The culture of memes in society today

Exploring the role memes play in our everyday life

No matter where you look online, memes will appear somewhere. From the most quotable movie lines to funny and controversial moments, nearly everything can be turned into a meme. But, can memes be considered art? And are memes some kind of insight into the truth about how the public truly feels about relevant topics in society?

Why do people love memes so much? According to digital marketing agency and web developers SEO Shark’s website, people tend to gravitate toward using and interacting with memes because they’re “easy to share, they’re funny, audiences relate to them and …  they are topical and timely.” These reasons make memes a nearly essential part of how people interact with the world around them.

The ease of sharing memes is such a selling point because in today’s society, the quicker we access things, the higher the likelihood we will interact with it. Also, it creates a sense of connection because we can freely share memes with whomever we choose. The humour is also another element that lends itself well to meme interaction. A lot of the time, we want something that will make us laugh, and memes do that easily. So, it becomes a way for us to get that enjoyment that we crave.

When it comes to memes being topical and timely, this touches on whether or not they can be a source of truth. Often, there is a mocking tone, reminiscent of the fools in Shakespeare’s plays. The fool or the jester was able to make relevant critiques without having to face the consequences of it because they are humorous. In many ways, memes tend to play the same role. They are calling out something relevant in society, but people tend to take them in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, yet the commentary the meme is making is still impactful.

Memes are a visual medium, which begs the question as to whether or not memes can be considered art. In many ways, the answer is dependent on how one chooses to define art. 

I asked the members of a private facebook group called ‘90 Day Fiancé TV Show Uncensored,’   “Do you think memes should be seen as art?” 81 per cent of respondents said no. This outcome is not surprising as memes can be seen as lesser because anyone can make them. Also, people tend to associate the term art with a lot of skill. In many ways, memes can be seen as fun, but not that they take the same skill as an artist doing a painting. However, if art is being defined as a form of creative expression, then memes would absolutely be seen as art. Perhaps, through the ways memes are being used, the way we define art might expand to include this medium.

2020 has been a difficult year to say the least, and many memes have made a presence that discuss the year we are living in.

This meme, which discusses how 2020 will be perceived in the future, is an amalgamation of many older, popular memes. Aside from being humorous, it allows people to remember what made us laugh so often in the past. In many ways, it seems like 2020 has been a never ending cycle of stuff happening. This meme casts light on all of that, making it relevant.

Memes can also serve as a form of political commentary. During this year’s American presidential debate, there was a lot of talk about who has been making money off Russia. The debate in general was a bit of a mess, and this meme, featuring Spider-Man pointing to himself, captures the back and forth perfectly. This Spider-Man meme has been used many times, in many instances, and to use it here highlights how versatile memes are. It also suggests, at least within the confines of this topic, that Biden and Trump are just mirrors of one another. This meme is calling out the political sphere in a way that reaches the masses.

Memes are such a staple in our culture. They are not going to go away because they stay relevant with the times. They are a social commentary on situations that have gone through the court of public opinion. In a lot of ways, memes can actually be an indication of what people deem as newsworthy.

Personally, I think that memes should be taken more seriously than they are. I think that their accessibility makes them undervalued, but I believe that is exactly why they should be seen as more. As someone who views art as ever changing, I think memes have a place in the art world. I look at memes daily, share them with my husband, and we laugh so much. During the time we are in, I think memes are especially relevant. We need access to various forms of entertainment and art, and perhaps memes are the best way to gain access to these things.

Whether you like memes or not, they aren’t going anywhere, and I think with time people will take them more seriously.


Graphic by @ariannasivira


Look, listen and now you’re hooked

Thoughts on the Fondation Phi’s current exhibitions

Listen and be amazed. These words from The Meaning of Style followed me home after seeing the Eva & Franco Mattes and Phil Collins’ exhibitions at the Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain. (No, not Genesis’ Phil Collins, this Phil Collins is an artist and filmmaker, and yes, they are both from England.)

