Thursday, July 25, 2024

Memes of the Hills: Bridging Cultures and Sparking Dissent


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What’s in a meme? Whether you’re familiar with the “Disaster Girl” (Zoe Roth), side-eyeing Chloe, or the perpetually pained Harold Hiding The Pain, memes are an inescapable part of internet culture. You might even find yourself seeing more of Drake’s memes than his music videos. Memes are not just for fun and humour; they have evolved into powerful tools for social commentary and dissent. Even those who live under a rock might have used memes, perhaps without knowing the term. Memes are everywhere, infiltrating our social media feeds and even making their way into mainstream media (Sunday Shillong is also at it, trust us). For instance, if you want to criticise a rock star slash minister who can shred Iron Maiden on his electric guitar, memes come in handy. Or a meme comparing Meghalaya at night with other states of North East to show the load shedding issue of the state.

Some linguists argue that memes have existed for centuries. Identifying the first meme ever becomes challenging, but the term “meme” was introduced by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He was inspired by the French word “même,” which predates “meme”, translates to “same,” (Cambridge Dictionary) and the Greek word “mimoúmai” means “to imitate” (Britannica).

A meme is a unit of cultural information spread by imitation. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins wrote that there was a need for a term to describe the new replicator, a unit of cultural transmission or imitation. He wanted a monosyllable that sounded like “gene” and noted that it could also be related to “memory” or the French word “même” (The Selfish Gene, 1976, Oxford University Press). Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines a meme as “a concept, belief, or practice conceived as a unit of cultural information that may be passed on from person to person, subject to influences in a way analogous to natural selection.” Memes also trigger nostalgia. (Merriam-Webster).

Like many words in English, the meaning of “meme” has shifted over time. The basic ideas still remain the same; it replicates, gets widely shared and gathers impressions online while communicating even deeper meanings today. Let’s take the example of “Meghalaya Memes,” which has over twenty thousand followers on Instagram because Meghalayans and even non-Meghalayans relate to their content alike. The “Shillong Gag” is another such page, with over 108K followers on Facebook; this page is known for their cheeky takes on the people in power. They don’t fear criticising even the Chief Minister for issues like corruption, water shortage and load shedding. This is a new form of dissent, as anonymity comes as an advantage of running a Facebook page.

The power of memes extends across the diverse states of North east India, each with its unique issues and cultural nuances. Arunachal Memes group on Facebook features a meme shared by Sanseng Kumku which highlights the problem of frequent power interruptions just after “One Drop of Rainfall.” Other problems like potholes are also shared in the group, garnering “haha” reactions and “relate max” comments from users. Mizoram, on the other hand, is still reeling from visuals of the best traffic sense among the people, while some other memes show the different “streams” flowing in the otherwise “dry” state.

Humour finds a way even when you are grieving. As a process of venting out or expressing their grievance, Redditors from Manipur are taking to the social media platform to share what’s going on in the state. Even with the internet ban in the state at the peak of Manipur violence, people managed access to Reddit and r/Manipur was buzzing all day with insights, visuals and of course memes. Some of the notable mentions should be the porous border between Manipur and Myanmar being fenced with bamboo sticks instead of barbed wires and the inaction of the central government.

Popular meme pages of Assam can’t seem to get over their Chief Minister, who is always in the headlines and meme pages alike. If we take the political frenzy aside, we can see some reels and memes with Assamese quirks, like “Assam is not for beginners’ ‘ and some unique Assamese mispronunciations of English or Hindi words. One meme, particularly by “Just Assam Things” on Facebook, caught my attention. The meme titled, “Assamese People’s Picnic Starter Pack,” shows oranges, hard boiled eggs, bananas and bread and butter. Not only is this the Assamese picnic starter pack, but it also echoes the nostalgia and emotion of the entire North East.

Tripura’s epic meme moment was back in 2018 when a politician claimed the internet to have existed during the times of Mahabharat and got hilariously trolled on Twitter (now X). Nagaland, on the other hand, will not be over the last general elections soon. When the Chief Election Officer of Nagaland held a meme contest before elections, even international media like Vice took up the hilarious takes on the “Free and Fair Elections” in the state.

With all the meme pages from the hills sharing relatable content to gather followers and impressions online, Nagaland’s Minister of Higher Education and Tourism is playing the next level game regarding virality. With his humorous Hindi, his posts on X (earlier Twitter) are the ultimate rizz (Oxford’s 2023 Word of the Year, meaning charisma). This exemplifies the modern blend of politics and meme culture.

From Shillong to Itanagar, memes have become a significant part of the cultural fabric, providing a platform for humour, critique, and connection. In a world where digital communication reigns supreme, memes offer a unique way to navigate and comment on the complexities of modern life. With Instagram Reels and Shorts, possibilities have opened up endless opportunities for the meme pages.

– Jnanendra Das


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