dependence.

• Shifting Definitions
Another reason may simply be a broadening of the definition of an internet meme: In the past, memes were understood to follow stricter conventions and formats. Nowadays, literally any piece of media can be a meme in the right context. There were obviously earlier bits of internet culture before that heavily relied on references to somewhat obscure things (all your base are belong to us, leeroy jenkins, etc.).5 One could even argue that earlier internet used more of these "referential" memes than current internet.

^ 5: Is "delete System32" a meme? Know Your Meme thinks so, and they may be right.

Extra:
‣ Normies
It is also worth mentioning that the more mainstream the meme is, the less context-dependent it is.6 This should make intuitive sense, since normies will by definition be less tuned-in to the specifics of any niche or underground culture.

^ 6: The world record egg on Instagram is often touted as the quintessential normie meme, and it also happens to be completely context-independent.

‣ Irony
The role of irony and its evolution is hard to overstate here: Irony (and especially meta-irony)’s tendency to create in-groups (who “get” the meme) and out-groups (who don’t get the meme) has created an environment where spreading memes with only partial context is normal or encouraged. The way I see it, irony has had a massive part in spearheading context-dependence, and many ironic styles still use it heavily.7 This practice seems to also have bled through to other genres of memes.

^ 7: The hardcore image manipulation found on some "quantumed memes" pay homage to the deep-fried tradition, but these visual cues are only recognized by those who are quite familiar with the style, making any humour highly context-dependent.

I'm not going to say whether context-dependence is a good or bad thing, the fun lies in watching it unfold in real-time imo :smile:
Let me know if there is anything I have described poorly, and I'll try to clarify! I'll also be happy to provide more examples if requested.

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i sorta had a similar intuition a while ago that ive been mulling over, i called it hypercontextuality but its basically the same thing as what you called context-dependence. it could be applied to any cultural artifact, but i was focusing on memes when i was thinking about it. i found the idea while seeing goofy audio/visual collages of memes that seem incomprehensible to the uninitiated, some examples are on r/comedyseizure i think.
in my head it exists as a sort of scale between no-context or what you labelled as context independence, basically required no cultural knowledge whatsoever something a kid would understand. then it would be contextualized, basically where a lot of normie memes are, it requires a fair amount of knowledge of mainstream culture or memes. then hypercontextualized, you have to be super intrenched in meme culture or the specific subculture to understand.

this is the scale i had written down a while ago, sorry about my chicken scratch i can clarify if need be.

anyways i think this is important to analyze especially when it comes to the memes of higher irony. also in the subject of irony, i think a lot of people label something meta ironic when they dont understand the context or they think its ambiguous, again like you said chances are they dont really understand the joke.

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This is an excellent resource, and the step-by-step demonstration with exemplars about the different degrees of context-dependence is just such a fantastic format for this post. I would love to see the same done by modifying one meme and gradually making it more and more context-dependent.

When I make philosophy memes, I often try to make it context-independent by including information within the meme that can educate the audience and redirect them to further readings (e.g. including the full thesis or keywords within the meme). It's really difficult to do this compared to simply making reference humour or omitting details (you have to balance the density of the content with the volume, else you end up with an overly wordy wall of text).

Exemplars from memes I made

Context-Independent

I think this one is context-independent, since most people are familiar with the experience of trying to pour liquid from a cup and failing; the act of analogising physical phenomena with mental phenomena is also natural to people as well. I've seen it reposted in various contexts, and even the most normie boomers easily understand and appreciate the meme.

Low Context Dependence

I consider this one a success for its simplicity, and the precise wording in the first panel providing additional information about the well-known mythological character (most people don't know why Sisyphus was condemned to futile punishment). Even if people don't know the "hmm today i will" meme, (and even if they don't know the myth of Sisyphus) they can still understand and enjoy the meme based on the information provided.

Context Dependent

This one was just reference humour about Diogenes. It's one of the most frequently reposted memes in philosophy related meme communities (to the point people beg each other to stop posting it) because all you need to understand it is knowing who Diogenes is. It also doesn't make sense if you don't know who Diogenes is, because that information isn't provided in the meme (but I wonder what it would feel like to see the meme without having that information; it actually seems like a much more enjoyable experience).

