Memes: The language of the internet that overcomes cultural barriers

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From humour to activism: How are memes changing the world?

While reading the messages and questions that arrive on the “Studentarija” page on Instagram, one November evening, my attention was drawn to a message from a student who found himself “in a tight spot”: he lost the pen that one of his fellow classmates lent him during a written exam. Entangled in an unpleasant situation, the student of the University “St. Kiril i Metodij” in Skopje doesn’t know how to act and asks for advice, because the classmate-owner also wants the pen that brought her luck in the exam back. She doesn’t accept a replacement with an exact same pen – she wants her own, the lucky one. 

The confession was a few weeks old (got lost in the inbox), and after a brief discussion and offering belated suggestions for a solution, the student agreed to share this trivial and sweet puzzling situation with a wider audience on the platform. What started as a simple pen exchange between college colleagues grew into a comedic saga on Instagram, capturing hearts and causing giggles in the Macedonian academic community. Shortly after the post, the uncommon story was carried by viral waves on the Internet, and creative students began to tell it through the language closest to them – through memes.

Source: Studentarija (@studentarijamk) on Instagram

Hello / good day, today when we were taking …(exam)… at the … college at 12 pm, I didn’t have a pen to write with, so I asked one of my classmates that was sitting next to me if she had an extra one and she gave it to me. Now, because I knew some things and some things I didn’t, I finished quickly and right when I got up to leave, another classmate who was sitting next to the door told me her pen stopped working mid-writing and asked me to give her the pen since I was done. I was thinking that the pen isn’t mine but I still gave it to her and I was waiting outside for her to finish so she could give me the pen and I could return it to my classmate. The classmate that lent me the pen left first and she said “It’s okay you will give the pen to me tomorrow”. Now when I went to the bathroom, the other classmate finished and left and later I wrote to her on Facebook “Where is the pen” and she said she left it at college. I was uncomfortable but the next day when I went to the amphitheatre earlier, the pen was gone. I asked the cleaning ladies if they saw it and they said no. When the classmate that lent me the pen came she asked me “Classmate could you give me my pen back”. I told her what happened and she said “Please find it, that pen is one of the two that bring me good luck on exams” and what would she do when the other one stops working. I told her I would buy her a new one but she told me to find one. I was uncomfortable to ask the other classmate to search for it and now what should I do, how do I find the pen. Please tell me have you had any similar situations with other students”

Source: Studentarija

In the vast space of the digital universe, amidst the sea of pixels and endless streams of (mis)information, there is a phenomenon that overcomes borders, languages and cultural barriers. It is not a traditional form of communication, although the impact of these creations is, for a reason, deep and far-reaching. As you scroll through the maze of hashtags, reactions and shares on social networks, you come across a treasure trove of strange content: a frog with a phone in hand, kittens with cute or evil looks, and unusual facial expressions from famous and unknown people. These are not random contents, but building blocks of the cultural revolution that has swept the Internet and elements that shape the current digital reality.

Some of the viral meme examples

“Memes” are cultural symbols and ideas that spread online at lightning speed, often edited and adapted by the most ordinary internet users. They are found in a variety of forms, so you can see them as pictures, videos, phrases and quotes or impressive sounds and music, which, for some reason, have become viral. The artist behind these creations can basically be any internet user who, with a little inspiration, can turn any digital piece into an artistic online sensation. Essentially, memes serve as a means for people to share jokes, commentary on current events, or cultural references, in a humorous or easily digestible format. In the early days of the internet, they started as simple inside jokes shared between online users, but with the development of the web and the rise of social media platforms, they have become widespread.

The evolution of memes has been marked by constant innovation and adaptation, but content that includes an image with explanatory text above remains a popular meme format today. And while some focus on humour and absurdity, others deal with more serious topics such as politics, social issues and pop culture. One thing is certain: thanks to their ever-changing nature, memes are guaranteed to remain a dynamic and integral part of internet culture.

The language of young people and the internet today

Communicator and social media expert Bojan Kordalov, defines memes as a “scream” in society that knows how to ease all of us in certain difficult social problems, to attract marketing or to give a different, interesting, entertaining or different angle of things, through the perspectives and creative thinking of young people. They are a form of communication that should be recognized and acknowledged as the language of today’s young generations, he says, that is, as the language of social media and digital tools.

“In closed societies like the Balkans, which are not inclined to fully recognise diversity, memes largely play a role because they provide a new, interesting form that young people recognise as different from the traditionality of society. We are talking about Balkan societies that are generally closed, try to be traditional and keep only the standard forms of communication that were current 20, 30, 50 and even 100 years ago. Of course, tradition is good for those who want to respect it, that is indisputable, but every time brings its own novelties, especially in the area of communication”, says Kordalov. 

 “Each generation has its own communication signs, channels, messages, and forms. And especially in the era of mass digitisation and the huge influence of digital channels and the internet on communication, it’s more than important to recognise and value these novelties”

Bojan Kordalov, communicator and social media expert
Bojan Kordalov, Photo: personal archive

Communicator Kordalov explains the virality of these contents by the fact that they are short, clear, and witty and go “straight to the point”. “They have a big influence, because they represent a typical communication for a certain generation, for a certain era,” adds Kordalov. An Instagram report for 2021 reveals that one million memes were shared daily on the platform, which is a double increase compared to 2018. 

Among the enthusiastic meme-fans in North Macedonia is the young journalist Mario Spasevski, who comes across and shares these contents, in different languages, almost daily. For a meme to go viral, according to him, it needs to have a good sense of humour, not to be offensive and intended for a specific community or a wider audience.

