I still don’t really understand memes or what constitutes them. If I’m being perfectly honest it makes me feel old, my own ignorance as to why something is funny while others are jajaja’ing it up.
A few years ago I moved back to Michigan after almost fifteen years away. In an attempt to be more consistently active in the lives of my childhood friends I started a group chat with the three buddies I’ve known since payphones and Home Ec. While the new chat started off well enough I found that after a while I was the one doing the lion’s share of the sharing in the thread, the others seemingly unengaged. While talking individually with one of the friends in the group he made mention of how odd it was that our chat was not very lively, noting that the other group chat he has with the same friends and a couple others was much more active. He suggested adding me to that other group.
What I found was that my buddy was right. The group chat I was added to seemed vibrant, with each member of the thread contributing in some way on a fairly regular basis. I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out, understand what the difference was between one group and the other. Four of the six guys in the new chat – myself included – were what comprised the group chat I had started after moving back, but it didn’t seem to be the other two which made the difference in the engagement levels of the participants; the new group chat – unlike the one I had created – was comprised almost entirely of memes.
When the initial shock wore off I felt a bit foolish for being so surprised. I, like many I know, have several “friends” on Instagram whom I don’t actually speak with but rather have “Meme Conversations,” the act of sharing sentiment without the burden of sharing the specifics of one’s life and thoughts. Meme Conversations are ones in which details of ones life and situation are shared as a series of cultural artifacts – memes and other similarly styled social media posts. Every few days my “friend” Hugo and I exchange some sort of NYC-related post with one another, usually in the form of a meme; Hugo and I haven’t actually “talked” (exchanged our own words) with one another since we worked together in 2017.
As we find ourselves in the midst of Cancel Culture it seems as though there is an increased awareness by “good” and “bad” actors alike regarding the ways in which we share with the world at large. Now more than ever people understand society’s response to what gets said, resulting in prioritization of filtering what one may think. Here, I am defining “Meme Culture” by the way in which memes are digital tools used to facilitate a growing amount of conversation. But Meme Culture is also the vehicle by which age-old biases find a means of delivery in a world increasingly – albeit not nearly enough – concerned with overt prejudice.
The internet is wonderfully terrible :: terribly wonderful, a resource in which virtually any sort of information is readily available at one’s fingertips. The recent exponential growth in Meme Culture over the last several years – coupled with platforms like TikTok which encourage mimicry – has facilitated a correlated exponential growth in memes themselves. As a society we are increasingly interacting with one another via the sharing of images, video clips, emojis, and other forms of digital representation. No longer are we burdened to explain our fragile emotional or mental state when we can simply share a meme to express it.
There is something comforting about the way in which we both digest and share social media posts. Coming in contact with the sentiments we ourselves feel that are voiced by others creates a sense of normalcy and community, that we are not alone. I have often found refuge from my own “I am failing as a parent” or “I am so unproductive” thoughts by doom scrolling through the posts of countless others who have encountered the same kinds of frustrations as I have. There is comfort in knowing that I am not the only one who forgets what they’re talking about mid sentence, or that has a partner who loads the dishwasher chaotically.
But there is also a dark side to such types of community building. For as many “productive” and “good” ways in which we connect with others that help positively shape our disposition and outlook there are dangerous ones in which biases, prejudice, and bigotry are reinforced. A few month before I was accepted into the English PhD program at Michigan State, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order relieving $10,000 to $20,000 of student debt for each citizen and [legal] resident in the country. The action was met with heavy pushback from the alt-right, who claimed that the act was both prejudiced against non-college educated folks and a misuse of presidential power. Rather than having a nuanced conversation with me about it, my step-father elected to send me a meme which demonstrated his displeasure with Biden’s edict.
Several things are worth noting about this meme. The first is the explicit nature of the language used within it. Referring to the plumber as “hard-working” is a delegitimization of the crucial work being done in higher education, including gender studies. The implication, of course, is that such critical work is not equivalent to “hard work” and therefore is a waste. Additionally, the fact that it is the plumber’s neighbor – and not the plumber themselves, nor their partner or child(ren) – who benefits from such an economic break, it makes it so that the person paying is not the same person receiving. The profession of plumber itself harkens back to McCain-Palin campaign rhetoric – “Joe the Plumber” – in which they (the Republic Party) have the “working man’s” best interests in mind and at heart. The rage against the machinery of the educational debt relief was based on the notion that few would benefit from the work of many. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education “estimates that one-time student debt relief will cost an average of $30 billion a year over the next decade.” That’s a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears going towards underwater basket weaving degrees.
