Almost all of us have heard some version of it: technology ruins the sanctity of relationships, friendships formed over the internet are not real, digital communication and social media have spoiled what it means to interact with other human beings. Millennials and members of Gen Z are constantly criticized for their inability to put their phones down and connect with people through in-person interactions.
There is some truth in the idea that people our age spend an exorbitant amount of time looking at screens. Studies show that Gen Zers may spend almost nine hours a day interacting with technology. But in an increasingly digitized and globally connected world, it’s almost impossible to escape spending time online, whether it’s for academic, occupational or social reasons. Need I remind you that my generation just celebrated our two-year anniversary of attending ‘Zoom University.’
As a result, young people have created spaces on the internet for interactive freedom. Digital self-expression has become the new, sixth love language of intimate connection — and memes are at the forefront of this modern form of communication.
A variety of definitions for the word ‘meme’ circulate around the web, but it’s generally defined as an internet image that reflects some sort of social or cultural commentary. Memes can communicate niche jokes just as much as they can reflect the attitudes of a people, speak to our personal values and allow us to approach current events from a more accessible angle. There are many types of memes that tap into different facets of viewers’ humor: the use of irony in memes, such as the popular “the feminine urge to” posts that allow women to make fun of behavior traits associated with gender constructs, can appeal to those who find humor in the absurdity of social norms. Additionally, post-ironic memes go beyond the use of irony and give consumers a more straightforward remark on the state of the world. With many different approaches to humor as well as visual layouts, memes explore different facets of our culture in a way that taps into any individual’s idea of what’s funny or relatable.
But what isn’t conveyed through most definitions of the term is the bridge that these simple, at times stupid, pictures create between people who share similar brands of humor.
My Instagram direct messages consist of three different conversations: one with my roommate, one with a best friend from home and another with one of my closest friends at college. Images and reels fill each exchange, from dry-humored, existential clips from The Onion to relatable posts from college-focused accounts. Rarely any words are sent, the exception being reactions to a video taken from TikTok or new variations of scenes from Euphoria season two. Each post they send speaks to a different side of my unique sense of humor, brought out by the people closest to me in real life.
Despite my DMs, I actually limit myself fairly strictly within the world of social media. I only use Instagram regularly, and mainly use Snapchat just to look at private stories. I don’t have TikTok or Twitter, so my exposure to current trends and digital content is limited to what I find scrolling through the Explore page on Instagram. I’m extremely careful about the social media I do use and its purpose in my life, why I would allot my time to exploring certain platforms. I choose to engage with Instagram because it provides me with content that captivates my sense of humor while strengthening the bonds of my relationships, including between me and my roommate whom I interact with every day.
My roommate is one of my best friends on the planet. After sharing a room together for almost two years, we are completely attuned to each other’s attitudes and idiosyncrasies. On the Michigan Marriage Pact, we got a striking 99.8% friendship match, each of us putting humor as a highly important factor in a relationship. We DM each other Instagram content almost constantly, each of us knowing exactly what will make the other smile. We’re laughing, conversing, poking fun at one another without even needing to be on the same phone call, let alone the same room.
Instagram is also the primary form of contact between me and my friend from high school; though we rarely text, the posts we share about cute animals and “alpha women” keep us in touch and spark the most interesting conversations over text or the next time we meet face to face.
Each time I get a DM from these individuals, I feel even more deeply connected with them, especially when they tap aspects of my thoughts or identities in ways I had never known were possible: through singular, static images made by a stranger online. I hardly ever thought that memes would become diverse enough to match my humor exactly when they first appeared on the internet, or that they would be employed to uphold my connections with those I love. That my loved ones select posts out of the endless technological abyss of social media and choose to send them to me in the hopes that I’ll enjoy them makes me feel appreciated and understood.
I still talk to all of these friends frequently in person when we are together. The digital content sharing hasn’t replaced our in-person friendships, but simply supplements them with little moments of laughter or weirdness each day that we’re miles apart from one another.
In my experience, sending content that doesn’t match the other person’s humor is also a great indicator of a lack of personal compatibility. Failed attempts at humorous discourse through meme-based conversations with ex-partners have become extreme red flags in my relationships with them. Though it wasn’t the main cause of our relationships ending, the subtle disconnect in our attempt at meme exchanges seemed indicative of our clashing personalities. Our inability to transmit our thoughts and engage in banter in the same way was honestly very telling.
Maybe this is because memes reflect those who send them, and their choice of content reveals how well they truly know us. If they get it right, it makes us more appreciative of their attention and inspires affection within ourselves — a reciprocal exchange similar to what is communicated by the well-known ‘love languages’.
The idea of personal love languages has become a staple in popular culture. They help people identify and reflect on what they need to connect with someone in a relationship. The five central love languages — words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service and gifts — aren’t completely definitive of a person’s psychology. However, they do open the door for conversations about how people express their care for another person and what they desire in return.
I would argue, however, that Gen Z has stumbled upon a sixth love language, and it’s shaped like an Instagram post and feels like a virtual hug. Memes and other virtual expressions of humor are snapshots of the relationships we have in real life, translated into random, digitized social commentaries. This display of humor is one of the easiest ways to convey one’s affection, a signal of attention and recognition via pictures on a screen. It’s a simple manifestation of the spirit of love languages that fosters relationship growth between two people. For many individuals, humor is a vital component of any relationship. Though some people may prioritize a similar sense of humor more than others, being able to partake in inside jokes and genuine enjoyment of shared content can directly strengthen the bonds between people.
Moreover, these meaningful bonds facilitated by the internet transcend just individual relationships. Memes, with their humorous and often deprecating takes on modern life, allow people to connect with groups of shared identities even in the most difficult circumstances. And these communities are forming right here in our University’s social digital space.
Accounts like @umichaffirmations promote connection on campus — we can all appreciate their niche comments on U-M student life as we experience it in real time. Especially within the context of COVID-19, virtual updates from the student body’s popular meme accounts made me feel like an actual Wolverine — even if they were just creative reinterpretations of my tumultuous circumstances via an ironic commentary on campus health policies.
Most critics of technology usage are older adults who use technology less frequently than those of us who grew up while it advanced. Many Gen Xers and Boomers simply will not grasp the power of digital communication as these generations tend to hold privacy and security as central values. Though these generations do engage with different features of the internet, social media was something they adopted later in life, a fact that could create more reservations about sharing information or photos of themselves online.
Meanwhile, us Gen Zers and Millennials have learned to appreciate more of the connective and information-sharing benefits of the internet, a distinction that is heavily shaped by the social atmosphere of our time.
Nevertheless, the draw of interacting with loved ones virtually does not have to be completely isolated to specific age groups. Though there are definitely risks associated with too much technology use, the ability to enhance the strength of one’s relationship is an invaluable gift that should not be diminished. A single post sent to a friend, partner or family member is a strong statement of fondness of care from one person to another.
Communication over the internet is so often characterized as superficial, lacking in depth and intimacy. But in actuality, there’s an extreme eloquence and expressiveness behind internet exchanges with those close to us. The medium is a bit more bizarre than some people may expect, but having a person know your mind so completely as to complement it with online content provides the feeling of being seen, understood and appreciated. And to me, that feeling constitutes the core of any meaningful relationship, landing meme exchange as the beloved sixth love language.
Statement Correspondent Sarah Stolar can be reached at email@example.com.