Building Cultural Identity Through Images and Storytelling: Memes, Myths, and Non-Fiction Texts
Storytellers have long been a part of human culture. However, it is apparent that we have also placed a high value on visuals. Of course, the first information was handed down verbally, but there’s a lot of evidence from our common history that visual storytelling was extremely important to humans — even before written language was formed.
We can see this in the countless awe-inspiring petroglyphs found all throughout the world, spanning cultures and time. Some stone carvings date back between 50,000 and 100,000 years, putting us well beyond our cultural birth as tool-using humans.
Many of the old paintings were recognizable, depicting flora and animals that were widespread in the caves’ surroundings. People are depicted as hunters, mothers, warriors, and shamans in several of these images. These shamanic images suggest that humans have always been fascinated by the supernatural, or – more broadly – by myths and stories about events greater than themselves.
These stories were formalized over millennia, and the myths with the most universal meanings were passed down through unthinkable numbers of generations. In a fertile but brutal environment, these stories helped pass along beliefs, customs, myths, iconography, and a sense of self.
Stories and myths from cultures like the ancient Greeks continue to influence how we interpret and comprehend our world today. It’s frequently believed that there’s still wisdom to be discovered in old history stories. What’s sometimes overlooked is that the cultures and communities we study built these stories on their own myths and traditions, which were passed down to them from a period when they were just as old as we are.
NFTs, Memes, and Today’s Society
So, how does this relate to today’s society, memes, and NFTs?
On the one hand, we can take myths at face value, believing that they are actual stories with minor embellishments. Or, to put it another way, they’re just enjoyable stories to tell kids as they become older. When it comes to society, though, myths serve a far larger purpose.
We see ourselves reflected in myths – who we are and who we desire to be. Myths also educate us on who we should avoid at all costs. And it is a society’s sense of self, its identity, that is bound up in these stories and morality. The significance of these epic tales is so great that they’ve been carved into stone and will survive for thousands of years.
Memes and NFTs come into play
The majority of successful myths that have stood the test of time may be reduced to a single basic picture (mental or literal) that is easily recognized and disseminated. The clearest illustration of this is how the epic Greek Trojan War is famously distilled into one image -> the Trojan Horse.
The Trojan horse’s image and tale are easily recognized and exploited to create connections to current culture, politics, or society. It’s the perfect illustration of an improbable meme’s popularity.
PFPs & Identity
The usage of NFTs in PFPs represents a return to a focus on visual narrative while simultaneously emphasizing identity. Highly successful NFT initiatives can become memes in and of themselves. Memeing a project occurs naturally, either from the bottom up or from the top down.
Take, for example, the way BAYC has exploded in the cultural imagination. They’re so well-known that they’ve practically become a proxy or meme for NFTs as a whole to individuals who aren’t familiar with the technology.
In fact, if I question a skeptic, “Why don’t you like NFTs?” they always say, “I don’t like NFTs.” They’ll say something along the lines of, “I don’t see the big deal with monkey images.” Of course, most people who work in the NFT field resist this broad categorization, but battling viral memes is almost always a lost game.
Of course, BAYC stands for more than just NFTs in general to people in the NFT community. Possessing an owned BAYC as a profile picture (PFP) is a status symbol that can signify everything from “early adoption” to “exclusivity,” “success,” and, of course, “money.”
Because these NFTs are so powerful as a feeling of identity, Twitter recently modified its platform to interface with MetaMask wallets, allowing Twitter users to utilize their NFTs as Twitter PFPs. Twitter would not be making this step if they didn’t understand how personal identification and NFTs are intertwined.
Now, not every NFT project succeeds in capturing the attention of the general public. There is a slew of lesser NFT initiatives that don’t have (and probably never will) the BAYC’s level of attention, cache, or reach. These smaller NFT efforts, on the other hand, are still predicated on creating identity via tales.
Several NFT initiatives have sprouted up that have access to private Discord servers. Collectors of these projects can communicate with one another, and if the art style or philosophy underlying the projects connects with a group of individuals, a community of shared beliefs/opinions emerges. In a previous piece about NFT Plazas, I discussed how skull cultures are found all across the planet.
The Sugar Skulls of Mexico, the Skull Catacombs of Paris, Skull Vodka (Crystal Head), and skull garden planters on Etsy are all examples of skulls. While the details of each person’s life and hobbies may differ, people who have the same aesthetic or attitude join together for a digital sense of community.
The Loser Club NFT initiative is one of the greatest instances of how NFT can bring community and identity together. People who are “bohemian hedonists” and “enjoy non-conformity and spontaneous innovation” are said to be the target market for this initiative. Not only do they have in-person gatherings, but Loser Club members all around the world tweet photos of themselves with their PFP heads Photoshopped on their faces. Tags like “#loserIRL” appear in a lot of these entries.
If there was any confusion about how this relates to memes and myths (more precisely, myth-making), a new hashtag in the project has appeared, which is actually “#loserlore.” This hashtag is used in conjunction with a brief bio about the hybrid NFT/person (as identified by the PFP).
This hashtag may or may not gain popularity, but regardless of whether or not it does, the point is that people value establishing identity via stories and well-picked photos, whether or not they are conscious of it.
PFPs, Music, and Identity
This discussion of memes, myth, NFTs, and identity wouldn’t be complete without a brief mention of the evolution of identity through music in recent years. Of course, talking about music in this post (and likely future ones) may seem a little off-topic, but stay with me.
Finding unknown bands was a rite of passage for many people who grew up between the 1970s and the early 2000s. Introducing peers to great underground music can help you build clout among friends. While this still persists to some level, as seen by scenesters wearing the apparel of their favorite local bands, music is now more accessible than it has ever been. Finding unknown bands or artists is therefore no longer as subversive or spectacular as it once was.
Indeed, I contend that discovering NFT artists and their work is supplanting this practice. Finding NFTs with a style that appeals to you might be difficult. Then consider how tough it may be to locate an NFT project with an ethos or philosophy that resonates as much as the art. But there is purpose in that pursuit… meaning discovered in the desire for a common connection and sense of belonging.
This is why seeing branded goods from NFT initiatives that a person supports is displacing traditional branded shirts from musicians/bands. NFT merch has started showing up more and more in public. At NBA games, for example, BAYC hoodies are worn.
Indeed, NFT markets like Curate. style have recognized the value of wearables and will soon be allowing artists to print their NFTs on products as well. Collectors will be able to possess both digital and physical copies in this way. Codyfied’s “Skater Gurl” and “Skater Boi” collections, for example, are PFPs that may be worn as a graphic shirt or as a Twitter PFP.
So, what exactly does all of this imply?
People have valued identity (individual or collective) for as long as history has been documented. It may be claimed that the need to belong is as essential to human existence as food and water. We may also see how shared admiration and narrative form identity. Myths have been passed down down the years not only because the stories are interesting, but also because individuals and societies may see their own ideals and dreams reflected in them.
While music continues to play an important part in many people’s identity formation, we can see that thanks to technological advancements over the last 20 years, visual art and PFPs are emerging as the newest ways to signify community membership. Like the mythologies of old, today’s identity is formed by blending tales and pictures.
We may have evolved new, magnificent technology that has altered communication as a species…
However, throughout tens of thousands of years, the way we create tales and construct our identities appears to have remained relatively unchanged. NFTs are only the most recent means through which individuals may demonstrate their humanity.