When it comes to responding on social media, South Africans sure don’t waste time posting hurriedly assembled memes of a jiving Julius Malema or a disapproving Baleka Mbete (complete with spelling and grammatical errors) after an allegedly scandalous incident.
According to Quora, my go-to platform for asking clever people what they think, the term ‘meme’ dates back to Richard Dawkins’ 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene, in which he coined the word ‘to identify a piece of culture being transmitted from one person to another’. So explains BJ Mendelson, author of Social Media is Bullshit. Although it’s not clear how or when the word came to mean ‘things we share on the internet’, Mendelson believes it goes back to the late ’90s and early 2000s when people were able to spread ideas more easily (in theory) using the internet – more than they could have before, using zines, for instance.
When asked about the appropriation or hijacking of his word, Dawkins said in 2013 that he actually used the metaphor of a virus to explain it and, in fact, the meaning was not too far away from the original. ‘It’s anything that goes viral,’ he said.
And yes, I am that person who trawls tweets and threads looking for fresh memes to save in my meme gallery. It’s one of the reasons why I’m always running out of storage space on my phone. Thank goodness you can’t save GIFs from Twitter. Having said that, there don’t seem to be that many locally generated GIFs – put it down to SA’s exorbitant data costs, which spurred the #DataMustFall movement, or perhaps a lack of tools.
Digital news website Memeburn wrote a piece linking, among other challenges, the lack of South African GIFs to the fact that most of these moving images are made on Photoshop – software that few can afford or have access to. Another reason they gave is the lack of space on phones, saying, ‘The most popular phones in South Africa top out at around 4GB of internal storage. This is limited space for apps and personal images, let alone the added weight of reaction GIFs.’
But imagine the possibility of having that infamous meme of Tina Joemat-Pettersson licking her teacup in parliament back in 2014 re-emerge as a moving picture? It’s a meme that still tops charts as a reactionary retort and even snaked its way onto celeb glamour model Amber Rose’s Instagram account.
The fist of comic ‘hero’ Arthur (from the children’s TV programme) is another one that has enjoyed widespread use. In a particular episode, Arthur’s seemingly innocuous clenched fist was zoomed in on by someone and morphed quickly: it had a Hennessy bottle Photoshopped into it, was used as a motif on a crewneck and even turned into an embroidered feminist work by art student Hannah Hill who included the words ‘When you remember that historically, embroidery hasn’t been taken seriously as a medium because it’s “women’s work”’. Apparently it took her five hours to stitch the meme and about 1.6 million people engaged with the work once she shared it on Twitter.
The ‘starter pack’ memes have also not only given us endless laughs but also ruffled a few feathers. You’ve seen those ones comprising four or more images – like the ‘I think I’m the sh*t’ starter pack featuring a black peak cap, khaki windbreaker, black-and-white Adidas trainers and faded blue, torn jeans. If you hang around Braamfontein in Joburg, you will appreciate the shade. And though I can’t categorically claim the ‘starter pack’ memes as our own, they have spawned their own South African version.
There were some memes I could miss – like all the President Trump- and DJ Khaled’s baby-related ones. And the ones that make you doubt your faith in humanity, like the #DeadPose. This one had Twitter users taking photos of themselves pretending to be dead with blood, bruises and very grim poses and surroundings.
There’s no telling what trend 2018 brings – thankfully, it won’t be another Salt Bae (for the unitiated, it’s the nickname for Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe who owns Nusr-Et, a chain of steakhouses, and whose art of cooking and preparing meat became an internet sensation) – but I’m sure that come next year, some hilarious December online obsession will be replaced with January’s newest craze. Just make sure you don’t end up the butt (or face) of the trend.