High Context Dependence

Context

Original post on TPM page (2021):

I like Muslim meme groups/pages like Tom and Jerry Halal Posting because seeing how the same templates are modified to fit the cultural and religious needs is interesting. I saw this on my feed just now where they censored out the femjaks instead of giving them new outfits. I guess it makes sense given the content of the meme.

And then I realised how weird the other shit I had scrolled past to get here was, and how I was more shocked by a couple of blurred wojaks than a 4x3 grid of palette swapped pregnant Sonics

I combined them

Lack of Context Is the Point


(HQ image: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1C2SwPmPzuspxSB8Ibk2P_HC41sPbJsNP/view)

I made an esoteric political iceberg meme, except I made up everything except a couple of things below "Normal Pleb" (it turned out that an influential researcher had written a paper on "post-knowledge epistemology" before, which I did not know at the time). Usually, the stuff in the top level are the kind of content that gets placed in the lower levels of the iceberg, since people consider them to be the most esoteric. But I much prefer this version: instead of playing bingo with how many references you can spot, you can enjoy the evocative wording of the entries that hit harder because you don't have context and must imagine it yourself.

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I love that diagram. Any chance you could render it digitally so that it's easier to read?

here i also included @luca 's context dependent/independent dichotomy i hope you dont mind.

converging knowledge is just another way of saying knowledge from multiple subcultures/intertextuality that interact within the cultural artifact if that makes sense

this was just funny to me heh. anyways hope this is helpful!

i also forgot to mention i had a vague inkling about this having something to do with simulacrum, often when a hypercontextualized piece is removed from context is is seemingly absurd and abstract. i dont know enough about baudrillard though.

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Aha I love the second image. It's great! Kind of like:

Except the focus is on the content and their intended audience, rather than users themselves.

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I find the label of autism to be interesting when you examine another layer there.

The ironist and the autist are both spent enough time to get the expertise so its not about high or low commitment; but rather perceived/performed levels of commitment.

For some reason seeming detached and not having commitment is a virtue thus gaining a respectable title of ironist. On the contrast if one doesn’t have the social knowledge or context and show their interest publicly (thus demonstrating their commitment to their interest) they are labeled an autist and receive stigma along with it.

Nothing against autism I value it and think they are very important for the world! Just commenting on the norms more than anything.

Ive been apart of the electronic music online community for many years and I find this label (autist) interesting because it was used in those circles a lot but in no way disparaging, more like as this meme uses it "specialist" interests etc.

When I used to go on forums that would use this in 2009/2008 when I was a teen (just) autism wasnt as diagnosed as it is now. More and more we are seeing people being diagnosed IRL and with it some are not using this label as much. It was never seen as a put down in that community so Im always unsure of its usage outside of that. In your experience was it seen as an ableist term?

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I came from a very different background of online gaming (the most toxic scene of call of duty in 2012 ) where it definitely was used as a put down unfortunately. Mostly used to comment on lack of adhering to social conventions such as knowing when to stop ranting about something you like or knowing how to talk with people offline.

I’ve seen it used a compliment of sorts as well I just found it interesting distinguishing factor here isn’t necessarily the commitment itself; the ironist just makes their commitment seem cool and collected with distance (to not be a “try hard”). As opposed to the unaware autist who will sincerely pursue their area of expertise with passion and fervor.

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Thanks for sharing this! Your mention of memes that require "converging knowledge" about multiple niches is interesting, and it's an aspect of this that is worth analyzing.

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Hi there! I find the idea of a context-dependence spectrum applied to memes interesting. An observation that I'd like to add is this:

I think that there are also potential scenarios of meme experience where the consumer of the meme may lack the relevant knowledge or immersion in the context that the meme is dependent on, yet still find value or meaning in the meme. Sure this value may not be linked to context, but is linked to some other criterion of value in the perception of the meme consumer. Meme value can potentially occur outside of what is perceived as the "right" context

Let me try to qualify this with an example. Say a meme that is highly context-dependent somehow finds its way into the perception of a person that is completely unfamiliar with the context the meme is dependent on. I think that is it at least plausible that such a person may find value in that meme, without having the relevant knowledge of context. They may find this value because:

a). They find the underlying format valuable.
b). They mistakenly think they understand the or know the context, and find it valuable regardless. (these scenarios I find interesting because it is often the one in which persons are posturing as or attempting to assimilate into a context-dependent community, without having the relevant contextual experiences)
c). There is something weird or strange about the meme that causes it to be valuable in and of itself.
etc.