“I would say that today, memes are very attractive because everyone needs little more moments of happiness and humour. We all have difficult moments, bad and depressing days, we just need something to make us smile and cheer us up at least for a moment When creating a meme, most often the ultimate goal is to cause laughter or a funny reaction, and the beauty of it is when it is shared between friends and close people, and even publicly on social networks. Memes today are mostly created with the things that are popular at a given moment. The fact is that now everyone focuses on one thing, and tomorrow that thing will already be forgotten, so something new is sought for. Therefore, those who create and share memes enjoy the present moment the most, because they know that tomorrow or after a certain time it will not be so funny, because other novelties will come”

Mario Spasevski, journalist
Mario Spasevski, Photo: personal archive

He mostly finds his daily dose of memes in closed communities and groups on the social networks Facebook and Instagram, although he sometimes visits “X”, YouTube and TikTok.

“For example, I’m a big fan of the story ‘One Piece’ and I often follow content related to that story, specifically groups and pages that share memes about it. So, I would suggest to everyone – if they don’t know where to start, to find something they love and just follow it,” advises Spasevski.

Memes, among other things, are also a powerful tool for bonding

They depict situations, phenomena and feelings which the members of the particular community, for which they are intended, can identify with (as in the case of the pen) – everyone has encountered the same or similar experiences and emotions and this is what connects them and gives them a sense of belonging. Simply, memes are the common language which members of a group laugh in.

“They have a seriously great power to bring people together, even to the point of becoming very good friends. I say this from personal experience, because it has happened to me many times, that I am in a group or community and by sharing such content I get closer to people who have a totally different background from me, but at the end of the day we share the same opinion on certain things. Memes are humorous content, and it doesn’t really matter what background you have and what culture you are from, because if you share the same opinion, the same desire and love for a certain thing, you can very easily get together and simply enjoy the topic you are following”, says Spasevski.

As a fan of pop culture, Spasevski believes that memes are also an excellent channel for popularising certain content, such as series, movies and video games.

“I think they have a very positive impact on the current landscape of pop culture, especially when there are some popular contents that everyone “sticks to” very easily. Very often people get attached to a movie, series, comic book or game just because they saw a humorous picture as an excerpt from them and want to know literally everything that happens in that story or even in that universe. This is how fan bases are formed”.

Mario Spasevski, journalist

Fascinating and unpredictable

It’s fascinating that anything can become viral and it’s really unpredictable where the next trend will come from, says Hristina Mladenovska, who works as a creative director and is a former content creator in Macedonian, known under the name Kika Aveiro.

“For example, recently a new trend appeared on TikTok – the sound has over 300,000 remixes, and it comes from an episode of the series ‘Glee’ that is about 15 years old,” says Mladenovska. Regarding the use of memes for marketing purposes, she says that in order to remain relevant today, it is necessary for companies and organisations to keep up with the rapid development and changing of trends.

“All trends have one thing in common, and that is they should be easy enough for anyone to make their own. Often brands join these trends to show their audience that they have something in common with them, understand their ‘pain’, which can further lead to higher trust on the buyer’s part when they have to make a decision about where to spend their money”

Hristina Mladenovska, creative director 
Hristina Mladenovska, Photo: Personal archive

New York University research reveals that memes are ten times more effective than regular marketing visual elements, while, according to Forbes, businesses that use memes in their advertising are 60 percent more likely to attract purchases.

Mladenovska mentions an example of, in her opinion, one of the most successful campaigns of this kind, carried out by a technological educational company whose value today is estimated at 9.5 billion US dollars.

“A large part of the popularisation of the app, especially among the young population, is due precisely to their social media strategy, which also includes joining almost all viral trends at a given moment,” says Mladenovska.

Memes as social activism

In addition to their role in spreading humour and entertainment, memes also serve as a powerful tool for social commentary and activism.

Beyond the witty images and videos, this content has the capacity to spark meaningful conversations and raise awareness of current social issues – like inequality, injustice, and political corruption.

Through witty captions or poignant images, memes can transform complex issues into digestible content that can be shared among a specific affected community or with a wider audience.

Young people simply engage in society in a way that is authentic to their age.

“Social activism is not only if you, as a young person, become activists in a political party, if you join a civil organisation or if you are active in some debates on television, on internet sites or in traditional media. Activism is also when you publish or create a meme, thereby sending certain messages that are commercial, rebellious, and witty, will change or give another angle to things. You are also socially active when you write theater plays, poetry, prose or create music”

Bojan Kordalov, communicator and social media expert

From movements advocating for rights and justice, to campaigns promoting environmental sustainability – memes serve as a tool for activism, allowing young people to voice their complaints and calls for change in a creative yet impactful way.

Social media has become a battleground for ideological debates and cultural clashes, with memes often at the forefront of these digital confrontations, emerging as a powerful form of digital activism capable of mobilising communities and making change in the real world.

Student activism is just one of the Macedonian examples when memes caused a reaction from the competent institutions.

The late payment of state student scholarships and food subsidies is often “mocked” on Instagram, where students are most present and active. By creating memes and spreading them on the pages of social networks, students who are in an unenviable position contribute to the pressure on the Ministry of Education and Science as the competent institution for the implementation of these state measures.

Meme-inspired photos and articles were also among the banners of a series of student protests that took place in Skopje this past year.

By creatively harnessing the power of humour, irony, and satire, memes continue to actively challenge social norms, encourage critical thinking, and inspire action.

From unusual animal images to contents with political intentions, this cultural force will undoubtedly continue to shape our online interactions and reflect the ever-changing landscape of contemporary culture, often fueling conversations about various (important) issues.

Author: Goshe Nikolov

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