NBA fans know Yao Ming as the Hall of Famer who played seven seasons for the Houston Rockets, before injuries cut his career short. But his face is a familiar sight amongst the internet generation: a black-and-white caricature of Yao wearing a hearty smile. How did that happen?
A glimpse into the shallow but complex annals of internet lingo (knowyourmeme.com) reveals that Yao’s expression is used to represent a dismissive attitude towards someone else’s input in a discussion, a response that is associated with the phrase ‘Bitch please!’
The drawing was created in 2010 by artist downlow, for use in a series of comics called Rage Comics. It was captured from a post-game press conference Yao gave with his Houston Rockets teammate Ron Artest (rechristened Metta World Peace in 2011) in May 2009, where Yao was reacting to Artest’s retelling of an incident when he made his way into the stands.
If you’re wondering why that is so funny, you may want to refresh your memory of this moment in 2004 when a skirmish between Ron Artest and the Detroit Pistons’ Ben Wallace carried over into the crowd and exploded into a full blown brawl. This time around, Yao was amused by the fact that it was a home game, on account of which Artest was offered a beer instead of blows.
But what’s in a meme?
Yao’s caricature is the archetype of a ‘meme’, a range of pictorial or verbal representations that are used to depict a complex physical, verbal, or emotional response while engaging in digital communication. Off late, the word is more commonly used to refer to captioned photos that are copied and spread rapidly by Internet users through social media, much like an infectious flu or virus (the etymology of the word ‘viral’).
Alongside emojis and GIFs, ‘memes’ are part of a pictorial language that is ubiquitous amongst millennials. The internet is abound with popular memes like Grumpy Cat and catchphrases like YOLO! The allure of short-hand, graphical representations is that they easily convey an idea, that would require verbosity if it were reduced to words.
In fact, most memes have the same typeface ‘Impact’ designed by Geoffery Lee; and the content is usually humorous or sarcastic in nature, intended as a satire on society, government, public figures, etc.
“Meme” comes from the Greek word “mimema”, meaning “something imitated”. Beyond the boundaries of social media, memes manifest in a variety of forms: tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or arches, etc.
The term was first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976. He described memes as being a form of cultural propagation, which is a way for people to transmit social memories and cultural ideas to each other.
In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins drew an analogy between genetic and cultural transmission, “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” In other words, just as DNA and life spread from one place to another, memes travel from mind to mind.
Unleash the meme!
There is no doubting the power of memes in an age that is defined by the internet, but they are a double-edged sword. The destructive power of memes was apparent in the tale of Pepe the frog. Born in 2005, the familiar frog went from a meme favourite on message boards and discussion forums on the internet, to being co-opted as a racial hate symbol by far right groups across the world. Pepe’s image had been appropriated as a depiction of Adolf Hitler, French presidential candidate of the far right Marie Le Pen, and even US President Donald Trump! The Anti-Defamation League labeled the frog as a hate symbol in 2016, and Pepe’s creator was forced to kill off the viral amphibian to put a lid on the associated xenophobia and nativism.
On a more constructive front, memes are used as the currency of political and philosophical discourse. A popular Facebook page called Crunchy Continental Memes churns out memes that encapsulate the rigours of continental philosophy, often with a humorous or contemporary refrain. The idea is to sidestep the notion of philosophy as the domain of bookish professors revelling in their ivory towers. Another class of leftist political memes encourage the youth to seize the ‘memes of production’, putting a satirical, ironic, or funny twist on capitalism and advocating marxism.
These examples depict an evolution of the content that is embedded in a meme, beyond the quirky responses to the realm of ideas and viewpoints. These memes work because most people don’t have the time or the desire to read long op-eds and watch drab videos. Purists may cringe at the brevity of the format and call it superficial, but the fact of the matter is that memes are hugely influential in today’s times. For anyone desiring to influence thought and usher in change: ride the wave instead of resisting it; and to the purists, Yao’s hearty laugh is the most fitting response!