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Memes, Mutants and Millennials: Has Modern Culture Become Pure Imitation?

Have you heard the theory that there are only seven real plots, and that every book, film, TV show, and play is just a variation on one of them?

Well, I think this theory perfectly sums up what it is to be growing up in today’s internet age. Maybe the idea of everything being an evolved form of these plots holds up a mirror to our society – where imitation is much more commonplace than originality.

Depending on when you were born (and how well you can remember late-2000s children’s tv), you may recall a certain show named Copycats, hosted by the venerable duo Sam and Mark. There is something surprisingly hilarious about a balding father attempting to pick out the Macarena on what resembles a plastic bugle; we know what it should sound like, and it’s quite remarkable how much a simple tune can alter when repeated a few times.

Now, think of the similarities between the legendary Copycats and modern web content. The clickbait, the fanfiction, the memes, the ubiquitous Harry Potter parodies… the list goes on. The internet breeds this copycat behaviour purely because it is the quickest way to create fresh content with minimum effort, while also linking it to a notion people are already familiar with. It’s like ordering mass-produced humour, served with a generous side of memes.

For the purposes of this article, memes deserve their own paragraph. Even the origin of the word is a mutation (as most words are), stemming from the Greek μιμεῖσθαι, meaning ‘to imitate’. Philosopher Richard Dawkins brought the word to the world’s attention, suggesting that evolution as Darwin had it applies to ideas as well as organisms. And, via many thousands of memes inundating our timelines and group chats, we have now reached the stage where they are an acceptable topic for university dissertations (courtesy of Julian Porch from York University, who got a first for producing 8,000 words on ”The Meme-ing of Life: The Ironic (Inter) Textual Internet Meme, Postmodern Political Participation, and the Post-Ironic”). They are now so ingrained in the daily lives of the developed world that they have become ‘the Internet’s way of coping’, according to the site Millennials Of Singapore.

But why do we care so much about obviously replicated – and arguably unoriginal – aspects of culture? Maybe because we as humans have been doing it since, well, forever. 90% of award-winning or highly-praised literature has biblical or mythological references running through it, and some of the greatest works ever written have been total parodies: to write his Divine Comedy, Dante effectively stuck together various giblets of Christian theology, the classical canon and Thomas Aquinas’ works, creating a new message from the combined ideas. So the average memer staring at a computer screen and adorning stock photos with Impact font is really no less culturally influential than the man who wrote the greatest poem of the Middle Ages.

It’s all well and good being clever and making meaningful social commentary, but now we come to the real reason that people like parodic humour so much: put simply, it’s just funny. Subverting ideas, bringing stupidly relatable situations into the public eye, and drawing links with the state of the modern world are guaranteed to elicit laughter (or at least a wry smirk as you scroll). Look at Mock The Week, a show which uses the current state of affairs as bedrock for comedy, and where the callback joke is ever-present. Callbacks are comments that refer back to things said previously on the show, and creating the idea of an ‘in-joke’ with the audience. They’re the sort of things you find peppering a Will Self article or a James Acaster set, and they are acknowledged as one of the most powerful tools in a comedian’s arsenal. Why think up new material when you’ll get twice the applause for putting a different spin on something already said?

Take, for example, any headline every written for the Daily Mail. They are almost exclusively variations of the same phrases, maybe with a celebrity name or pun thrown in. It’s all about appealing to what their customers know, and modelling the titles to reflect that. It could be to reassure readers that they know what they’re getting – a few wardrobe malfunctions, some immigration concern, and an update on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. From a purely non-scientific standpoint, I’m pretty sure that the editors haven’t deviated from this format in the last five years.

The changing way in which millennials use social media is also contributing to the mimetic nature of today’s communications. We live in an age of embedded tweets, where everything and anything is fodder for a Snapchat story. The Twittersphere is bigger than ever, even taking over Facebook for some categories of interaction, especially after the fake news scandal during the 2016 election. There’s something more immediate about Twitter; the notion of a retweet perfectly reflects the necessity to have a ‘take’ on whatever happens to be going on in the world. Posting Facebook status updates at the rate you used to in 2008 is an act reserved for political wannabes, club promoters, and middle-class forty-year-olds on holiday. In short, not cool. But when you have 140 characters to mercilessly satirise a Bake-Off contestant? Somehow, it just works.

There are pros and cons to our evident obsession with pastiche. It could be that we are attuning ourselves to previous generations, paying homage to recent history via vinyl players and the Ellesse Renaissance. Though some see it as a danger to innovation, as seeking refuge in the trends of the past becomes ever more acceptable. Without sounding too existential, others have suggested that humans have done everything possible, and any new ideas are just caricatures of old ones (and we go back to the seven basic plots again).

Maybe I’ve just proven the truth in the latter argument – this very article is propped up on references and nods to popular culture. It seems like the imitation game won’t be ending any time soon.

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