Internet Memes get a lot of stick - they're usually considered mildly amusing at best, and sterile, content-free, mindless, bovine group-think at worst. However, both these assessments are incomplete - they fall into the trap of judging memes as "good" or "bad", instead of asking "why they are" at all.
Memes aren't just jokes - they're the way we form bonds and generate shared context in distributed virtual communities, just like "living near" and "saying hello every day" were the ways we formed context and social bonds in physical, centralised communities like villages, and "chatting around the water-cooler" and "bitching about the boss" are ways we form social bonds and shared context at work.
Part of the problem in society is that as we centralise in huge cities with too many people we don't know we lose the feeling of belonging to a distinct community, which is why city life can be so isolating for some, and others fulfil the need elsewhere (churches, sports teams, hobby/interest clubs, etc).
The only difference between this and the kind of people who make up the core of communities like reddit, Fark or 4chan is that instead of physically going somewhere to interact with other community-members, we're geographically separated and typically a lot more diverse in terms of outlook, age, race, physical appearance and interests.
This means that - for a community to form - we require shared context and some way of differentiating between people "in the community" and those out of it. This is where memes, references and in-jokes come it... and it's also why we have terms like "redditor" or "digger", instead of "people who read reddit" or "people who read Digg".
You can even compare different kinds of communities, and memes seem overwhelmingly to arise where other, more traditional forms of shared-context-building are unavailable or inapplicable:
- At one extreme, memes rarely arise in traditional physical communities - it's pretty rare where a village - say - gives birth to catchphrases or memes, because the community already has plenty of shared context from living in the same region, sharing the same culture and language, sharing largely the same core beliefs and seeing each other regularly.
- TV shows pioneered the way, where catchphrases and quotes (though typically only a few per show) could be used to find and bond with like-minded individuals when we encountered them, even though we didn't necessarily live near them, or see them regularly.
- Moving online, sites like Facebook are still largely clustered around groups of people who have some real-world relationship, and though people occasionally make use of imported memes from other communities for the purpose of humour, for this reason these sites still rarely give birth to new memes.
- More frequently, memes arise from forums (fora?) or social news sites like Slashdot, reddit and Digg. These are sites with a strictly limited ability to share context - their communities are culturally, socially and intellectually extraordinarily diverse, and stories are posted (and disappear beneath later submissions) so fast that there's no guarantee that any two individuals will have seen the same news or read the same content from one day to the next. Practically all that these sites offer in the way of shared-context-building is the ability to recognise the usernames of other users when they post, which - with the sheer number of users - is a wildly inadequate method to generate strong social bonds.
- Most clearly of all, 4chan is a website which is prolific in the generation of new memes - indeed, many memes which users of other sites assume originated there in fact originated on 4chan. 4chan is also unusual in that it does not enforce uniqueness of username, but instead assigns a deeply unmemorable number as the only guarantee that a given "Bob Smith" is the same as a "Bob Smith" whose comments you remember reading previously. In fact, 4chan even allows completely anonymous posting, and in 4chan's most famous meme-originating boards (
/b/and others) the overwhelming majority of posters post anonymously. This means that users are literally bereft of any way to reliably recognise each other or establish a sense of community, and they're simultaneously the most prolific creators of internet memes.
You can see from this trend that memes are a distinct method of community-building, almost unknown in human history, which has largely evolved in the last few decades in response to the increasing isolation of modern life, with its lack of traditional ways to build shared context or easily encounter familiar individuals.
When you get right down to it we're social monkeys, who are usually happiest in a tribe of one kind or another. Due to lifestyle and technology how we form and maintain those tribes is changing, even in the last a few years, and if we can resist the temptation to dismissively complain about this emergent behaviour it can teach us a lot - both about ourselves and about the new kinds of communities we are forming.