I’ve been using the Internet for over 15 years. I got a Facebook account in 2009, a YouTube account in 2008, and a whole host of online accounts before that, including accounts with Bebo and Club Penguin. Facebook, however, was my first real Internet milestone as it was the first social media account that required my name. My real name, not some made up username or fake name. With that account, I was staking my flag into the online world, saying ‘This is me, this is who I want to be online.’
A lot has changed since then. Facebook is no longer the exception. Your accounts on Internet sites are no considered to be a persona or secret identity like they once were. Who you are online is expected to be who you are offline. The Internet has changed.
This is not the only example of how the lines between the “real world” and the Internet have blurred. What you do online affects how you are perceived offline. All your family and friends are expected to follow you on twitter, judge your music taste on Spotify, and gaze upon snapshots of your life on Instagram and Snapchat. You are what you post.
But this isn’t a one-way street. Not only does the Internet affects how you are perceived in the real world, but the real world is bleeding into our online spaces. It is undeniable that they are no longer separate spaces. And the clearest example of this is in, of course, memes.
Memes are Internet in-jokes. Passed along throughout the highways of the web, the earliest memes were easily sharable, malleable, and recognizable to people all across the globe. They were based off common reference points, like video games, nerd culture, and funny pictures of cats. It was fairly easy to grasp a meme, and required little explanation. To look at memes is to see how those using the internet really communicated. You didn’t need to know anything about the meme-maker to understand or pass on the meme. The Internet was small, and the only obstacle to a truly international appreciation of memes was perhaps the language barrier. If you knew the origin of the meme, it was likely you could understand most of its variations.
A new kind of meme has been popping up all over the Internet, ushered in by Facebook meme pages. These pages use similar templates for their memes and have similar names but rather than appealing to as wide a base as possible, these memes are highly localized. Instead of memes based around a something like a cult TV show, memes are based around universities or small towns. The memes get more and more niche to appeal to the tiny subsections of people who are in on the joke.
Glasgow University is particularly guilty of this – to date there are five specifically for various subgroups of Glasgow University. This includes one entirely based around the Boyd Orr (Internally refurbished boyd orr memes, with 2.1k likes) and, of course, one for the QMU (QMU memes for gay left-wing beans, which sadly haven’t posted since May 2017). These memes bring an air of exclusivity to those who see the images and get the joke.
Its not just universities, the small town where I went to school has one too, complete with local memes about the surrounding catchment area and the high school. When I was young I used the Internet to get away from thinking about high school and small towns, now people use the Internet to revisit them. The satisfaction and social capital that comes with recognizing and enjoying these highly specific and local memes, even if that recognition comes from being alone on your laptop, is alluring. You’re in a special club, getting a joke that only about a hundred or so people understand.
These local meme pages even function as some sort of community building, made for and by teenagers and young adults who may feel disconnected from their hometown and so gain some semblance of meaning from being able to, at the very least, laugh at it. Furthermore, for students spread out away from home in disparate locations, these pages offer a reminder or a nostalgic look back at the in-jokes and references that only people from this one tiny area in the middle of nowhere could understand.
These memes highlight how our perceptions of the function of the Internet has changed. Rather than bonding with complete strangers on the other side of the world through weird Internet humour, we now use memes to bond with our neighbours. Ten years ago it would have been unheard of to share a funny meme with people you actually, physically know, but now we share and swap memes while eating dinner together. The Internet has always been viewed as a place of connectivity and community, but rather than this happening on a wide, global scale, its shrunk down to highly specific, localized communities. As the Internet has gotten bigger, it has, strangely enough, gotten much smaller.
[Jo Reid – @_jomreid]