The title of the video [The Meaning of Style] doesn’t seem to fit with the piece. The short, four minute and 50 second film “features a group of anti-fascist Malay skinheads who appear to transcend reality and representation, circulating between the imaginative and literal spaces of cinema,” according to Harvard’s Carpenter Center for Visual Arts.

the world won’t listen (2004-2007), Phil Collins. International tribute to The Smiths.

This specific information, about all of Collins’ shorts at Phi, isn’t as readily present, even in the exhibition’s programme. Instead, you’re left to wander from screen to screen and soundproof booth to soundproof booth wondering if Genesis’ Phil Collins had a secret filmmaking practice. It would make sense if he did, all the videos in the exhibition are about the relatability of music and creating various intimate installations to sit and listen.

Juxtaposed with Eva & Franco Mattes’ What Has Been Seen, the Collins’ exhibition becomes even more intriguing. According to the duo’s website, “the title refers to the “What Has Been Seen Cannot Be Unseen” meme, an internet axiom which states that repulsive, disturbing, or horrific sights can never be erased from memory once they have been seen.”

Their work forces the viewer to change the way they approach, view and generally interact with, and on, the internet. Viewers are first confronted with a smashed old desktop computer looping videos you may or may not recognize from the early 2000s. Then, you’ll walk into an open, white room, entirely empty except for a large screen and an orange cable. The individuals on the screen look back at you in shock, and you’ll wonder if they can actually see you; if Eva and Franco Mattes installed a webcam and instructed people at the other end to react to your presence. I won’t ruin the surprise.

Then you’ll continue onwards, heading up Phi’s four floors, and maybe you’ll notice the Ceiling Cat, or then again, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll just climb up the stairs and be totally thrown off guard by the TV tents and the fuzzy red carpet. Are you supposed to lie down on the ground and actually watch these videos? Or appreciate them as a sculptural object? You can definitely hear them.

Your choice. Either way, you’ll be confused. All the different Phis (Fondation Phi, Centre Phi), Phil Collins, and now this?

The way objects occupy space will really change the way you interact with them, in art museums, online and out and about in the world. We go about our lives intrinsically knowing what is okay to sit on and what isn’t. The floor usually isn’t it, especially in galleries and museums. But I’m a big floor-sitting advocate. Eva & Franco Mattes appear to be too.

Follow their collection of personal photographs upstairs. You won’t be able to actually see the images, but they’re there, through the wires and under the floorboards.

Data surrounds us at every turn, but we rarely confront it physically. Eva & Franco Mattes’ maze forces us to but doesn’t privy you to their contents. They are personal photographs after all.

The last stop is entirely different. Finally, wall art, something normal. Except it’s not. Oh and there’s another cat. Turns out they’re taxidermied (yeah, the Ceiling Cat too), creepy.

This last piece forces you to sit on the floor and look up at the video.

Abuse Standard Violations depicts images and text leaked from the duo’s interviews with web content moderators. One of these things is not like the other? Which images are ‘clean?’ How should they be classified? To flag, or not to flag?

Content moderation is one of the most interesting, mundane and horrifying professions that exist in today’s internet-dependent world. What has been seen, the three videos that follow Abuse Standard Violations, truly cannot be unseen—the duo’s way of forcing you to connect to these works in the most uncomfortable way. They moderate your behaviour. (Unless you live by a strong politics of refusal, are no fun or have bad knees.)

The work forces you to confront a world you aren’t familiar with, a world of the matrix, the other side of our crystal clear, greasy and cracked screens, changing the way we relate to our physical surroundings and to each other.

Now is your last chance to visit both exhibitions at the Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain (451 and 465, Saint-Jean Street) until March 15. The gallery is open Wednesday to Friday from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekends. Admission is free.   



Photos by Chloë Lalonde.


Fake news is a meme that should die

“Fake news”—that awful, awful term is a meme that has hit its mark, proven its fitness, and is gaining traction due to misunderstanding, division and lulz that we are all guilty of spouting. We are feeding it every time we utter it.

And we should just stop using it.

