The Rhetorical Appeal of Memes

Writing, as we have learned, is an ecology. Marilyn Cooper explains this in depth in her article, “The Ecology of Writing”. She states that writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged in a varsity of socially constructed institutions. Other authors from this course have echoed this notion of a wider definition of writing and literacy, by wanting to include things like texting language and cool talk.

As we move to expand what it means to write, many believe that memes have it’s own sort of literacy. The ability to create a meme, understand it’s context, and apply it to other scenarios requires a sort of skill that is reflective of millennial and Gen Z culture.

There are a plethora of ways in which memes are used to communicate, and more and more emerge as the internet goes on. However, there are a few strong categories that have emerged.

1. Humor. Okay this one is obvious. While all memes are rooted in humor, some of them don’t have any other communicative purpose than to make the viewer laugh. There isn’t a message, it’s just for laughs. The Poot meme is a great example. Nothing to see here, just a very unflattering picture of Demi Lovato that the internet ran with.

2. Reactionary. Some memes are used to react to what someone said or posted. They are often send as a response to a text message or tweet. Usually, they are used to express shock, exhaustion, disapproval, or any emotion that would be better explained by an accompaniment of an image. I sent this picture to my roommate when she told me she slept through her exam.


3. Relatability. A huge purpose of memes is that it provides another way for people to relate to one another. A lot of memes are incredibly versatile, and it is considered skillful to be able to apply memes to otherwise niche situations and become more relatable. This type of meme format allows for the same image to be reused countless times in a wide variety of situations that fit the rhetorical situation of the image.

4. Oral Tradition. Often, memes that are in the form of video or audio transform into funny phrases that younger people say to one another in person. When someone finds themself in a situation that is like one they saw a meme used, they may repeat the phrase out loud to someone to make them laugh, or emphasize what they are experiencing. A very common one right now is to say ‘Is it bussin’ Janele?’ When you see your friend eating something that looks good. This is taken from a tik tok in which the audio uses that quote.

Slang words and Meme Culture

In class we have discussed ways in which oral societies conflict with literate ones. The Goody and Watt’s article describes these sort of consequences which ultimately leads to the destruction of oral societies.

For a long time now, our culture has been categorized as literate as opposed to oral. Most of us know how to read and write, we study literacy in school, and do much of our communication using words and written language. However, I believe that now our society is at a sort of hybrid with the presence of meme culture. Which, I hypothesize, can be traced back to slang words.

The article above provides an origin story for slang. Slang words can be thought of as informal language with widespread use. For much of history, slang was appropriated into mainstream culture from minority group colloquials. However, some words and phrases are taken from worldly events that were especially monumental and impactful on society. Things like “far out” and “going nuclear” where a result of the government getting involved in nuclear power and space travel. Slang words are created when people take one element of culture and use it to communicate another idea.

Is this not the same as meme making? I would argue most certainly and that slang words predicted meme culture. I mean, let’s think for a minute. Meme’s are essentially just an evolved form of slang, we even use a lot of them in daily conversations and not just online. If I stub my toe and say, “mother trucker dude that hurt like a buttcheek on a stick”, someone who is familiar with that viral video would know what I’m talking about. In the same way, when someone back in the 80’s said words like “grody” and “rad”. Their parents might look at the funny in the same way mine would if I quoted a Tik Tok audio, but the point remains the same.

Slang words reintroduced oral traditions back into society and meme culture is making sure it continues to thrive.