Memes are just clichés, right?

On episode 225 of podcast The Crate & Crowbar from February 2018, Chris Thursten explained that so much of social media, especially Twitter, is composed of people pointing out any and all mistakes. With Twitter, this can mean a thousand people saying the same thing, which can amount to a strong negative feeling of personal failure, exlcusion, and being attacked.

He then pointed out that memes seem only to work on the internet. In other contexts, they would be recognized as repeating clichés; whereas on the internet, these simple repetitions are valued as a symbolic currency of anonymous sympathy. The latter clause is my view (more on this at the end). Thursten was discussing the role of memes or phrases in Dota 2, which function like codes for reliable communication in a common context.

With the above comment regarding social media’s mistake-shaming, Wiltshire interjected that in a lot of internet communiction, nuance is absent. I think this absence of nuance could be key to explaining why repeated phrases and images cohere as memes on the internet but come off as trite or hackneyed thoughtlessness IRL. A meme reduces the degree of ambiguity in interpretation by automating a significant portion of the process of symbolic communication. The variablility lies (perhaps entirely) on the side of application of symbols to references, such that the side of interpretation in communication via memes emphasizes the modification of the reference rather than the symbol.

What’s a meme, though?

So far I have had in mind memes that are themselves modified to fit the new point of reference. In this technique, elements of a topic slot into a rubric. Ryan Gosling “Hey Girl” pictures are relatively open-ended for memes of this category. See, for example, Feminist Ryan Gosling .

A stricter framework can be understood in the picture that depicts a couple walking in the background, the boyfriend looking over his shoulder at another woman walking away in the foreground, and his girlfriend giving him an angry, “are you serious?!” look. This provides a structure for representing an old trend in a given community being replaced by the “hot new thing.” Of course, this works on multiple levels—that is, its apparent simplicity and reduction of nuance relies on a foundation of social meanings that operate in parallel. In this case, the structure borrows from a stereotype of the young man who prioritizes sex or physical attraction over his relationship. The meme’s parallel of that stereotype with whatever topic has been slotted into it relies on a common process of objectification for the sake of personal satisfaction.


The cultural critic or anthropologist would likely focus on the base structure rather than its various applications. They would ask questions about the male gaze and a capitalist society’s prioritization of superficial novelty. Here, though, I am interested in the general process of communicative efficiency in contexts that tend to preclude a positive, productive relationship with symbolic ambiguity.

Unlike language, which maintains, and indeed creates, ambiguity in its symbolic constructions, memes reduce that ambiguity as part of their production. It’s not that they lack ambiguity but, rather, that the primary ambiguity of a meme operates in their capacity for being repurposed. A newly formed iteration of a meme eclipses that ambiguity even as it relies on it in order to motivate its recognition. In other words, any given instance of a meme works as a stable symbol with minimum chance of misinterpretation because it is simultaneously understood at the level of its varation in application—many of which have been seen. (Is it just me, or does this give off a Platonic vibe of a realm of Ideas or Forms each with a pure potentiality for realization?)

Anonymous Sympathy

So, what, then, does this have to do with memes being, as I wrote above, “a symbolic currency of anonymous sympathy”? (Perhaps this holds a link to Thursten’s description of Twitter as a barrage of mostly minor corrections from strangers.) First off, “sympathy” means feeling with another person. The feeling is held in common. In contrast, “empathy” highlights one person’s particular emotional situation, which is then imagined by another. Sympathy is a building block, let’s say, for empathy.

In this context, anonymity refers not to being strictly speaking anonymous, since many people use their real names. Even if they do not, then their account activity can present a sense of “who they are.” Instead of referring to a lack of identity, I mean by “anonymous” the simple fact that the vast majority of people on the internet interface as strangers. Their personal contexts rarely if ever enter into communication.

This presents a problem: communication presupposes a common ground, a medium to carry intention and enable expression of meaning. Without it, even miscommunication would be impossible, because any communication whatever would be impossible from the get-go. Crucially, this common ground includes more than just a common tongue; it synthesizes a host of contextual factors. In effect, I’m saying that the absence of tone of voice in an email is just the tip of the iceberg of anonymous internet communication’s built-in obstacles. The internet pushes the fundamental assumptions about language to the point of breaking.

Memes, however, step in as a mode of symbolizing feelings as well as outlooks, patterns, events, and so forth, in a way that reduces external contextual support. That paradigmatic scaffolding comes prefab.

You could call the meme a medium instead of a currency, but I like the analogy with currency because the latter is: (1) a medium of exchange, (2) a way to store value, (3) a measure of value.