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Here’s a meme

/ 04:05 AM February 24, 2020

My favorite meme goes, “When your shampoo says ‘damage repair’ but you’re still broken on the inside,” with an image of a depressed-looking frog staring wanly into space under the spray of a showerhead. It’s been shared thousands of times. When someone shares it, no one comes rushing in to ask about their emotional welfare, even as it hints at inner turmoil. It’s a subtle message — I haven’t been okay, but I’m handling it, and also, no big deal, and here is a funny photo you might relate to. Most of the time, a lot of people do: dark meme humor has become a way for internet users of today to express anxiety, sadness, and stress, without showing too much vulnerability.

“Meme” has its roots in ancient Greek for imitation and imitated things. There’s a branch of social sciences dedicated to the study of memes, but one might say that studying memes is like studying humor—it takes all the fun out of it. To even describe or explain them feels silly, because their appeal is that they’re immediately recognizable and comprehensible to their target audience. To explain is to take away some of the humor, as is the way with much of comedy anyway.

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The meme as it is today includes a type of inside joke for the internet to consume. Memes aren’t just funny photos or videos; they can be phrases, ideas, styles, templates for jokes, formats for tweets. They’re usually light and funny, telling hilarious, relatable stories in few words or images. Even people not well versed on social media have seen the “distracted boyfriend” meme where a guy looks at another woman while his presumed girlfriend looks outraged. Memes are dynamic, transforming until they resemble little of their original forms; the way they spread, replicate and evolve, like infectious diseases, is the reason for the biological underpinnings for the study of memes, and the reason we have such phrases as “going viral.”

Memes fulfill a vital function in how many people engage on the internet, not just for entertainment, but also for mental health awareness and community building. Many groups and pages are known for producing and collecting depressive or mental health related memes. For example, a funny meme about an anxious person’s overreaction to everyday situations, like being out with friends or being forced to interact via telephone, serves as an outlet both to express that anxiety, and to recognize that the overreaction exists — a way of reappraising situations that have occurred, and finding humor in an otherwise unfunny condition.

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In sharing such memes, a poster also has an opportunity to hint at their own anxieties without being too forward, specific, or emotional. It removes some of the stigma from mental health issues and helps a sense of community to foster among those who identify with the meme. It helps those with bothersome symptoms realize they aren’t alone, without justifying or excusing dysfunctional behavior.

Finding consolation in wry memes about horrible situations isn’t new; people have been making wry drawings about dire situations since the birth of the editorial cartoon. In the light of recent disasters — political, economic, natural — to find some solace and stress relief in ridiculous memes is one of the reasons we go on social media in the first place. It’s a way of coping with the threat of recession, with increasing feelings of political despair, with worry about global warming and plastic in the ocean—as well as the smaller anxieties of the day.

Meme makers are just as capable of inappropriate and bigoted humor as everyone else. Tasteless memes about World War III and school shootings come to mind. But bad memes have a way of dying away on their own, while memes that strike a chord with the sharers have a way of sticking around and becoming part of how we communicate. Meme culture doesn’t replace medical attention, but I would argue that memes are a valuable way for the internet savvy to cope with feelings or situations too big to handle. The world might be ending, and you might be depressed and suffering from a number of disorders, but in the meantime, here’s a meme.

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