Fake news generally refers to information that is false or misleading, often sensational, and masked as news. It is a term that is shouted, spouted, typed and copy-pasted a great deal. It’s even associated with a specific voice in my head—can you guess whose?

Now, when I refer to “fake news” as a “meme,” I don’t mean those tacky time-wasters we should all ignore on the internet. I’m writing about the original definition of meme as coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.

The book itself presents the view that the gene is the agent of evolution (as opposed to the individual or the group). In the last chapter, Dawkins explores the idea of a unit of cultural evolution that works kind of similarly, though also differently. The meme, as he named it, is an idea, behaviour or style that exists in human minds and persists because of its sticking power and ability to spread. “Smoking is cool” is a meme that receives help from nicotine and the tobacco industry.

To be clear, internet memes aren’t quite the same. As Dawkins put it in a speech at Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors’ Showcase 2013 in Cannes in 2013, “instead of mutating by random chance and spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, they are altered deliberately by human creativity.” Internet memes are mere playthings for humans, and while real memes are created by humans, they evolve naturally.

Fake news is a meme in the original sense, and a strong one at that. It survives because it’s based on truth: false news is a real problem. It thrives by latching on to our fear of being lied to, the belief that people of opposing views are more likely to spread or believe lies—our fear of journalism’s demise, and the mix of humour and outrage we feel when Donald Trump uses it as a slur.

Sure, disinformation has always existed and will always exist—much like the people generating it, believing it and the journalists fighting against it. It’s a never-ending struggle. But this fake news business has gotten out of hand. It doesn’t simply exist to refer to disinformation in one form or another anymore.

The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News were among the first to use the term in October 2016 to describe how false news articles on Facebook had influenced the US elections. That put the seed in people’s minds. Then, President Trump threw an all-caps FN-bomb at CNN on Twitter in December of that year, which was the water that nurtured the meme’s growth.

Columnist Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post actually warned us a couple of weeks later, calling the term a label that has been “co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”

To my liberal friends, stop using it ironically. To my conservative friends, stop using it so angrily. To my journalistic friends, stop using the term entirely. After this article, I will also stop using it. That’s the only way to kill a meme. Because we’re not really using it. It’s using us. Stop saying it. Stop writing it. Let it die.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


The influence of memes and bots in the electoral campaign

“Right now, we are not seeing a lot of positive Trudeau memes,” said Associate Professor Fenwick McKelvey. “So, will it influence the vote? That is something we walk in with an open mind, saying this could be totally meaningless. But then at the same time, it is an important part of how people understand and engage in politics.”

The lack of investigation of the role of memes in Canadian politics led McKelvey, from the Department of Communication Studies, to look at the content being shared on social media. While memes are usually regarded as harmless, humoristic tools, McKelvey argues that they are actually an important part of shaping public opinion and representing all the different political party leaders.

“I think the humour part is important because people look at these images and it helps them laugh or make a joke,” said McKelvey, “and then they identify closer with that party or with the people who created the joke.”

According to the research, which McKelvey is doing with the help of undergrad students, there is currently a tendency towards counter-Trudeau memes. And it is not only a right-wing phenomenon, but memes are also used by all parties to campaign with generic, negative messages.

The research identified 30 Facebook groups posting memes about the election, each focusing on different issues. It can be observed that from the left-wing, climate change is a recurring theme while the right promotes corruption-related memes. Yet, Trudeau’s various scandals, such as SNC-Lavalin and his Brownface incident, prevail above all.

On Sept. 27, in a meme-tweet style, Trudeau announced his latest environmental promise to plant 2 billion trees if he was to be re-elected. “We’ll plant 2 billion trees over the next ten years. That’s it. That’s the tweet.”

This tweet, which McKelvey argues was orchestrated by his campaign staff, was an attempt to adopt the meme trend and ended up backfiring on him. It was received more as a joke than anything, said McKelvey.

“It’s interesting to see the varying reactions, I mean at least from the students,” said McKelvey. “No one took it seriously. It came across as a joke.”

The research comes after McKelvey co-wrote a paper with Elizabeth Dubois on the role of bots in politics. Simply put, bots are the loose word to describe any automated accounts on social media that behave or pretend to be a human.

