Meditation on Group Memes

When I went home for Thanksgiving break the number of times I quoted The Producers per 48 hour period increased around 10-fold.

From the moment I got into the car, I quickly found myself falling back into the vocabulary that my family has accumulated over long years of interacting with one another.

The Miriam-Webster Dictionary says that a meme is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” While the use of ‘meme’ these days usually refers to rapidly-spreading internet pictures and sayings, I’ve also seen this sort of principle at work in the vocabularies of people who spend a lot of time together.

We like people who speak how we do. It’s common for people to relate better to those that share a common accent or style of talking–in fact, a study showed that toddlers prefer to play with others that speak with their accent over others of their same ethnicity or gender. So developing a group vocabulary can be comforting; when I make a groupwide reference I’m using a convenient shorthand for emotions and situations, and I can be sure that I’m understood. I’m also getting a boost, like that from an inside joke–reaffirming an in-group and an out-group and placing me firmly in the former. If I use the private vocabulary of a group, I feel like a legitimate member, and we’re all reminded of the particular group experiences that inspired that vocabulary.

It can be hard to predict what will become a meme for a given group, but all group memes share a few qualities: they’re fun to say, they call back to an amusing moment or idea, and they’re easy to remember. They might be generated by a comical misstatement–“did you aware?”–or an amusing moment from media. They have to be repeated enough at the outset that group members can be confident they’ll be recognized.

In a college friend group the common vocabulary that develops will be a combination of group members’ personal vocabularies, which might include memes from other groups, and unique group sayings. Going from one group to another effects an instant transformation: a person automatically adapts to the type of speech common to that group, often without noticing. But there are always a few tenacious phrases that are brought over to the new group–these might evoke blank stares, but they might also catch on.

When I was back home for break, I also found common ground by way of the internet–younger people in my extended family got the same references as me and used phrasing common on websites or Facebook. For all that internet memes are disparaged, they do create instant moments of familiarity: I discover people from far away–in person–using the same memes and cultural references that I do. The internet is creating a common vernacular that delineates a whole subculture of young people–a whole huge group that feels like they’re on the same wavelength, that can exchange ideas and references drawn from a group-wide database. And, actually, that’s pretty awesome.

Back to regularly-scheduled sciencey explanations next week.


About sarahexplains

I explain things! Hopefully things that people want to know. I'm working on that part.
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