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The Internet Meme: An Expression of Post-Modernist Culture

Updated: May 10, 2019

The internet is awash with the twisted, strange and sometimes barely legible postmodern expressions of humor, The Internet Meme.

The Internet meme is a motif of popular culture that spreads over the internet as it is viewed by or shared from person to person. The Internet meme takes the form of an image, GIF or video. It is usually self-reflective, self-deprecating and re-used to the point of exhaustion.

Memes have been described as the 'in' jokes of the internet hinting at the surrealist aspect of the manifestation of humor. Memes are the a product of the weird and convoluted humor of the millennial generation that stem from the under belly of the internet.

They are the perfect protest to regulation and reason adding only to the disillusion of a rapidly and ever-changing world.

"Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world." (Bruenig, E., 2017)

Internet memes are a perfect post-modernist expression that has infiltrated into popular culture, reflecting the post-modernist world in which we live.

But, what exactly is Post-Modernism?

This is a mine-field of a question to answer but I will attempt to begin with a brief description of Modernism.


Modernism is the belief in, and the striving for, an objective truth.

Modernists believe that their work can objectively improve whatever arena that it was they were operating in and bring them closer to this objective truth.

For instance, Modernist artists such as Picasso believed that by constantly improving upon the techniques and process of artistic creation that the artist could bring us closer and closer to reality through their creations.

Modernist believe that:

A. There is something wrong with the world

B. There is a method through which it can be fixed

A more sinister example of political modernism is Hitlers Fascist movement. Hitler believed in a Master Race.

A. The problem was that inferior races were taking resources from the master race.

B. The solution was to remove all inferior races.

A + B = A Meta-narrative (A totalising conception of the world around us)


"Postmodernism is the incredulity towards meta-narratives" - Jean Francois Lyotard

Post- Modernists reject the idea of a meta-narrative. They believe that there is no one objective truth but rather there are many subjective truths.

" To critics, history is no longer the search for what really happened, but rather the victor's interpretation as seen through the lens of power and oppression, and it bears a cultural and political focus. Literature is no longer a study of what the author meant, but of the feelings it arouses in the reader because of his or her cultural perspective."(Summary of Postmodernism, 2013)

Postmodernism is not interested in the actuality or apparent fact but instead explores the idea of representation.

In the process of dispelling the concept of objective truth, postmodernist look to representation and the two components of representation:

  • The Referent - who is being represented

  • The Representation - who is representing the referent

A philosopher called Frederic Jameson, elaborating on the work of Jean Baudrillard, said that the true expression of Post Modernism is when the Representation becomes more of a reality than the Referent. This is called a simulacrum.

A simulacrum occurs when our cultural understanding of something outpaces our material understanding.

For instance, the Irish Clergy in the 1900's is a simulacrum.

  • The Referent: Catholicism - the bible teaches forgiveness, love and community.

  • The Representation: The Irish Clergy - condemned sinners indefinitely, abused the vulnerable, never took a wife or had a family and lived alone

In this case, the Representation bares no resemblance to the Referent and so, the apparent 'objective truth' of the Catholic Religion is debunked.


Now that we have had a whistle stop tour of Modernism and Post-Modernism how does this apply to the Internet Meme?

Well, the Internet meme itself is a simulacrum.

In 2016 at Cincinatti Zoo, a four-year-old boy fell into a Gorilla enclosure and the Zoo staff resorted to shooting the Gorilla who had begun to drag the boy through water, to secure his safety.

The Gorilla who was shot and later died was called Harambe. Internet users the world over began to protest the death of Harambe by representing his memory online through memes.

The popularity of the subject matter resulted in a proliferation of Harambe memes. The increased mediation between the Referent: Harambe's death and the Representation: Harambe's memes led to a complete simulacrum where there was absolutely no cohesive narrative between the Harambe tragedy and the resulting memes.

Similarly, the internet phenomenon Pepe the Frog originated as a character from the Matt Furie comic book, 'The Boy's Club'.

Through the repetition, manipulation and mediation of the referent Pepe, the representation of the Pepe meme took on a far more sinister connotation as a symbol for the alt-right.

The objective truth of Pepe the Alt-Right symbol and the objective truth of Pepe the Boy's Club character do not exist. Instead, the two subjective truths exist simultaneously.

In the case of a meme simulacrum, the juxtaposition of the Referent and the Representation can be grotesque and disconcerting and to full understand its relevance we must look to its origins.


The internet meme originated from board sites such as reddit and in particular 4chan.

4chan acts as the mediatior between the referent and representation of our meme simulacrum and so we can say that 4chan is the post-modernist culture from which the memes are born.

"The emergence of the ‘meme’ within popular culture can be directly attributed to the online culture within 4chan that preaches anonymity and temporality." (Beckett, M., 2012)

Anonymity and temporailty are very important in the construction of the meme and are the reason that 4chan is the largest creator and distributor of the cultural phenomenon.