In politics, the worst scenario could be where bots push for a story to become more popular than it should be, whether false or not, impacting public perception directly. It can become terrifying knowing that, according to a study by the University of Southern California and Indiana University, nearly 50 million Twitter accounts are run by bot software.

Although, under the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, political parties worldwide have now agreed to obey a code of conduct that states full disclosure on their use of bots.

Yet, while Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer took the pledge, neither Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May nor Maxime Bernier’s names can be found in the online agreement.

What about their roles in spreading false information?

Since the 2016 United States election, the existence of online-interferences from automated agents is not a secret anymore.

In fact, parts of McKelvey’s research on the role of bots was to recognize the capacity of bots to manipulate the content on social media, but also acknowledging that bots can serve important public functions, along with the public interest.

“We have the CBC using bots to help people understand how disinformation spreads online,” said McKelvey. “We also have a bot that is called the Parity Bot. So, whenever someone tweets something negative or abusive to a woman in politics, it will automatically tweet something positive. It’s a way to counter interact negativity online.”

And when it comes to memes, McKelvey argues that analyzing false information being spread through them doesn’t look at how people share information they know to be false but believe anyway. Instead, he believes in trying to think about this sharing process more as social identification; how people come to understand themselves and politics.


Graphic by Victoria Blair

Student Life

The power of vulnerability

Dre and Edward Row talk about the different dimensions of working with the internet, particularly Instagram, as a medium. Photo by Alex Hutchins

Get to know the self-proclaimed high priestess of dank memery

“I’m just a young woman trying to navigate the world, and trying to do so in a way that is in line with her own values and lived experiences,” said Dre, a.k.a @gothshakira, an intersectional feminist and Latinx meme creator. On Feb. 27, alongside photographer Edward Row, Dre spoke at a panel on social media as part of a three-day journalism networking event hosted at McGill University.

Dozens of student journalists attended a series of panels on the future of journalism, given the advent of digital media. Yet only some had the privilege of listening to Dre speak about creating autobiographical memes that challenge the mainstream representation of various marginalized groups and the power of sharing personal experiences.

Memes plague the internet, popping up on our Instagram and Facebook feeds all too frequently, redirecting our attention to a joke or poignant comment. However, Dre’s memes often intimately recount her personal experiences, which creates an aura of human emotion not typically found on the internet.

“It’s hard trying to be human through [a medium] that is inhuman,” Dre said. “The pursuit of authenticity, in that sense, is always going to be inherently inauthentic.”

Given that Dre’s memes are so emotionally raw, many of her followers often feel as though they personally know her—it’s part of what makes the @gothshakira persona resonate with people so deeply. “There’s so much power in your personal lived experience,” Dre said. “If you can find a way to navigate that, to support and to listen while sharing your own experiences, that is beautiful.”

When Dre first started her personal Instagram page in the winter of 2015, she had no idea the social media following it would gain. That’s part of the total ephemerality of the internet—just the spontaneity of it and how anyone can slide into your DMs [direct messages],” Dre said. Currently, @gothshakira has nearly 60,000 followers on Instagram, having caught her “big break” in 2016 when Gucci slid into her DMs and commissioned her to design a meme as part of the #FTWGUCCI ad campaign, according to Flare Magazine.

Much of Dre’s content is focused on dismantling heteropatriarchy and challenging representations of marginalized women of colour, femmes and LGBTQ+ members. Being half-Colombian and having immigrated to Canada from her birth country, Dre described her upbringing as being in a “very religious evangelical Christian immigrant home,” according to an interview she did with Canadian Art. This is one reason Dre gravitated towards astrology, a unique theme often present in her memes.

Dre is also notorious for using images of well-known Latina actresses, such as Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, usually looking unimpressed. Her memes tend to be spliced with a bold text-to-image ratio and typically feature astoundingly poignant text blurbs that highlight the realities of the racialized, sexualized stereotyping that many marginalized groups experience.

