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The science behind the memes

The science behind the memes

Memes can range from the simplest jokes about cats and other cute animals to deep social and political criticism. One of the most popular forms of communication on the internet today, these cultural versions may be older than you think, and more important than they seem. It all depends on what you will do with them, for what purpose, for whom you will repeat them, in short … a thousand variables.

What are memes?

Officially, the term “meme” came into use by evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins, in his book selfish gene, 1976. Take the Greek word “mimeme” (from “mimesis”, imitation) and shorten it, defining the concept as a reproduction of ideas, melodies, phrases, or any information that is imitated, transmitted from person to person. The goal was to show how human culture is replicated and shared.

Richard Dawkins at the Fronteiras do Pensamento event, in São Paulo: The author was the originator of the word “meme” as it is used today (Photo: Fronteiras do Pensamento/CC-BY-2.0)

Although it has never been defined in this way before, human behavior has always been filled with this kind of artistic commentary on life. Specialists were able to relate such activities to the time of the Greeks: in the tragic theater of the ancients, work was carried out on topics that upset and tormented them, turning into comedy. Memes, in proper proportions, do the same.

With the Internet, of course, the possibilities of copying and the influence of memes are maximized, which begin to spread, grow and change more and more. Specialists such as Lemur Schiffman have expanded the definition of a phenomenon, which is now considered “a group of texts with common characteristics, such as form, content, and position”.

‘Form’ defines our visual or auditory experience, i.e. sensory, while ‘content’ is the reproduced ideas and ideologies, and ‘attitude’ is the tone or style, the communication functions of the meme. There are, of course, limits to this concept: the copied and pasted text that spreads well is not a meme, it’s just viral content. When versions of the same text start to appear, things change.

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In a 2014 study, Shifman was able to identify 121,605 copies of a given meme published and 1.14 million online status updates. Memes have become part of internet folklore, which some have called “netlorNot only jokes are expressed through them, but also people’s feelings, anxieties and desires.

That is why, in general, memes are used to talk about recent events in the general memory of the media in which they are circulated, which carry something of great interest to users. To understand the most prevalent viruses, for example, it is not necessary to be part of the Internet subculture, because it appeals to simpler concepts. Events like elections, the World Cup, and even a pandemic are among the easiest to tackle out there.

Humor, tragedy, society

However, the simplest and most difficult is humor: a meme should be fun, and looking at and sharing it should be fun. A 2013 study showed that memes that generate the strongest emotional responses are most shared, with funny videos taking precedence over cute, disgusting or annoying videos.

But even though it’s primarily a source of humor, brings some kind of comfort or lightens a topic, it doesn’t necessarily have to be funny. An example is memes about the war in Ukraine, which even the official social networks of the country’s government share. It is their power to capture feelings and experiences.

There are, of course, more niche memes. Some studies have noted that people with depression find more memes about the condition Funny, shareable and measurable. According to some experts, they can express the experience of depression in ways that are difficult to pronounce.

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Memes help greatly in forming a collective identity, especially in marginalized communities like LGBTQIAP+ or even more specific groups like People who have been certified from donated sperm and eggs. In this case, they are not made widespread, but create a strong sense of belonging and community involvement, facilitating communication.

For society as a whole, memes open discussions and act as a polemical medium, supporting or rejecting various arguments, ranging from political agendas to the trifles of private life, such as which side to put toilet paper on, or how vaccines and isolation help prevent transmission of COVID-19.

sabotage and conspiracy

In countries where there is more censorship, memes help share ideas in a subversive way: In 2018, the hashtag #MeToo campaign, which advocated sexual harassment by publishing stories of harassed women, was banned in China. The solution? Share pictures of rabbits next to rice, which are pronounced in Chinese”May you‘, Imitation of Anglophone pronunciation.

While encouraging the political participation and conversations civil society needs, memes can also be abused. conspiracy theories Misinformation can be easily and quickly replicated in this form, dispensing with more detailed explanations – also due to the limited space they provide – and dangerously filling gaps in popular knowledge.

Memes can, by helping to feel involved and connected to communities, draw vulnerable people into plot groups. At the end of the day, like many communication tools, memes are neither inherently good nor bad: it all depends on how they are used.

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What matters is knowing that they are here to stay – and that they are not to be underestimated. They must be understood as facilitators of communication, digital activity and encouragement of belonging, using their potential to unite us rather than divide us. It all depends on what you choose to create and replicate.

source: PsyArXivAnd the New media and societyAnd the Selected Papers from Internet ResearchAnd the Results in Applied MathematicsAnd the Computer in human behavior Across BBC