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The Boom of Memes. Harmless Game or Generational Black Hole?

Meme from Instagram

Are the new jargons inhabiting social media a danger or an added value?

Did the image or the word come first?

The history of humanity clearly recognizes that the first alphabets were ideographic, that is, made of drawings, and then evolved into phonetic.

On the relationship between word and image, the debate is secular.

On the subject, Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote: there is a qualitative difference between the word and the image. The word is a trinity: grapheme, phoneme and cinèma. The image is an element of this trinity. The image is part of the word.

Pier Paolo Pasolini

If the great intellectual of the twentieth century considered the word a prevailing container over the image, during the Renaissance, Leonardo had claimed the indisputable supremacy of painting: The poet is overcome by the painter with an infinite proportion of power, adding that painting is a mute poem, and poetry is blind painting.

Leonardo Da Vinci

More neutral on the subject is Horace who addressed the issue in his treatise Ars poetica and proposed a similar value with the famous phrase Ut pictura poesis: as in painting so in poetry.


Severe, very severe was instead the rejection of both media by Socrates:

Because you see, Phaedrus, the writing is in a strange condition, really similar to that of painting. That is, the products of painting stand before us as if they lived; but if you question them, they keep a majestic silence. The written words behave in the same way (Plato, Opere, vol. I, Laterza, Bari, 1967).


It should be remembered that the contemporaries of Socrates and Plato lived an epochal moment in the history of communication: between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC, the written alphabet clamorously imposed itself on the verbal forms of tradition, directing Greece and the West towards a new world and throwing them into a position of supremacy over the oral cultures of the African and American continents.


The issue that has come up to date today is part of a new context of revolution. The virtual-robotic paradigm not in a few centuries, but in a handful of decades is outclassing the era of the book, its canons, its cultures and together with these its own peculiar formations of intellect.

The communicative piece that is forming an abstract puzzle undermining any previous critical thought is the meme, a form of communication identified at the beginning of the last century and which in recent years has been inserted in everyday communications through a massive use perceived as an advertisement (threat?) of anthropological change.

Coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins and first reported in his work The Selfish Gene, according to the British biologist the meme is a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution, analogous to what the gene is for genetics. A key feature of the meme is that it is spread by imitation. In the pre-internet era, examples of memes could be considered the refrain of a song that becomes a smash, or a fashion style that manages to spread successfully.

Google trend: comparison between "Meme" research and "Jesus" research

With the communicative exploit of social media, the costume of the internet-meme has spread. The latter is made up of images or short videos more than words. The intention is usually ironic and the terms used are far from the initial meaning of the visual input.

Seemingly harmless, born to elicit a laugh, start and end a quick interaction, the meme has become a widely used tool, capable of arousing greater attention and ability to spread the word or image alone. And, above all, it has established itself as an element capable of conveying political and financial opinions.

The memes, these light-hearted and hasty contents, born to spread quickly and lightly in digital platforms, have the following characteristics:

They enhance the continuous immediate interaction of a cascade of inputs in the minds of the reader. They address sharing, frantic and compulsive interaction while waiting for the next topic, with the retaliation of not allowing further study.

They place the reader in the equally immediate position of author and editor, without ever leaving the user in the one and only position of listener or content creator.

Elon Mask's Tweet

Accomplices of social media AI, they approach people who have common stances and remove those with opposing sensitivities or interests and raise the dividing barriers between distinct groups through messages of mockery if not insulting.

They weaken the ability to organize complex thoughts.

They reinforce the persuasive superiority of social media over traditional media such as TV, radio and newspapers.

They have banned the empty space of silence and meditation (on social media something always happens).

Having identified this new particle of digital communications systems in the meme, what will be the anthropological destiny of those born after the advent of social media and destined to make daily use of them? Why place this argument within the hypothesis of an alarm? Why fear that memes are the building blocks of a communication system that grinds reflection first and the ability to reflect later?

If what was stated by Paracelsus, pioneer of the medical revolution of the Renaissance, is true, everything is poison, it depends on the dose, what is the right dosage of interaction within social media beyond which this type of communication can become harmful, make those who exceed one little mind fragile and no longer capable of producing critical thinking and participating in an in-depth dialogue?

We leave to the reader, this author who begins when an article ends, the search for images and words in response to the questions generated and the further questions that these questions will generate.

This article was originally published by La Voce di New York


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