The Meme Analysis Project

Recently I invited my friends on Facebook to submit a meme, which I would then provide a critical analysis of, getting to the underlying context of these memes that often goes overlooked. Humanity has an awkward obsession with being content focused to the point of excluding the context of the things we consider. Our literal interpretations of the objects and subjects in the external world often gives us only a shallow understanding, and leaves us blind to the unspoken messages that lie within all things. And it is often these unspoken messages that have the most profound effect, even when we are not aware of them doing so. In fact, especially when we overlook them.

In the past I have criticized memes from a general perspective.  That exercise failed to engage many people, I suspect, because they were unable to draw from the general a message about the specific. So this time I have chosen to use specifics to make a general statement about the underlying context of memes. That is, they generally say much more than they actually say.

meme1

As with any political cartoon that bashes one of the two accepted mainstream positions, the problem is accidental validation. While you may hate all political sides equally, or just find the humor funny, the people who view it are going to filter it through their own beliefs. If they dislike the politician being made fun of, it may help to strengthen their ideology regarding the supremacy of the ‘opposite’ candidate. Which then goes on to validate that person’s belief that the state is necessary, justifiable and welcome based not on a judgement of the state itself, but the assumed belief that it is necessary to support MY statist figurehead in order to protect myself from THEIR statist figurehead. So it further polarizes both ends of the mainstream political spectrum while also validating the necessity of the state out of the fear created through false dichotomies.

meme2

While specifically suggesting that the reptilian conspiracy theories are outlandish and ridiculous, those people who think all conspiracy theories are ridiculous will have that belief validated. It further paints conspiracy theories as absurd and moronic. Yet conspiracy is natural part of all power structures throughout time. So to disbelieve them off hand because they do not fit the mainstream narrative conditions people to shallow literalism, which then allows them to be even bigger targets for the conspirators within the power structures.

Further, it relies on a format that has been repeated often enough that it has an instinctual association with ‘funny.’ Like a laugh track, it forces its humor through simple psychological shortcuts. Attempting to appeal to people’s instincts in order to gain their consent for mainstream consensus paradigms is pretty much always unfunny to me, though.

meme3

There are all sorts of problems with this one, but the most obvious is that it is blatant scientism. It appeals to people’s fascination with science, as well as their naive ideas about what science is and does. It uses the chemical symbols to reassure you that it is really super scientific stuff. But what is actually happening is very unscientific. The idea that our subjective experiences are only side effects of brain chemistry belongs not to science, but to the metaphysical assumptions of physicalism/materialism. Neither of those ontologies can be empirically verified, so it is not only not science, but by making ‘scientific’ claims about something unverifiable by science, it is actually anti-science. When scientism puts its metaphysical assumptions ahead of the actual science, it does so with complete ignorance and disregard for the strengths and weaknesses of the scientific method. And science is a method, not a worldview.
Further, it reduces our experiences to some strange combination of determinism and meaningless cosmic accident, which is degrading to human consciousness.
But when you add anything even faux sciencey to internet cultural tools like memes, the recipe is always one which results in a further ignorance of science and philosophy.

meme4

The problem with this meme is that it pretends to teach you something. But every idea is so obvious that only the most intellectually bereft would not have already determined these ideas themselves. Knowing these things is too obvious. It is putting them into practice that is difficult, which the meme gives no helpful advice on doing.
Since all it tells us is what we already know, the only purpose of this meme is to gather validation or consensus. And nothing waters down the truth like the necessity of repeating it compulsively where it is unsolicited and unrequired.
These sort of memes get around because they easily get likes. “I agree (duh) so LIKE.” And getting likes feels like validation and approval. And there is nothing wrong with validation or approval, but when you are disguising it as informative, it takes all of the meaning out of information. When this happens enough we trade our logic for emotion in an unbalanced way that is harmful to intelligence.

meme5

There are some memes that have a very concise message displayed graphically whose message is more or less direct.

But these are still problematic in that they reinforce the meme pattern in general. After being inundated daily with numerous memes that we know may not be completely on the up and up or are complete bullshit or pandering for validation and attention, the meme defender will point to one like this and infer that because this meme displays less of the awful characteristics that most memes carry then memes must be okay. They are the ‘good cop’ of memes.
But the system of meme has become ridden with intrinsic issues which make the good deeds of a few memes pointless as a guide to understanding memes.
There are no good memes. There are just memes that don’t intentionally dumb us down, but the system of meme does.

meme6

This is an attempt to discredit an ideology by reducing it to a mere absurdity, devoid of its complexity. And even if that ideology is in fact absurd and fails to recognize its own complexity, simply dismissing it by making fun of it is intellectually dishonest. The use of a childhood icon also insinuates that the believers in that ideology are themselves childish. By reducing the ideas and the person, it only serves to antagonize, and not to teach. The choir might all be giddy with this kind of preaching, but it alienates the congregation and puts them at odds with the far better ideas you are trying to replace theirs with. Therefore it is mostly just mean-spirited masturbatory posturing that hurts the cause of those who would perpetuate the sharing of this meme.

meme7

This is really the same as the other one. It is an attempt to win an argument by belittling the opponent. So the contextual problem is the same.

Content-wise, it suggests that Lions are those who allow themselves to be caught up in the largest association of organized violence ever. If the point is that lions are brave, then this fails because it is not brave to be a joiner. Especially when you are joining the winning monopoly on violence. Therefore, in this case, those standing against the ‘lions’ would actually be the brave and courageous, as it takes far more of those qualities to stand against this den than with it.