These scenarios aren't meant to be solid, just meant to show that its at least plausible that memes can meme in the absence of context, because people find memes to be valuable in spite of not having access to the relevant context. I think that there is further discussion to be had surrounding whether or not we ought to value memes in a particular way, but this is just a description. This reply was done in the spirit of calling attention to the complexity of memes, and in the spirit of building an understanding of memes that is more sensitive to underlying complexity.

(Also, I seem to have used words like "value" and "consumer", I just want to clarify that where I use these words, I use them as placeholders. I have no commitment to any particular theory which would dictate the use of those types of words to describe meme culture)

Please let me know your thoughts, as well as any critique you might have of the way I have spoken about this. My first time posting on this forum.

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mind you this is purely conjecture but ill take a jab.

Instead of thinking of if a reading of a meme is “correct” or right” in some objective way maybe we should look at it in terms of what meme posters are hoping to achieve when posting, what do meme seekers get out of viewing the meme, and what are responses from communities to this non intended value you point out. Lets examine the social function it plays you know?

I think the social function of heavily context dependent memes is to show membership of a community. Only “insiders” should have knowledge to understand making you feel kinship with fellow internet travelers. heavy niche intertextuality in memes would only be fully understood by people in those niche in jokes.

When someone tries to show membership to this community ( or if they are perceived as trying too) and they are deemed to not have this knowledge, there is often defensiveness of the space and the person is mocked/shunned/insulted etc. The territory of that joke must be defended because then the space gets consumed into the larger zeitgesit and becomes “stale”.

I think alot of the resentment to “normies” who appropriate a meme without understanding it to more mainstream platforms like instagram. This is shown in the hatred to mematic and other watermarked apps like ifunny (am I aging myself)

The alternative community response is to welcome the variation into the “genome” of the meme and now it has adapted a new spin to be riffed injecting new life; much like how in evolution variation can be injected in by merging a smaller species into a large one.

Now Im going to tangent and I apologize for the long post but i think this is interesting.

I recently read Tara Burtons “strange rites” where it discusses the loss of influence institutionalized religion has on our daily life. She argues that “secular” isn’t as non religious as you think the practice has just moved online and to other spaces to meet the vacuum religious orders had previously filled (and still do fill for many or course!).

The content has changed but the form has not; residuals of spirtual practice of protestant christianity has seeped into secular processes. Think of any person who says they are spirtual but not religious or non particularly defined or even online athiests they all fall into obtaining niches religion used to provide.

She argues online spaces are where people now often find community that religion used to serve on online spaces. This is done even through forums and fandom.

I would like to think of this intertextual insularization of memes as a kind of quasi ritual where people obtain that sense of identity and community to a psuedo religious “order” through memes. A “religious rite” of sorts (hence the title though she didn’t examine memes really but many different “rites” related to culture war posting, yoga communities, and different modern crypto-religious sects) one can only initiate by demonstrating proper knowledge of the community and creating more or commenting in line within their guidelines.

great food for thought thanks for sharing! let me know if I am too “out there”

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Absolutely it's plausible. I would say that most of the time a meme gets seen by someone, they're lacking context for the viewer. That was the foundation of ironic memes in many ways.

