I know the Franklin Post isn’t a good place to talk about memes. It’s not hip, or with it, and it’s definitely not dank. I mean really, on paper is probably one of the worst ways to discuss supremely internet culture. But it’s what I have to speak to the masses, and I need to describe a small journey I’ve undertaken in order to answer a (seemingly) simple question: can a meme be a circle?
But first, I had to figure out what a meme really is. There are a lot of definitions, mostly based on the idea of how memes “spread.” The Smithsonian has a wonderful article describing memes as any idea that spreads: “the meme for making fire; for wearing clothes; for the resurrection of Jesus.”
This idea is a little too abstract for the real world though. I like the definition Michael Metz (11) gives a lot better: “[a meme] can be an image or words designed to entertain, make you laugh, or confuse you.” Metz is a student here at Franklin and runs a meme page with over 1,200 followers (you can check it out on Instagram @mostly_offensive_memes). He goes further, saying he considers himself somewhat of an artist when making memes. “Anything can be art.”
Looking at memes through an artistic lens isn’t a new perspective. The Smithsonian article? That was published in the Arts & Culture section.
If memes are like paintings, then the phones we see them on are canvases. All of our experiences with memes are through phones, computers, maybe even iPads. This is probably the common thread throughout the extremely diverse memescape. What ties the minion memes you find on Facebook, the edgy memes on r/dankmemes (the darkest meme corner of Reddit), and screenshots of tweets on Instagram together? The fact that all of them can be seen on Instagram in the same shape: a rectangle.
This is almost entirely because of what devices we see memes on. They’re all rectangles. So it makes sense. But this extends past our screens to perhaps the least important part of memes: the ones that are printed on paper.
Printed memes are gross. You’ve probably seen them on a class syllabus because the teacher wanted to seem young and hip, or maybe as an unfunny poster about a cat or something. But there’s something odd about the way they look. They’re all rectangles.
Why? Once you’ve moved beyond a screen, you could make a circle meme, or a blob, or a triangle. So why are the memes we have on paper all rectangles? It’s because aesthetics are just as important as content when it comes to making memes.
There are certain fonts and formats that show up in memes, and then there are those that have never been, and will never be, acceptable. Times New Roman? No, try Impact or Ariel. A video more than a minute long? It won’t work on Instagram, shorten it up (or use IGTV, but no one will watch it). A meme in the shape of a circle? No, it has to be a rectangle.
But one thing we all either love or hate about art is that it continuously pushes boundaries. So if memes are art, then at some point they’ll become untethered from the aesthetic requirements they’re constrained by now.
“From our modern conception of a meme, we don’t see them as anything but a square or rectangle,” says Metz. “In the future, we will see more innovative designs for memes.”
So someday, memes can be circles. But not today.