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Do Memes and Poetry Have Anything in Common?

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In our generation, "trending" is a persistent verb.

There is always something, anything, catching on and making us waste more time than we ever thought possible. Right now, of course, Internet memes are trending. Memes are units of cultural ideas that are propagated: a blog, a hashtag, an animated picture accompanied by text; as exemplified in the popular #whatshouldwwecallme tumblr.

Popular especially among college students; Internet memes latch onto common experiences and shape popular ideas of what we consider funny and relevant. Of course, memes aren't essential truths and usually end up being used for marketing schemes or fizzling out altogether into the inevitable "that-was-so-last-month" cosmos.

But, like most other college students, I follow meme blogs and laugh and share them with other people. They're clever! They're relevant! And they make me feel like I am experiencing something communal. How fantastic; a giant inside joke between me and everyone else on the Internet!

Comparing memes to poetry is enough to make any poetry teacher cringe -- a few of mine probably will, after reading this. Poetry is inherently deep and memes are inherently shallow! Right? But I think the reason we gravitate toward poetry and gravitate toward Internet memes is analogous.

Like poetry, memes have the power to make us feel like we are engaging in a collective cultural experience. The comparison abruptly stops there -- memes aren't beautiful and don't require much discipline or insight. But -- but! -- Internet memes do capitalize on our desire for common experiences.

Like poetry, memes are expanded metaphors of daily life. They are not quite as self-serving as other Internet mediums like Facebook, because the idea of a meme is to reinforce a thought about life, rather than reinforce our own image.

Of course, yes. I am afraid that my generation is in danger -- that I am in danger -- of losing out on the ability to communicate, to look at people in the eye with unbroken attention. I am afraid that I will never fully be present because there is constantly a screen barrier; a way to present to the world the inaccurate premise that I have better people to see, places to go, things to do.

But the popularity of memes gives me an odd kind of trust that things will turn out okay. Despite the doomsday predictions, preaching that my generation is totally isolated from connection, we are all still drawn to making and sharing meaning. Every generation has had ways of "wasting" time and being shallow; that my generation does find ways to waste time is not a new phenomenon.

And as afraid as I am that we are in danger of losing out on the ability to genuinely communicate; I also think it is important to recognize when technology does give us positive and imaginative ways of communicating. Technology allows us to talk to people across the ocean; to further social change. It helped bring about the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring. It can make us laugh. And like it or not, it's here to stay.

Without acknowledging the Internet as having the potential to make us less fractioned people; we actually are a lost cause; lacking gratitude for the good it brings but not knowing how to create boundaries. Nothing has meaning if we do not look for it.

Maybe the Internet doesn't allow us to fully arrive at points of authentic connection. Maybe the Internet keeps relationships at bay, drifting just out of reach. But also, perhaps we can get closer and perhaps things like memes are portals for moving us in more genuine directions of understanding one another. When we see a meme with a caption that begins with "that moment when" we're seizing onto something that can be shared.

And that's one basic understanding of poetry: that it provides bridges between ordinary moments which makes us feel more or less human.

Yes, those moments might be a picture of a girl tripping in a bar or someone trying to parallel park a car or "that moment when I'm flirting with a guy and his girlfriend walks over." We think memes are funny because those moments have happened to all of us. They've certainly happened to me.

Memes are ways of realizing "Oh, someone else has felt this." And I think that's something good; something to celebrate. We are not as far from understanding each other as we think we are. We are not as alone as we think we are.