For most regular net surfers, Facebook-ers and compulsive Google-ers, it feels like memes have always been around. And why not, given how the meme has slithered down from the graffiti around the block, to t-shirts, to pin-up buttons, to social networking sites and then again to clothing and even cutlery.
The story of memes is crucial to the understanding of digital culture, and not only as a characteristic of a WiFi-fuelled subculture, but as a cultural artefact that has gained a new function and become increasingly mainstream. A scroll down a Twitter or Facebook page will reveal the obsession and fan-following enjoyed by hit ’90s Hollywood movies, characters from famous sitcoms, soaps and TV shows, rough sketches and everything in between — in the form of memes. Be it Morpheus, from the Matrix asking, “What if I told you — That you can go to the gym without telling everyone on Facebook about it”, or Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, saying, “Oh, you got the iPhone 5S? Tell me how you are better than everyone else”, meme trends are precariously prone to the whims and fancies of almost everyone who cares to look, like, comment, share, tweet, pin or +1 them.
Seventeen-year-old Karanveer Samyal, (pictured above) a Class XII student and entrepreneur in Pune, is the owner of over eight fully-functional Facebook pages, wholly dedicated to memes from all areas of pop culture. His biggest page titled, The Indian Memes (earlier known as Indian Parents’ Memes), has close to 40,000 active followers. “My page is one of the biggest Indian pages dedicated to memes in the country,” he says.
Be it the Confession Bear, the Success Kid, Bad Luck Brian, Ancient Aliens Guy, or the Skeptical Third World Child, Indians today have rehashed the memes to suit the sensibilities of the subcontinent. Be it the Smart Iyer Boy, Sanskari Alok Nath, the “Bijlee” Woman from Lagaan, or the Typical Engineering Student, there is a definite Indian presence in memespace. Most of these are made on Photoshop, online free websites or even mobile phone apps such as Memeful, and can be directly uploaded and shared instantly.
Samyal used to hide under the covers and upload memes into the wee hours of morning to keep his first page — dedicated to Barney Stinson memes — running. “My parents were obviously worried by the number of hours I spent in front of the computer,” he says with a laugh. But nothing prepared them for the alarm they felt when he purchased an iPhone 4 and a G Shock watch at the age of 15 — items purchased from selling his first Facebook page for over Rs 80,000. “A photographer in the US wanted the page so that he could publicise his photos. For him, it was a good deal, as the page had over seven lakh ‘likes’,” he says. “I had to assure my parents that I was not going to sacrifice my studies for it,” he says, adding that it took a long time for them to come around.
So how does one keep a pulse on popular culture? “I keep an eye on Twitter and Google trends. My friends and I come across something hilarious and we make a meme,” he says.
Samyal has built a successful venture with these pages, earning over Rs 50,000 per month simply by promoting pages, personalities or business ventures.
A meme has the potential to be popular if it is topical. Abhishek Samant, 31, who runs a meme page titled Indian Memes, says that it is usually news. “Also, controversies make for good memes,” he says. Be it a disastrous interview by a political leader on a national news channel, or a scandalous leaked video of an elderly social worker, political memes are the most popular in cyberspace. A Mumbai-based pharma advisory consultant, Samant says that he makes and uploads memes that are completely original.
Hardik Kumar is a 14-year-old who made the 90s quintessential babuji, Alok Nath and his sanskars famous. His page, Alok Nath Jokes, has received more than 1000 “likes” in a week, which is significant, considering the transient nature of a single meme. “I haven’t seen any Alok Nath movies,” says Kumar, a student of DPS RK Puram in Delhi.
Both Kumar and Samyal say that most of the content they use on their pages is sourced online. “It is difficult to figure out the source of a meme. We pick up, modify, add, delete anything we choose,” says Samyal. “We also get volunteers for content. You will not believe the number of enthusiasts eager to upload their stuff online,” says Samyal. “Like” or not?