Dre is very open about her own problematic biases and always emphasizes the importance of listening to individuals’ lived experiences, which invariably differ from her own. “I’m going through my own process of decolonization and unlearning toxic things I internalized in my youth,” Dre said during an interview with Canadian Art. “I’m fully cognizant that the dating memes that I make are about dating straight cis men […] I’m trying to learn more about the experiences and realities of trans people.” This is one example of a marginalized group Dre cannot identify with but whose perspectives she’d like to include in her content.

Being accountable for her extended performance art piece—how Dre has come to describe the @gothshakira persona she created—adds a dimension of intimacy to the interactions with her fanbase. “No one else could have created this except for me because it’s very personal, and I’m not going to try to hide behind anything. So, here I am,” Dre said.

Her willingness to engage in meaningful conversations is refreshing, compared to many memers who prefer to remain visible only through admin photos and pseudonyms. “It’s been really amazing to meet a lot of the people in real life who have engaged with my content and who have taken something from it. That’s been the most rewarding part of this experience,” Dre said.

The network of support and openness Dre creates through @gothshakira is an example of the interpersonal growth we can achieve when we listen to each other. It’s a much needed reminder of the individual agency we create when outwardly acknowledging our emotions, and the power in taking control of how our personal experiences are told. There is so much to be gained from being vulnerable.

For more of Dre’s memes, check out her Instagram page.


Tide Pods: From laundry to brainwashing

Social media challenges highlight a deeper issue within today’s meme culture

Over the last three weeks, a new challenge has emerged on social media called the “Tide Pod Challenge.” It quickly became a meme online, as many people made jokes about eating the colourful detergent packets. Despite the danger and the laundry brand telling people not to eat the pods, many people—mostly teenagers—continue to videotape themselves eating Tide Pods.

The first time I heard about a challenge on social media was the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge, and it was for a good cause. Since then, many new dares have emerged on the internet, and in my opinion, many of them are stupid. With the Tide Pod Challenge specifically, teenagers record themselves biting into the packets in order to gain views, recognition and popularity on social media.

You’re probably reading this thinking the same thing as me: this challenge is just stupid and dangerous. People are ingesting toxins by intentionally eating Tide Pods. In 2017, before the challenge even began, more than 10,500 children under the age of five and 220 teens were exposed to Tide Pods, and about 25 per cent of those cases were intentional, according to the Washington Post.

Perhaps we can understand why very young children might be attracted to the colour and the pleasant smell of Tide Pods, but I for one cannot understand why a teenager—who can make reasonable choices—is compelled to do the same. So why are they doing this? I believe I might have an answer.

Recently, our society has entered an era characterised by social media and meme culture. This facet of culture has been defined by Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, as “an element of a culture or system of behaviour that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation.” In today’s culture, memes and social media are the diffusers of ideas within the online world, and they are limitless. Anyone can find anything on any subject online. It is a beautiful and useful tool, or a dangerous one—especially for people who are easily influenced, such as teenagers.

The problem is that, in our era of social media, the border between public and private life is slowly being erased. Every time we log on to a social media platform, such as Instagram or Facebook, we see people sharing idealistic pictures and videos of their everyday lives.

Even if most social media users understand that these perfect images do not reflect real life, I believe many teenagers can be influenced by these people, which lead them to constantly pursue views, likes and perfection online.

These teenagers, therefore, will follow a trend not because it is something they think is valuable and useful, but because they think it is the first step to celebrity and popularity. However, reality often catches up to them, but perhaps too late, when their lives are endangered. They hope to become celebrities, but often become known on a small scale, limited to their neighbourhood news or the emergency medical services.

Fortunately, Tide has quickly reacted to the challenge by creating advertisements that show the dangerous effects of eating their products. Yet it doesn’t seem to be enough as more intentional cases of Tide Pod ingestion are reported every day (already 39 since the beginning of the year, 91 per cent of which were intentional), according to the Washington Post.

