Decades ago, Neil Postman – an American media and cultural critic – said that images short-circuit our ability to separate truth and falsehood. “True” or “False” are not easily discernable with images because the mental presumption is that what we see is truth. Otherwise, how would there be an image? If you see an advertisement featuring fit people eating fast food, is the ad True or False? It is certainly true that many fit people eat fast food from time to time. But it is not true that being fit is associated with fast-food, or that fit people are the majority of patrons to fast-food restaurants, or that fit people routinely eat fast-food. Thus, modern advertising exists in a space beyond logical thought, short-circuiting our ability to parse the signals from the noise.
Technology and creativity only aggravated this problem as pictures were overlaid with witty text to further political and cultural objectives. Memes. I’d be lying if I said my phone wasn’t full of them. But it’s becoming increasingly evident that memes sit as a potentially toxic replacement for productive conversation in the public square. In the last twelve years, memes have taken center stage across all media platforms. We’re exposed to hundreds of memes every week. They crowd our feeds and steadily shorten our attention span.
Simultaneously, a distorted ironic culture has developed that doesn’t value real-world accomplishment. Rather, it seeks to suppress and belittle anyone who dares to step into the arena. Dares to put forth an original idea. Dares to create. Anyone who has scrolled through the vitriol anonymous strangers hurl at public figures knows this to be the case.
Large pockets of society have completely retreated from in-person connection into dimly lit basements and studio apartments. This culture thrives in anonymous online spaces, where no one’s reputation can be held socially accountable. No one is put in their proper place on the competence hierarchy. And anyone can be who they lie to themselves about being.
We’ve created a place where instead of people striving towards goals of objective accomplishment, you can pretend that you add value to the world and still get your small dopamine hit. In this space, there is no will towards self-betterment, because there is no need for self-betterment. You’re not a person, operating in a physical world. Your reputation doesn’t follow you as either an asset or a liability.
You’re an avatar. A projection without substance.
Nothing encapsulates this disturbing illusion as much as ironic meme culture. In these anonymous and semi-anonymous spaces, endless political memes are shared back and forth, distorting the reality of their purveyors. Memes don’t do anything. They don’t influence anyone. They don’t change minds. They don’t require you to be well-versed on an issue. They are unserious and the political weapon of choice for unserious people.
Typically, memes are an oversimplification of complex issues. They are rough 2-D representations of a nuanced world. Their strength comes from their portability and adaptability. Like viruses, they are easily transmissible due to their ability to convey an idea while requiring minimal mental bandwidth. And like viruses, they evolve and transform to become more effective.
One of the most troubling aspects of memes, yet least recognized, is their tendency to foster hopelessness and nihilism, self-destructive character traits that erode communities. They create and promote an ironic detachment from society that says, “I can’t change anything so I’ll just launch poison arrows into an already turbulent world.”
As I said, I share memes with people privately all the time. They’re funny (As I write this, the “Twisted Tea” memes have taken on a life of their own). They are, and continue to be, an outlet for creativity and humor. But what is the balance? Personally, I make a conscious effort not to share political or cultural memes publicly. This is because they are devoid of substance and nuance and I don’t want to become devoid of substance and nuance by extension. They often don’t add to conversation, but detract. A steady diet of memes (particularly political memes) turns the realities and complexities of existence into an ironic joke.
We should instead seek more comprehensive conversation and work to articulate ideas coherently. This serves multiple purposes:
First, it is an effective exercise in self-development that hones an individual’s ability to think.
Second, it empowers individuals to have a voice and believe in their own efficacy as a force for positive change in the world.
And finally, it expands conversation to the level of robustness that the issues of our time demand.
Passionate conversation is fundamental. But I fear the weaponization of passions threatens to tear society apart and leave us all in a state of lonely depression. Memes can be effective and even enjoyable in proper doses and context. But we must endeavor to develop our ability to engage more meaningfully in an increasingly charged world.