Written by Tess Drzymala
One of the most difficult aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has changed many qualities of ordinary life for a longer amount of time than most people expected. Months of social restrictions and safety-related checklists have become burdensome and mentally exhausting for many individuals.
To understand how we cope with the burden of quarantine in this digital age, I studied internet memes for this academic year. I collected dozens of memes and placed them in categories. I rearranged those categories again, and again, but I realized that memes are messy and they don’t fit very well into singular categories.
What I did find, though, is that memes surrounding the pandemic oftentimes personify COVID-19 or the year 2020 as an evil character. The personification of the year, as well as the virus, creates a lighthearted outlet for expressing anger or anxiety related to the pandemic. By humanizing the stressful year and/or the virus through memes, we are able to demonstrate the ability for individuals to gain a sense of power over the situation at hand.
This use of memes allows online users to treat the COVID-19 pandemic as an enemy which can be defeated. In turn, it is possible that memes provide a sense of empowerment to users of digital media.
Ironically, many memes also capture the newfound realization that some of us actually prefer this extra time in quarantine-related solitude. Memes reaffirm the idea that it might just be perfectly normal to seek out a little extra time away from the chaos of everyday life.
But what can we learn from this? Ultimately, memes allow us to redirect our negative emotions towards laughter. What I found is that, although memes are often viewed as a mere form of humor, they actually possess the ability to validate personal experiences of frustration and serve as a tool to establish community building.
This happens through building a common enemy, and destigmatizing mental health. In fact, circulating online media has shown to act as a form of solidarity, as online users share and recirculate relatable digital messages. Not only do memes make us laugh, but they allow us to connect with each other as we experience this pandemic for the first time, together.