American stand-up and critic Richard Pryor once stated that “all humor is rooted in pain” and, by all accounts, 2016 was a year rooted in a collective, shared pain, with the crisis in Syria, numerous violent attacks in western Europe in addition to the multiple others all over the world, the near unanimous failure of leftist parties and of course, a near culling of beloved celebrities and public figures. It would not be a stretch then to claim that irrespective of caste, creed, ethnicity, race and politics, everyone on this planet had something negatively affect them on a personal level.

With this context, we must turn towards one particular medium, and what has been an ignored, but potentially very important trend in how messages are transmitted: the meme. Originally meant to refer to a culture, belief or folkway passed down from one person or group to another, a meme (pronounced meem, to settle the debate once and for all) now refers to any medium of illustration (be it video, text, image, etc.), usually of a humorous nature. Meme culture, much like any culture, was always disparate and varied, but could be instantly recognizable and had in the past few years followed a series of set patterns, mostly along the lines of an image macro usually representing a theme (a shameful confession indicated by the ‘confession bear’, a helpful advice characterized by a green mallard, and so on).

The 2016 year, however, saw a shift away from this set format; memes became fast evolving, moving away from a set pattern or theme, towards referential events and quotes; the consolidation of the meme, a pattern continuing for the past few years, was completely lost. The Wild West era had returned. Anything could be a meme, be it a Slovenian philosopher sniffing, an animated Jerry Seinfeld movie about bees which is sped up each time a prompt is repeated, to an animated frog on a unicycle.

My rationale is as follows: with the failure of most other mediums to keep up with the rising tide of aimlessness and drifting away from an ability to represent the feelings of most people, the meme is becoming increasingly relevant. It could be easy to chalk this up as escapism, and perhaps it is just that. However, it is my normative belief that there are two responses to overwhelming public tragedy, revolt or subversion, and since it is unlikely to establish a viable resistance against the state in response to Brexit or the ascendance of Donald Trump (at least till now), the only viable option left is subversion.

Popular culture has long had a relationship with this subversion, with the popularity of mediums allowing for the implicit or explicit dissemination of said subversive message: for example, the case for equality in race in western television with the first inter-race kiss on the original Star Trek series.

To this end, memes can serve as a way to express sentiments and feelings in a manner more encompassing and convenient to other modes of transmission. The political potential of memes is present, with groups implicitly or explicitly targeting them for furthering their agenda. At the same time, they offer a potential alternative medium of information transmission: in the lead up to the US Democratic National Congress Primary, Hillary Clinton received establishment approval, with her opponent Bernie Sanders stumbling onto a fan-base of internet savvy millennials, who spread his message through the use of image macros and edited videos on the ‘Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash’ Facebook page. Memes had become politicized, and this did not go without the notice of political pundits, who commented that this rise was assisted by a number of ‘social media socialist’ pages, with hardline communists finding sway with the left wing values championed by an individual in the United States fiercely capitalist economic system.

Memes are not a tool of a particular ideology either. In the wake of the movement in the United States known as the ‘Alt-Right’, the ‘Pepe the Frog’ meme was co-opted into a symbol of their disparate but right wing values. While the artist disapproved of the message, the meme continued to spread, with alt-right thinkers such as Richard Spencer adorning the characters face on their lapels. In a furthering of the saga, left wing and anarcho-leftist groups rejoiced when Mr. Spencer was punched on live television by a leftist protestor on the day of Donald Trump’s Presidential inauguration.

Grounding the conversation to Pakistan, we too find this sense of ‘feeling’ expressed in memes. First, it was after the leaked video of televangelist Aamir Liaquat, where he spoke in a manner different from his on-screen persona, with the resulting image macro of him reclining with his hands behind his head finding sway in the larger population.

More recently, we have seen the inability of the state to provide for its citizens and the sense of government machinery grinding to a halt, with the image of a middle aged woman exclaiming “bik gayi gormint” (the government has been sold off). The catchphrase, while used half ironically, allows for a succinct analysis of how individuals are feeling (outside of Lahore, at the very least).

Before espousing the triumph of this new medium, we should mention that we do not have a radio to television level shift in modes of expression just yet: the reason for the memes popularity, its ease of transmission and the ability to utilize it quickly, is its undoing. The medium is reductive: while the ‘bik gayi gormint’ meme can say, express a feeling, it cannot address why the government has been sold off. It offers an inability to respond to it in a manner that is other than a counter-meme. It is also decidedly classist: with individuals who have access to the internet able to join in on the conversation.

While by its very medium it seems unlikely (at least for now) that it will evolve to a point where it can counter these short-comings, the medium has quickly encroached upon established narratives of those in power and the vacuum left by their inability to represent a large number of individuals voices, its egalitarian means of reproduction offering potential for alternative transmission. It is also interesting to note that it is entirely likely that, given the rise of the meme to the political realm in the past year, that scholars would potentially be conducting research on a frog on a unicycle in ten years’ time.