When I was composing the segments of the class I teach at UCI Extension, I made a decision to include memes. I felt a bit foolish about it, it’s a serious course, do modern journalists really need to know about memes?

They do and memes aren’t always silly. The Rob Ford controversy and the flurry of memes it has generated has me had me thinking about the history of memes. I see them in many ways as an evolution of political cartoons and symbols, a modern way of communicating ideas through satire. The Rob Ford story reminded me a bit of Tom Nast’s infamous Boss Tweed cartoons. The difference is that we are all Nasts of varying skills. Nast needed talent, materials, and a venue (Harper’s Weekly) in order to get his ideas seen. We need only to type words on a picture. We don’t even need to find the picture ourselves, a meme generator does all the work, hit publish and your work is gone.

The difference of course is that memes are mostly free of ownership. Some memes started by an individual or perhaps a company may have a single source associated with them but most simply emerge created by unknown folks who are at play with ideas. 

In many ways the meme is the mix of the creator and the curator, because it involves both activities. Increasingly websites allow memes, gifs, and photos in comments. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that more and more sites are going to make it easier to make a comment in meme form. Many people talk about comments going away and some sites have made that decision but I think we are going to see instead an evolution of comments, making it easy to comment in the form of a meme, gif, or video while on the site and simply scrolling through options. 

The problem with memes of course is how quickly they go stale through overuse. Some seem to have a classic appeal but most lose their freshness and disappear. Most of the time we go numb to their limited appeal but every once in a while a new one comes along that sparks the imagination. Memes have become a secondary language. Increasingly online we communicate through photos and videos, memes are an evolution of that, a symbolical language. It’s not a lingua franca quite yet, instead it’s more of a language that makes sense to those in the know and seems nonsensical to those who are not. It becomes important for reporters, marketers, and publishers to understand the popular memes as part of taking the pulse of the world. There are whole sites dedicated to the understanding of memes to aid in this task. Language and communication are organic, we are constantly developing new ways to make our thoughts and ideas known.