Secondly, lions aren’t what protect lambs. Lambs would be hunted and slaughtered and eaten raw by lions. So the idea that those claiming to protect us are lions while we are sheep really illustrates the true nature of these lions and not the delusion that they live under. They are not our protectors. They are our predators.

meme8

I have no idea what is even going on in this meme. The words in the back appear to be comprised of buzzwords and stock phrases. I do not recognize the picture, but perhaps it is recognizable from other memes and their context is being carried into this one by repetition of the image?

There are a lot of memes like this. There is a group on Facebook called The Absurdistan Association that has all sorts of stuff like this. I imagine that it is part in-joke used to identify the sharer as ‘in the know’. It may also just be an attempt to be absurd through nonsensical image propagation.

If it is an in joke sort of thing then it is really just another form of consensus gathering and self-validation and groupthink identity building.

If it is an attempt at absurdity it fails on two levels. The first being that absurdity is not just randomly random. It is highly constructed randomness for specific effect. Absurdity is not a way of saying nothing; it is a way of saying something through clever juxtaposition. But you cannot be making an absurdist statement if the audience is limited to those in the know of the parts beings juxtaposed. The second reason is that the activity and medium of meme has become such a cultural norm itself that they cannot be considered far enough outside social norms to be absurd.

Mostly, this just seems to be what would result when the activity of meme-ing became a meaningless compulsion.

(note- an explanation from the person who shared this meme with me: “It’s really just an obscure kinda joke. It references the “Serbia Strong” meme which… I don’t even know where to begin. I guess it kind of mocks a strange, esoteric nationalism / adversarial positioning that was so popular in early 90s Eastern Europe that it inspired folk music and other strange behaviors”.)

meme9

Remember when you were a kid and you would spend ridiculous amounts of time ‘playing’ an arcade game without having put any quarters into it? This seems like the meme version of that.

Besides that it is an identity thing. The people who made, liked and shared this image want you to know that they do not like Obama. And since they feel no need to provide specifics with that message, the reason they do not like Obama is probably because they identify with the other side of the partisan false dichotomy. Either that or their reasoning is even more suspicious, like racism, and they are just smart enough to know that indicating that specifically is a social faux pas. But not smart enough to make a meme that actually attempts to illustrate some idea specifically.

Whenever something that began as clever becomes too popular, eventually the biggest idiots get a hold of it and completely ruin any semblance of purpose in it. Or illustrate the underlying insidiousness of it through accident and irony.

meme9.1

I would consider this an infographic. And while infographics may contain some of the residual contextual issues of memes through similarity of mediums and use, there is a bit of a difference. My critique here is not very strong. The worst thing I have to say for it is that it is a visual version of the ‘This Topic for Dummies’ books. If the infographic inspires you to further investigate the topic, great. But if it inspires you to be a barely informed expert in conversations on the subject, then it is intellectually irresponsible.

meme9.2

This is an attempt to appeal to people’s morality through their desire and identity. To be opposed to this meme is to appear either anti-woman, repressed or homosexual. Morality should be arrived at through logic and reason, not appealed to through instinct or identity-seeking or fear. To draw the connection between the differences in vaginas as a reason to support diversity actually undermines diversity by suggesting it is a value whose laurels rest only on shallow interpretations of what creates genuine differences in individuals and cultural groups.

meme9.3

‘That face you make when…’ memes.

First of all, these memes never say anything at all. There is no message. There is no lesson. And they are not even funny. The only function they have is recognition. And since they are usually faces from entertainment media, the recognition is that of mainstream media consumers. The statement is ‘I also watched that/I consume the same media commodities as you/I recognize what facial expressions mean’. Nowhere in that does any thinking take place. It just begs for validation and interaction without earning it. It is attention whoring with no other purpose.

i fear a day when this behavior reduces our language to the most simple of bullshit.

Woman comes home from work. Man flashes photo from TV sitcom of famous ‘How was your day, dear?’ moment.

Woman responds by flashing famous movie photo of someone with exasperated face.

Man flashed ‘uh oh’ face photo from Home Alone.

Child walks in, plays a short sound clip- ‘Wakkity smackity Doo!’

Cue laugh track.

meme9.4

Ah, the sunday school atheist memes.

First, this meme is not for generating any kind of theological or philosophical conversation. It is just making fun of people by reducing their beliefs into an absurdity. And since atheists tend to have more influence in internet culture it also says that ‘we make better memes, so we are smarter than you and your beliefs are dumb.’

In particular this seems to be addressing the problem of evil. Yet is does so with such reductionist hyperbole that it misses all of the nuances contained in that theological doctrine. It is thus the anti-theist version of sunday school parables. It becomes the sort of watered down and literal interpretation that is practiced by the people it is meant to mock.

Further, it does not differentiate between the many concepts that fall under the banner ‘God.’ It addresses only the modern evangelical theistic entity from Abrahamic traditions. Yet it is meaningless when examined in the light of pantheism, panentheism, pandeism, etc. Many other philosophies that include some form of primal being have addressed the problem of evil quite well.

This meme goes after the low-hanging fruit. And people who go after only low hanging fruit do so only because they are on a similar level of intellectual inconsistency.


I hope that I have illustrated just how much meaning lies hidden inside memes. Though you may like the surface message of its content, a meme might actually say things you disagree with or wouldn’t want to say yourself. The widespread compulsion of meme sharing has created a communication culture full of far more unspoken messages than spoken ones.  Memes, like medication, all have side effects. So before you swallow those pills, be sure that the consequences are not worse than the benefits. And in the case of memes, the medium is itself the message, an idea I plan to explore in my next discussion on the topic.

Thank you everyone who helped by sharing the memes I used in this experiment. You know who you are!