Anonymity allows for freedom of expression.

Users of 4chan have the ability to engage in threads and discussions without disclosing their identity which leads to an array of contentious content being posted.

"This reduced connection between the user who engages the site and the content that appears, created by the anonymous interface, lowers personal responsibility and encourages experimentation" (Knuttila, L., 2011)

Experimentation with little accountability means that users feel free communicate somewhat unsavory opinions or views and make quite critical remarks on the way of the world. It allows the user to push boundaries and manipulate images, videos and GIF to create quite controversial commentary on society, culture and politics without having to account for their actions.

Or they can just be offensive for the sake of being offensive.

Anonymity means that 4chan users can protest societies expectations of being politically correct.

The idea of political correctness can be deemed a modernist regime.

The meta-narrative being:

A. There are different types of people in the world with different cultures and beliefs.

B. All of us should be politically correct as to not offend one another.

The post-modernists of 4chan protest this meta-narrative.

You cannot please everyone all the time and through anonymous posts of offensive memes, 4chan users can dismiss the meta-narrative of political correctness and they do.


The nature of the 4chan boards are fleeting and temporary

Old posts on these boards vanish when users engage with new posts.

An active thread will only last a matter of minutes and once the content on the thread dissapears it is gone forever.

Unlike other social media channels there is no archive for content.

In short, users cannot be identified and content does not last.

It is this momentary anonymous freedom that drives this cesspool for contentious content but it is also these unsavory circumstances that give rise to the meme.

"The meme is a type of consistent recollection overcoming the gulf created by anonymity and temporality. They constantly return to act as the pillar of familiarity, standing against the stream of posts and responses. "(Knuttila, L., 2011)

The meme is a way to create a consistency and a community within the faceless, timeless platform of 4chan.

That is why 4chan is the breeding ground for memes.


Ok, so let's recap.

Post-modernism rejects the idea that there is one objective truth.

It challenges the idea of truth and reality by exploring the mediation between the referent and representation.

The meme is a vehicle for manipulation of objective truth.

Postmodernist anarchists from the underbelly of the web take insignificant symbols and through over-mediation create simulacra which make fun of the idea of objective truth.

What is most interesting though is the infiltration of the meme into popular culture.

Millennials the world over are addicted to these memes and unbeknownst to themselves have become these mediators.

" To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left" (Bruenig, E., 2017)

The meme is a perfect reflection of the post-modernist mindset of the Millennial Generation. The advancements in technology and the improvements in access to education means that the Millennial generation are far more educated and enlightened to the workings of the world than any generation have been before.

There is a more general realisation of different cultures and appreciation or different views and so by experience the millenials have come to their own understanding of the falsity of one objective truth.

Similarly, they have the advantage of hindsight when it comes to historical happenings and mistakes governed by false ideologies. Through both improved education and this hindsight millenials have distanced themselves from motives behind their histories.

Post-modernist theorist Fredric Jameson is "highly critical of our current historical situation; indeed, he paints a rather dystopic picture of the present, which he associates, in particular, with a loss of our connection to history. What we are left with is a fascination with the present." (Felluga, D., 2011)

This is also true of the millennial generation, also nicknamed the experience generation. They realise the futility of working towards a met-narrative, which to them, do not exist.

This is a strange and unsettling state of being.

And, this is why memes are come to such popularity in the millennial popular culture.

Millennial popular culture is post-modernist culture.

Society is the Referent and the Memes are the Representation with us, the individuals, acting as the mediators.



Beckett, M., 2012, The Internet Meme, Wordpress: Postmodernism in a nutshell, accessed at: [ ] on 03/05/2019

Knuttila, L., 2011, User Unknown: 4chan, anonymity and contingency, First Monday, Vol. 6, No. 10, accessed at: [] on 03/05/2019

Rodger, K., Meme Cultural Concept, Encyclopedia of Britannica, accessed at: [] on 03/05/2019

Gavin, B., 2018, What is a Meme (And how did they originate)?, How to Geek, accessed at: [] on 03/05/2019

Summary of Postmodernism, 2013, Mxplx, accessed at: [] on 03/05/2019

Don & andcallmeshirley, 2019, Dank Memes, KnowYourMeme, accessed at: [] on 03/05/2019

Felluga, D., 2011, Modules on Jameson: On Postmodernity, Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, accessed at:[] on 03/05/2019

Common Chris, 2018, PostModern Content Creation in a Nutshell, YouTube video accessed at: [] on 03/05/2019

Juston Bibero, 2014, 9gager can't handle the dank memes, YouTube video accessed at: [] on 03/05/2019

Kin LewLew, 2014, Yu-Gi-Oh: It's time to d-d-d-d-d-d-d-dank, YouTube video accessed at: [] on 03/05/2019

Dank Memes, 2014, How to make a dank meme lmao, YouTube video accessed at: [] on 03/05/2019

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