I believe social media perpetuates meme culture, and teenagers in this culture suffer potential brainwashing from online trends. Unfortunately, most teenagers today cannot be themselves without thinking about what they have to do in order to be liked and loved in their virtual community.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth 

Student Life

One does not simply make a meme

If you spend hours on the Internet like numerous university students do (don’t lie, we know you aren’t studying for six hours straight), you may have noticed odd images and videos appearing on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
These images portray talking cats, highly animated faces of cartoon people or videos of babies doing cute things. They’re viral Internet entertainment called memes, and they’re taking over social media outlets faster than you can imagine.
The original definition of a meme came from Richard Dawkins in 1976. He declared a meme to be “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” It’s a concept used to describe the theoretical unit which transfers cultural aspects between generations. Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene, explained how memes are the cousins of genetics; they grow, evolve and replicate in the same way.
Internet memes may not be what Dawkins had in mind when writing his definition of a meme, although they do share similar characteristics. Internet memes have been popular since 2001. They are anything from a photo-shopped image, a comical video, or an outrageous article that becomes popular online. The speed of communication on the Internet allows memes to be viewed globally, bringing people together to laugh at the same item within hours.
There is more to a meme than a viral video. Over time, memes have developed a language, rules, and trends. An iconic example of meme language is Lolcats. You simply take a picture of your cat and put text around it that is intentionally spelled incorrectly, as if the cat is speaking; Kitten becomes “kitteh” and more becomes “moar.”
Memes aren’t restricted to cat pictures. They include other character images, like Good Guy Greg (a seemingly good guy) or the Success Kid (a cute baby doing a triumphant elbow jab). Each character or image has unspoken guidelines and themes surrounding them and are used to get certain points across.
Colin Lankshear, a McGill professor, and Michele Knobel, an education department professor at Montclair State University, both specialize in new literacies and digital technologies. They collaborated on a paper in 2005 titled “Memes and affinities: Cultural replication and literacy education.” Their work suggests a successful meme requires three components: “Some element of humour, ranging from the quirky and offbeat to the bizarrely funny, a rich kind of intertextuality, such as wry cross-references to different popular culture events, icons or phenomena, and/or anomalous juxtapositions, usually of images.”
A recent trend on Facebook is university meme pages. Often started by students, with student contributions, the pages have been emerging online across North America and Great Britain. The memes tend to mock a specific aspect of the particular university. For instance, the most popular meme on the Concordia Facebook page says “-20 degrees outside, 100 degrees in Guy-Concordia metro.”
The title of “The first person in North America to start a website dedicated to university memes” most likely goes to Daniel Braden, an arts student at McGill University. Braden started McGill memes on Tumblr in November 2011 as a way to kill time. In an article on, Braden said “I’m also fairly confident that my site was the primary catalyst in spreading the university meme craze in Canada and the United States.”
Braden accepts occasional public submissions, but the majority of the memes are his own. When it comes to finding inspiration for his memes, Braden said he has an endless supply at McGill.
“I think of memes by making general observations about specific instances and trends in campus culture at McGill. McGill is full of many student groups and is home to many protests, therefore the memes generally write themselves,” he said.
What about Concordia memes? They can be found on a Facebook page called Concordia University Memes. Students can submit their own, and there’s an assortment of topics, from the dinginess of the Faubourg to the stereotypes looming over certain programs. Memes are intended to be harmless and humourous, but they also increase awareness about issues on campus.
“I think the main idea of a meme is you take a daily problem, well-known and easily identifiable by people who live the same ‘basic life’ as you―in our case, Concordia students―and make an image to share things that you see, that make you laugh, or make you angry,” said Hans Jules Bobànovits, an art history student at Concordia.
The Concordia meme page has over 3,000 “likes,” and even more viewers. It has become a community for students to vent and mock the trivial aspects of Concordia. The memes shed light on issues students can relate to.
“I find the visual meme is a good way to create an emotional response to a situation many people share without having to explain it,” said Concordia student Karim ZeTrad. “Words get in the way, but a picture and a line or two make the reference somewhat of an ‘inside joke’ to Concordia students. You put the meme on Facebook, and people ‘like’ it to discretely show they understand where you’re coming from.”

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