Here's some striking examples to support your case, from I send my mom strange images every day and post her reaction:




I think this is correct. I absolutely adore attempts to understand memes from a philosophy of religion perspective. In fact, I think memes are not quasi rituals but genuine rituals in the same category as religious rites:

It is important to note the fact that neither the meme concept nor the Internet meme concept were essential to the development of Internet memes as a cultural technology. In every instance, the digital technology of personal computers and the Internet inevitably led to the practice of memeing, regardless of what cybermetaphysics the theoretically-minded users adopted to explain the phenomenon. This is not to make a technologically determinist claim that memes are inherent to the Internet, or inevitable. Rather, I am arguing that Internet memes are not a particularly novel phenomenon in the grand scheme of human culture. They are the result of our applying ancient techniques and practices onto a new context and object. Just as certain relics acted as vessels of mana in holy rituals, memes act as the locus of mana in the post-Internet era. In fact, the function of memes as omniritualistic relics has allowed users to revive the aura in images a mere 85 years after Walter Benjamin proclaimed its death in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935). A meme, rather than be framed by the environment in the way that Benjamin argued is the focus of reproduced art, frames its environment by recontextualising it. True, a meme changes meaning based on its environment, just as a poster is perceived differently based on how it is framed. But more importantly, a meme brings with it its evolutionary history. The reproductive success of a meme depends on how well it performs its function as a relic: it must be a good vessel for the mana it has inherited from its past.

(from 2010's Decade Review, Part 1: The Origin of 2010's Memecultures, 2020)

I think that memeculturalists' understanding of memes as being "fresh" or "stale" based on normification is a superstitious misunderstanding. It comes from taking memes too seriously as relics within their respective rituals, as vessels of memetic essences which are filled or depleted according to (say) how well the taboos regarding sharing knowledge with normies are observed. I think that the real issue is that subcultural communications within the mainstream is more costly than mainstream communications: it's harder to find and engage with people like you if you're in the minority, because the discovery mechanisms are not in your favour. The entire world is single-size-fit-all, and it's not tailored to you. Ultimately, all the gatekeeping and ingroup/outgroup distinctions serve the valuable purpose of filtering out people who are likely to be a waste of your limited time and energy. This isn't at all limited to subcultures, and applies generally to any sorting problem with limited resources.

At the same time, literate users usually preferred to interact with other literate users. They developed markers of literacy and diligently added to the memetic lexicon of the community. Not exactly shibboleths, such signals allowed users to navigate their spaces for content that best suited their needs. The function of literacy markers wasn’t to simply filter out low literacy users, but rather to quickly identify different types of users and assess which combination of users and what kind of interactions between them was happening at a given point on the platform. This typically meant looking for gatherings of users that were the most enjoyable to interact with. This was not necessarily just the most literate users given that new users brought new ideas and perspectives.

(from 2010's Decade Review, Part 2: Memetaphysics Through Three Lenses, 2020)

I couldn't agree more. I think that this is already becoming the default in practice, even as the conceptual frameworks around understanding memes lags behind.

The memecultural esotericist taboo discourages being exoteric about your love for memes and meme culture, perhaps because “it’s cringe” or because it ostensibly “will ruin them”. This taboo is not only nonsensical, but dangerous too. It’s too late for this kind of esotericism. The concept of memes as popular cultural products are now mainstream without a shred of doubt, but memecultures still vary wildly. That diversity is a good thing; the received wisdom of subcultural esotericism going unchecked is not. Without more memeculturalists themselves “stooping to the level of normies” and earnestly engaging with the philosophy of memes, the work of defining memes and meme culture will be left to outsiders.

(from Homesteading the Memeosphere, 2022)

We need memetic biodiversity, and an ethics of memes which isn't parasitic to "para-memetic" concerns about whether Pepe the Frog is extremist.

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I think the fear of "staleness" and going mainstream is emblematic of something that is actually there. IF not directly triggered it is adjacent to it.

If your interest were to go "stale" what they are bemoaning is the loss of your identity to the vast amount of people; you'd lose your very identity as it become just an amalamation of every other "current" thing. I think of subculture as an affirmation of your originality, identity, and distinctness (even if it is absolutely normal behavior nowadays and you are not special or different). True or not that feeling has a social utility of assuaging your ego yourself. We are using the tools we have just as our ancestors did with their religious practice.

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Yes, there's two aspects to the "staleness of identity" here, right? If something is being used as a shibboleth, then you want it to be reliable when you use it to gauge a stranger's membership within your own tribe; you also want it to be trustworthy and reliable for others within your own tribe, so that you don't have to engage in additional labour to prove your identity.

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