Then again, “On March 9, 2023, the Biden-Harris Administration submitted to Congress a proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 Budget request of $842 billion for the Department of Defense (DoD), an increase of $26 billion over FY 2023 levels and $100 billion more than FY 2022.” It would seem as though perhaps a comparable number of that same plumber’s neighbors benefit from spending allocated to the military, something the meme conveniently is not interested in. Of course, like any other sorts of rhetoric and propaganda which is spread, especially virally, there is little in terms of discourse offered along with it. Memes are dangerous in this regard as they function in brief spaces, ones which deliver particular messages without being burdened with any kind of cross-examination. In one sentence, the “hard-working plumber” – who perhaps conveniently looks like Jim from The Office – is able to deliver a message delegitimizing higher education – specifically the advancement of marginalized people – while simultaneously gesturing towards an idea that education itself does not serve the masses. It was also of particular interest to my step-father that it wasn’t a neighbor but his step-son who’s education would be partially subsidized.
The group chat I am in is quite diverse, all things considered. Made up of two men of color and four white men, there’s a marketing executive, a regional sales manager, a police officer, a scholar, a lawyer, and yes, even a plumber. The political positioning ranges from far left to center right, mostly aligned on “day-to-day issues,” but politics is often – and for perhaps obvious reasons – not discussed. Usually the conversations revolve around golf (amateur) and other sports (college and pro) – talks of who will coach State next, problems with the Lions defense, and the occasional weekend challenge. All of this discourse, however, happens as Meme Conversation; one meme is posted sharing the initial information, other memes are used to respond to it in some way or another, sprinkled with a light assortment of emojis and colloquial expressions.
A few days ago, one of the members of the group shared an Instagram post of a guy telling a joke. The speaker was a white man with long silver hair tied back – perhaps in his mid fifties – wearing an open-necked long sleeve shirt and what appeared to be an American flag bandana tied around his neck (imagine Terry Silver from Cobra Kai). The joke – “why did God invent yeast infections” explicitly calls women “irritated cunts,” but the overt misogyny is seemingly masked and made digestible because of how it exists.
Because the statement is made using the vehicle of a joke it becomes something naughty we can snicker at rather than something offensive which should be derided. It reminds of a sort of workaround one would have used to criticize the powers that be, the creation of Rameau’s Nephew as the mouthpiece of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, the person the man is telling a joke to off camera seems to be the person recording the video, and also seems to be a woman. Her acceptance of the man’s behavior, first by playfully answering “oh Jesus. Mike, really?” then by the uncontrolled laughter when the punchline is delivered acts as an unspoken assent on behalf of womankind. She laughs so heartedly that the camera shakes and the speaker becomes off-center, barely able to voice “you are such an asshole” in the most frisky way.
The sharing of the meme in my group chat was made possible because of all these factors. The information is delivered in an entertaining way by a speaker who is charismatic and aesthetically pleasing; the woman filming who wholeheartedly approves of the joke serves as a proxy for female acceptance of the message itself. Since the meme was not created by the person who shared it there is a sort of plausible deniability associated with it.
Like my step-father, it didn’t matter that each member of the group chat is married to a woman.
There is a danger in the memes we share without second thought. I’m not here to say that old is better and that the way in which we communicate invites bigger – or even new – problems. But there does seem to be an ease at which biases are now transmitted via the brief and effective vehicle that is the meme. The increased exposure to thousands and thousands of information packets throughout our daily lives makes even egregious messages ones which stay on our radars for only a moment, if that. How long do we care about someone advising to “grab ’em by the p****”? The answer is less than a year, considering that same person was elected – by men and women alike – to be the “leader of the free world.” The repetition of messaging, whether it is the chiding of queer studies or the amplification of sexist rhetoric, cannot simply be something we share mindlessly, no matter how funny the guy looking at the woman in a red dress may seem to be.