BY RYAN CHUA
The world is going online, with almost 4.57 billion active Internet users in July 2020. As we spend more time on the Internet, we must learn the novel culture and societal structure to assimilate and make best use of the resources this global network has to offer. Memes are a language of the Internet, used with different meanings and attitudes embedded into its constantly evolving vocabulary. But as we learn to live online, we must be wary of what we bring back offline. An iconic meme, Pepe the Frog grew a legacy online that spilled over into political discourse in the US and in Hong Kong.
Who is Pepe?
Pepe the Frog was created by cartoonist Matt Furie in 2005 as a character in his Boy’s Club comic. You have likely seen Pepe, though it may not be a Furie original.
That’s because Pepe has become one of, if not the biggest meme on the Internet, finding its way into every nook and cranny of the Internet. In the process, however, the anthropomorphic frog cartoon has been edited to have a myriad different appearances and to carry new meanings. To Furie, Pepe simply represents an awkward young slacker having fun with his fellow anthropomorphic friends, their antics creating relatable juvenile humour. As Feels Good Man details, Furie’s version of Pepe quickly lost its authority as the Internet took the simple cartoon and through graphic editing, turned it into a language of sorts – an endlessly expanding vocabulary of possible meanings.
What is a meme?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a meme as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”.
The concept of memes actually predates the Internet, but has gained new relevance as the global reach of the Internet has allowed memes to grow and spread to a new audience. An Internet meme can be anything from an image to a word to a video – the only obvious criterion is that it has to spread and be referenced widely across the Internet.
There is something powerful about memes and how widely they can spread. As cultural entities, the comparison of memes to art becomes uneasy when we look closer.
Not everyone would recognise Pepe or his contemporaries, but it is easy to imagine that the level of recognition of famous memes in today’s hyperconnected world could match Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. Yet, famous paintings are tied to their creators. Memes are not. Memes take on a life of their own, every new iteration a new creation entirely as we inject our own jokes and messages into a canvas already recognised by millions.
In Feels Good Man, we see Furie’s Pepe adopted into a chaos pit where new distortions of the cartoon appear every day, sometimes adorned with Nazi swastikas and violent weapons. A chaos pit that arguably represents the unbridled potential of the Internet’s co-creation of culture: 4chan.
What is 4chan?
At its core, 4chan is an online image-based forum with over 70 sub-forums discussing topics from politics to anime to “random”. While online forums are common, 4chan sets itself apart with lax rules on some sub-forums. The result of such a broad and unfiltered system is an active user base that averages almost a million posts per day in 2020.
The anonymous user base is impossible to define. Troublemakers (aka trolls) post anything they want, with memes often used as seemingly inoffensive vehicles for the wildest of ideas. Conspiracy theories and explicit content are mainstays on 4chan boards. Examples include a conspiracy theory that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a “bioweapon” and the Christchurch mosque shooter’s letter being uploaded despite the New Zealand government’s intention to silence his hate speech.
How does this affect us?
The lines between the Internet world and our physical realities have been blurring for years. In Feels Good Man, we see the diffusion of kaleidoscopic Internet culture offline pose new dangers. The Internet has brought us easy access to information from around the world, making our offline lives easier. Finding reliable truths in a sea of memes and disinformation, however, is difficult. As governments and societies around the world sit up and take notice of the impact of the Internet, we must learn to protect our own search for truths.
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