Meme Culture as a Way of Perceiving History

As we stay alert and remain calm in lockdown, the world has taken to one of its greatest comforts of the 21st century: Memes. But will these bring an advantage to how the future generations understand our reaction to the crisis?

 In years to come when students are learning about coronavirus, the use of memes as primary sources may be used. And why should they not? They are the same humour as the political cartoon of JFK and Khrushchev arm wrestling while perched on nuclear missiles from 1962. Or better yet, the satirists who mocked and sexualised Marie Antoinette during her reign (though gender politics play a significant part in this particular example). It is clear that we have always laughed at the situation we are in.

But can we excuse the laughter now? Now that thousands have died, and governments have been incompetent in their handling? I say: we must. Memes are not just humour; they are a source of information. Context clues can be taken from many merely by a glance. They work as visual aids in order to assess the scenario and the emotional view of those that use them.

As a meme increases in its popularity, it becomes clear that it contains a commonly held view nationally or globally. At this time, when the whole world is suffering, memes are being used to express anger and offer light-hearted relief at the situation.

At the start of lockdown, the UK government advised the public to wash our hands for 20 seconds. To measure that length of time, Jacob Rees-Mogg advised the singing of the national anthem. The memes followed.

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But this is not in bad taste. Memes are working to provide humour at a time of uncertainty. If this meme is discussed in the future, I imagine that the future generation will not view it as distasteful or that we did not take the message of washing out hands seriously. Instead, I think it will provide a commentary about the way we personalised the message into language we understand. I personally would much rather wash my hands while singing the chorus to Mr. Brightside than suddenly learn words to a patriotic song I had never known before a global pandemic.

In arguing whether these memes are reducing our response to the current epidemic, I find them to be making us more aware. The news right now is daunting to us all. Waking up every morning to negative news of mass death is anxiety inducing. Memes function as a way to fracture off from that.

The political message is still coming across through them. We are washing our hands, staying indoors, and taking in news from around the world. Whilst this epidemic is awful, it has created an experience which we all relate to. No one is left out in the memes that relate to it. They are open for all to emphasise to.

Though they are not all political or relating to the news, memes have become personal in the pandemic to highlight that we are in this scenario together. The ‘My plans vs 2020’ meme and the ‘can’t wait to walk down the aisle’ meme highlight that life has been disrupted. And that we can be sad about that.

Even if it is minimal, life has stopped for many in the face of this pandemic. Memes showing that some of us are waiting to graduate once this over. Or grab a pint with friends. Or even waiting to go back to the university library again, show we are all longing for something.

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Memes have their purpose. They are not making us “immune” to the coronavirus but uniting a message. Whether the message is political annoyance or personal longing, they are a culture of their own for the online generation. They are a tool of communication we are using to relate to one another.

If future generations are to assess memes in how we dealt with coronavirus I hope that they see, we took it seriously. Just because the format is not “the standard” or formal does not mean the message they carried was not.

[Rhona Stewart- she/her- @_RhonaStewart]

[Image Credit: NEOSiAM 2020]

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