The shape of us: netizens and the changing conception of community

The shape of us: netizens and the changing conception of community / Communities / Meme theory

by Prateek Gupta

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a mentally frustrated Zoomer/ Millenial in possession of a decent network, must be in want of a relatable meme.

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A cartoon by @lila__ash. #NewYorkerCartoons

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At times a simple internet meme can be the most accessible, concise and brutally honest articulation of something really personal, especially when you feel lonely or unexpressed. In her TEDx talk Emily Sands, a millennial suffering from clinical depression, explains how internet memes can refer to experiences we all have but don’t talk about because they’re embarrassing or taboo, and thus can help us articulate our feelings and connect with others who have similar experiences. Dank mental health memes are no secret, and even though some can go overboard and be dismissive, they have definitely led to a boom of content around mental health and illness which for many still remains a closet issue. Some netizens even go as far as to say that such memes can be therapeutic and help in creating resourceful online communities which help them with problems which are hard for their peers to understand. But what does one even mean by online communities if anonymity and deception are cornerstone practices of the Web? Moreover, how can an innocuous funny picture help me be a part of one?

Community, colloquially, is used to refer to any group of people sharing geography, characteristics, resources or even interests. But the word also carries with itself an undertone of physical affinity or companionship, and a prejudice of being embedded in a ‘face-to-face’ real world. The internet, on the other hand, is the thing which makes young folx walk face first into walls or fall down drains, not collectivize them and create a healthy network and lifestyle. The paranoia against cyberspaces runs wild with people believing that young users are inevitably bound to become addicted and aloof, disconnected from the real world. Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia in their research explain how extreme views, both negative and positive, about the possibility of cyberspace communities fail to understand the dynamic nature of community as a concept. Communities have been changing since the dawn of age and becoming more loose knitted geographically with every advancement in transportation and communication technology. Moreover, according to their research except for kin and small clusters of friends, most members of a person’s community network (in real world) do not really know each other. Interestingly,

“the relationships people develop and maintain in cyberspace are much like most of the ones they develop in their real-life communities: intermittent, specialized, and varying in strength.”
– Peter Kollock and Marc Smith, Communities in cyberspace.

The internet fosters the formation of specialized relationships between netizens for whom they act not just as resources of information but also as support groups for social, physical, and mental problems along with information about treatments, practitioners, and emotional therapy. Despite contrary belief, according to Wellman and Guina, emotional support, companionship, information, making arrangements, and providing a sense of belonging are all non-material social resources that are relatively easy to provide from the comfort of one’s computer. Internet communities, therefore, are legit.  Naturally one might ask, so how do these communities work then?

Actually, there is no one specific way of determining how these communities are formed. Other than having the common factor of being virtual, internet communities can be starkly different as their construction and working is dependent on the structure of the platform on which they are built. As Peter Kollock and Marc A. Smith claim, “each online communication system structures interaction in a particular way”. Email lists work differently from chat rooms and subreddits work differently from social media platforms. The difference between platforms can lead to a different form and extent of communication, even different constructions and performances of the ‘self’ as one creates an identity on the platform. Or in other words, one can only do as much as the website would allow; if a site doesn’t let people post anonymously, there’s a great chance that people will be posting differently than if they had the chance to be anonymous.   

But what does this have to do with memes?    

One becomes part of and shapes the online community by communing or participating in it. According to Limor Shifman, sharing content is now a fundamental part of what participants experience as the digital sphere. Sharing is not just about communicating one’s thoughts but also about distributing content which if resonant with the members of the group is shared, imitated and modified. In other words, memetic activity creates online communities, or as Shifman says “memes shape the mindsets, forms of behavior, and actions of social groups.” People coalesce around memes to form communities as they are social beings who use the net to seek not only information but also social support, companionship and a sense of belonging. For Shifman, this is reflective of the era marked by network individualism where people use memes to simultaneously express both their uniqueness and their connectivity.

A meme, in crux, is also a currency of communication. So, for example, liking and sharing a meme about how anxiety feels, instantly connects you with everyone else who has liked and shared the meme, or in other words has also felt that the meme is relatable to them to some degree. Sharing memes can be about putting yourself out there to let people know how you feel or about letting others who feel the same find you. But it can also be to just have a laugh or in Emily’s words “find people who laugh with me”.


Blair, Olivia. “110 Memes That Perfectly Sum Up The Realities Of Social Distancing”. ELLE, 2020,

Chen, Carl. “The creation and meaning of Internet memes in 4chan: Popular Internet culture in the age of online digital reproduction.” Habitus,(3) (2012): 6-19

Kollock, Peter, and Marc Smith. “Communities in cyberspace.” Communities in cyberspace. Routledge, 2002. 13-34

Sands, Emily. “”More than just a Meme” | Emily Sands | TEDxSantaClaraUniversity.” Youtube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 6 July, 2017,

Shifman, Limor. Memes in digital culture. MIT press, 2014.

“Suicide Memes May Be A Form of Therapy.” Youtube, uploaded by VICE News, 6 Aug, 2017,

Wellman, Barry, and Milena Gulia. “Virtual communities as communities.” Communities in cyberspace (1999): 167-194.

Disclaimer: The memes linked, embedded or mentioned in this blog do not belong to The Meme Project and are not the views of the Meme Project Team. They have been used here to refer to their content or make a statement about their use.

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