If you’re confused by the number of Tide Pod memes out there, you’re not alone. I consider myself an avid connoisseur of memes yet I don’t get what’s so funny about the concept of eating Tide Pods – though, in my defense, I don’t live in a place where Tide is sold. The Tide Pod meme is the kind of meme that’s only funny to a small group of people and apparently, the smaller the group of people – the more those people seem to find it funny.
But why exactly do absurd and seemingly meaningless memes appeal to some people?
The word ‘meme’ refers to an idea or cultural symbol that is spread by imitation. These ideas are passed from one person to another, not via genes – but by repetition. When it comes to the videos, GIFs, images, and ideas spread on the internet, ‘memes’ are things that are spread by online shares. They are ideas and situations that are imitated and applied to different contexts.
Let’s take, for example, the ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ meme. In the original stock photo, a man walking with his girlfriend is turning around and looking at another woman, much to his girlfriend’s chagrin. In the variations of the meme as it spread virally on the internet, users depict being distracted from one thing by another – the more appealing thing.
— Omar Essam Lhc (@OmarEssamLhc) August 19, 2017
Okay, this is my favorite distracted boyfriend meme pic.twitter.com/lahPD5Oh0s
— Blake (@CoolHipsterName) November 8, 2017
The images all focus on one idea here – the idea of being distracted from something you’re meant to focus on. And that is the meme, the idea that is depicted through repetition. Most of the time, the situations these memes depict are super relatable to a wide audience.
Using memes is like using a language. Much like memes, words have various origins, connotations, and meanings. In different contexts, words mean different things. Combining words or using wordplay shows that you have a solid understanding of the language, which makes you seem smart.
Just as we get simple words, some memes are easier to understand than others – like the ‘Elf on the Shelf’ memes, which combined two random items with rhyming names. It’s simple. Being able to make an ‘Elf on the Shelf’ meme is fun, but not necessarily impressive – all you have to do is rhyme. The more simple the meme, the less impressive it is.
You've heard of Elf on the Shelf, now get ready for pic.twitter.com/WsTgm9lF1w
— Nick ? (@HillsideboyXCX) September 18, 2017
It’s easy to see why these simple memes are appealing. We can use them to get a number of different messages across, and you don’t need to be a prime internet lurker to understand how they work. However, obscure memes – like Bee Movie memes – aren’t simple at all.
Why on earth would people copy the entire Bee Movie script onto Facebook? What’s the appeal in joking about it?
Bee Movie memes are not meant to make sense. The movie has a large ironic fanbase of people who create YouTube videos based on the movie. These videos are referred to ‘The Bee Movie but…’ and they have many variations: The bee movie: but every time there say bee it speeds up, The ENTIRE BEE MOVIE But Only The Word Bee In It, The bee movie trailer but every time they say bee the content aware scale gets stronger. The Bee Movie memes don’t have any real meaning – that’s why they’re appealing.
The more obscure the words you use, the smarter you seem – unless you use it wrong. Similarly, using obscure memes to successfully convey a certain idea shows wit and intelligence. It also implies that you’re fluent in internet culture, which can be pretty impressive. When you create – or even share – a Bee Movie video on YouTube, you’re saying “I am one of you”. That sense of belonging is what we’re trying to achieve.
Memes rely on inside humor to work, which is why a lot of people might be angry that I’m writing a plain explainer article so that more people get their humor. Like an inside joke, obscure memes are appealing because they exclude some people and signify that the user is a part of a certain social group.
Are they a little pretentious? Maybe. But they’re certainly not the most offensive way to make a joke.
When I watch 90s sitcoms like Friends, I’m hit by how much of the humor depends on stereotypes or unkindness to be funny. The characters in the show constantly make jokes at one another’s expense, or they make jokes that display bigotry. The same can be said of a lot of old sitcoms and, unfortunately, of many shows we see today.
By contrast, millennial and Generation Z humor is great because it doesn’t necessarily rely on stereotypes, pain, or bigotry to be funny. While many memes are indeed racist – either covertly or overtly – they don’t have to be.
Plenty of memes simply rely on relatable situations to be funny, and some even use humor to point out exclusionary ideas and comfort marginalized folks. Another thing that’s great about younger generations? We embrace irony. This means that if you use a meme (or even a word) incorrectly, it can seem ironic and therefore even more witty.
Kurt Vonnegut once said that the only reason anyone would use a semicolon is to show people they went to college.
By that same token, it can be said that people only use very weird, obscure, meaningless memes to show they went to the darkest corners of the internet to hunt for humor.