Context Collapse: The Fluidity of Memes and Evolution of Social Commentary

By reflecting and shaping social sentiment, memes have come to symbolize localized social movements, subcultural associations, and political alignments. These recognizable images convey varying sentiment depending on context and—through constantly evolving channels or new media—can be harnessed to heavily influence social and political structures.

Some memes are so intertwined with particular communities that they become emblematic of related movements. Pepe the Frog, once an innocent comic book character, has been so closely tied to the American alt-right that not even his author killing him off in 2017 could expunge this perceived relationship. But that meaning and association can be transformed depending on use; Pepe is now seen in Hong Kong as a symbol of democratic resistance against an authoritarian state.

Similar trends have emerged with the phrase “OK Boomer” and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, a character turned meme. People across the political spectrum use “OK Boomer” to mock baby boomers. Meanwhile, incels (involuntarily celibate mysogynists) and pro-democracy protestors around the world use the likeness of the Joker—a frustrated, underdog anarchist—to create versatile political and social commentary. Though the groups use the Joker differently, in both instances these memes manifest in contexts outside of their traditional association.

The versatility of memes calls for a fluid, context-dependent understanding of traditional cultural symbols and emblematic imagery that once had fixed meaning. Largely enabled by context collapse in social media, this new fluidity of social symbols suggests that online communities around the world may be adopting an anti-establishment mentality. Simultaneously, because context matters, the symbols themselves may no longer hold as much weight as the channels in which they are disseminated.

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