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  • Amy Osella

Folklore Has a New Medium

It is projected that in 2024, around 5.04 billion people have created social media accounts. Ways of communicating have been compressed across the board, shrunken into screens held in our hands– emojis have the ability to convey pleasure or disgust without words. Yet this compression of format isn’t without global reach. We have at our fingertips the ability to reach the billions of people that occupy online spaces. The internet contains a thriving community that oftentimes comes with its own lore. Gone are the days of Little Red Riding Hood, Paul Bunyan, the Ugly Duckling, Pandora’s Box, and the Tortoise and the Hare. Say hello to Grimace, the Roman Empire, Gag City, Barbenheimer, and Kevin James, fragments of the folklore of today: memes. 

Folklore is defined as, “the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.” However, as times digitize, maybe this definition should too. While oral storytelling is still possible, everyday communication has advanced quite a bit with the aid of technology, allowing storytellers to reach wider audiences and assign visual aspects that correlate with our orating. With 5.04 billion perspectives, all with the ability to take memes into their own hands and alter them, the existence of an agreed upon ‘folklore’ seems less plausible these days. Though there will forever be alterations made to memes, there will always be the post from which something originated. This original post then accumulates a lore via the internet community it belongs to and how it goes on to be interacted with. The reception of the meme belongs as much to the lore as much as the initial background story.

I’m sure we all remember the craze of this past summer ‘23, where the hype around Barbenheimer (the simultaneous release of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”) consumed social media across platforms. The meme simultaneously created divisions and unity. People began taking sides based on which film they would rather see, while others took to seeing both on the same day. As the meme continued to circulate the internet it grew even more niche as the online community took it and turned it to fit more niches. My Tik Tok ‘For You’ page became flooded with everyone proclaiming pairings left and right of what their Barbenheimers were. Images of Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus’s friendship flashed on the screen. Beyoncé’s “Renaissance Tour” and Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour” films were released around each other and created a similar Renaissance-Era effect. “Five Nights at Freddy’s” and “Priscilla” befell the same fate of people’s own pairings (“Shrek” and “Monsters Inc,” “Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins,” “Magic Mike” and “Ted,” etc). Summer ‘23 also came in clutch with some anticapitalist orcas. An article released stated that orcas off the Iberian coast had learned how to capsize ships and were doing so while getting up to the frequency of three a day. The internet took this information and immediately made memes theorizing the orcas were seeking revenge on capitalists, and hypothesizing ways that the marine animals could come in contact with Jeff Bezos yacht. One of my personal favorites I’d love to get on a T-shirt was the meme that came out of a super cheese cut out orcas with the phrase, “I’m joining the war on orcas on the side of the orcas” written above. Within moments of the memes birth, it was taken over to mean something anticapitalist, not exactly the first adjective that comes to mind when encountering the marine mammal. 

Around the same time, the Grimace Shake (a McDonald’s drink that was released) took trends by storm as social media users posted eerie videos in which purple liquid could be found in seemingly abandoned places until the end of the video, which showed people shaking and/or their mouths foaming purple froth. While watching an influx of these videos come in, I wondered how these would be perceived out of context in the future. While memes have the potential for longevity, there’s also a sort of topical context that makes them click in one’s mind. Without the context of that time period, I could easily picture a generation thousands of years out discovering these videos and believing them to tell a warning tale against whatever the hell they perceive Grimace to represent. Grimace could end up on a dollar or be told of in hushed tones for all we know. 

An internet craze that developed in the early 2000s would soon become an accidental representation of memes as a whole, and possibly the most recognizable one at that: Pepe the Frog. It’s likely everyone can recall an encounter with the often bleak green frog that’s circulated the web since 2010. Users adapted Pepe's face and catchphrase to fit different scenarios and emotions, such as melancholy, anger, and surprise. "Feels bad, man" became a sad variant of the frog's original "feels good, man" catchphrase, which both came to be correlated with Pepe. Unfortunately, members of the alt-right attempted to infiltrate the meaning of Pepe by using the meme’s star as a recognizable hate symbol around the timing of Trump’s election as president in 2016. Justice for Pepe was brought when the frog’s creator, Matt Furie, said in “Time,” “I understand that it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.” When one encounters what may appear to be a simple drawing of an anthropomorphic frog, it really contains a history longer than imagined. Oftentimes when I think of the term, “meme,” a brief image of Pepe somberly smoking a cigarette appears in my mind.

All of these examples are for everyone to enjoy. Except for you, Sam. I know. 

My ‘For You’ pages are beginning to haunt me. I can’t help but shudder at the thought that some of the memes I stumble across may become eternalized in internet folklore. It's outrageous to think about how memes may help us to redefine our outlook on what mediums folklore can take. Could memes be a return to our early days of the hieroglyphics? In hundreds of years from now, will textbooks simply contain images of Grimace and the so-called ‘effects’ of the McDonald’s shake with people foaming at the mouth and slumped over without any further context? Or will the rapid generation of topical memes die out as their context does and require re-contextualisation? If Pepe can persist nearly two decades later, why not centuries?


Art by Andrea Lastimosa


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