The first thing I do every morning is scroll through meme accounts. In one image, an angry bald guy screams at his serene, blond counterpart. In another, a raccoon sits on a ledge trying his best to live, laugh, love. In another, a metallic and expressionless face confidently wears a suit next to the words “stonks.” I check my notifications to see what I have to do for the day. In the group chat, a friend is calling their Russian professor a “based chad.” Another friend is remarking on the cuffing season and calling themselves down horrendous. As a friend confirms our lunch plans, I reply: “poggers.”
Slowly but surely, memes are changing the way we understand the world. I use memes as a means of communication, as a means to show affection and as a way to perceive the world around me. One of my favorite meme templates, that of a trolley on its path, contains the famous utilitarian dilemma first proposed by philosopher Philippa Foot. The memes that emerge from this template are funny and profoundly political: one shows the people tied to the tracks forming unions, another elegantly exposes the logical fallacies of arguments against canceling student debt. Another portrays an empty track with a reassuring caption: There is no problem, and the train is traveling safely to its destination.
Like many meme templates, the trolley meme codifies the setup of a situation that could be applied over and over again to contexts large and small, for humor or relatability. As meme formats become a new means of communication, what we express on a snappy daily basis is becoming more and more profound. In a way, memes are a universal language of their own. The great Hegelian spirit of our age is permeating our world in the format of a wojak.
The result of this is an intensely nuanced sociolect. We call things “based,” for example, to express an agreement with something that aligns with our personal values and politics. Instead of saying something is good or bad, we judge things to be either based or cringe, blessed or cursed. Instead of making moral or value judgements on the things that surround us, we use these newer dichotomies to make judgements that are emotional in nature. Popularized by the video game Among Us, we use the all-encompassing “sus” to identify undercurrents in social situations. We use the term girlboss in contexts both ironic and sincere to express our discontents with liberal feminism and to congratulate each other in academic and professional successes. We have at our disposal an arsenal of jokes that readily subvert existing structures of power. Hidden in our language is the vision of a world we would like to have. The way we communicate with each other is more specific than ever.
This specificity is turning us into more empathetic individuals. We are very good at identifying specific situations and emotions, and there is always a meme to send that is just right. We code switch in and out of acronyms and jokes to let others know that we’ve been there too. In subtle ways, the emotions that we choose to emphasize and embody have shifted from the words we were given. The new words aren’t just funny: They are also intricate with the nuances that we have chosen to give each other.
Language is power, as it always has been. As a generation, we are unbelievably good at this. We are softening the parts of the world we find harsh by finding new words for ourselves. We are leaving behind parts of the world that came before us with the words we no longer want to use. We are chiseling out the tones, inflections and meanings we want to see more in the world, and we are very, very based for doing so.
JEAN WANG is a second-semester first year in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at email@example.com