The Problem with Memes

By Michael

Do not make or share political memes.

Doing so is not mentally hygienic—indeed, our mental health depends on our ability to recognize when and how we are manipulated, by ideas we oppose and especially by ideas we support. There may be some exceptions, but I will not veil the thrust of this post: I think we should change our collective behavior and I have some compelling reasons to back up this argument. I’ll briefly introduce the terms—what I mean by a meme, what I don’t mean by a meme. From there I’ll bring as many rational reasons to the table as I can to convince my friends and readers that memes, in this meaning, are toxic and best avoided.

When I say meme, I mean an image with blocky, sanserif text on the top and bottom, often white text over some representative photograph. Here is a gallery of relatively innocent, funny, entertaining memes. These are not the problem.

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A technical term for this subset of memes is ‘image macro.’ The process of making these image macros became automated and free with the launching of websites like MemeGenerator [.net] and its clones (e.g., makeameme.org). Many memes began life on the far corners of the internet removed from social media, websites like Reddit and 4Chan. But, in the previous year or so, political memes have become more and more popular. People are creating memes specifically for spreading over Facebook, Instagram, and other photo-sharing social media platforms. The basic idea of a meme is not that old – Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and atheist activist, coined the word to have some way to refer to a unit of cultural production analogous to genetic material. Successful memes go through a process of variation, mutation, competition, and reproduction akin to viruses, bacteria, and complex life. Unsuccessful memes go extinct.

Thought Germs

In this vein, I think anyone that set aside a moment to read this blogpost would benefit even more from setting aside seven more minutes to watch the video below: “This Video Will Make You Angry.” It will not actually anger you. Instead, it explains how memes and videos can be better understand as “thought germs.” The most important sentence in the video reads: “Just as germs exploit weak points in your immune system, thought-germs exploit weak points in your brain, aka emotions.” The video creator CGP Grey has an excellent matter-of-fact narration that clarifies this theory and its many branching conclusions. The other take-away from his video is that “Being aware of your brain’s weak spots is necessary for good mental health, like knowing how to wash your hands [to fight germs].”

On to the issue of political memes, there are several issues I want to bring up. We will consider their creators, their target audience, their apparent goals, and the consequences of their continued existence. I want to move beyond the simple arguments like the kind found in this article from the Duke Chronicle listing their pros and cons. If I were to edit that article, I would point out to the author that most of the points listed as pros could easily be recast as cons. One can find many articles defending memes, arguing instead that “people uses these forms for political expression.” I would counter that political expression is not equivalent to conversation—burning a book is an expression and not the equivalent of reading it or arguing that it should not be read. Sharing a meme is like burning a book because posting such images expresses a political position without the possibility of constructive discussion.

Communication

Conversation and communication are the most important tools for a good life among other human beings. If we fail to explain what we want, we are not likely to get it. We are never free of the need to articulate ourselves. No one can read your mind—and even if they could, you cannot read theirs. In computer programming terms, there is no language that will free you from having to articulate what, exactly, you want to do. The same is true in life – people who fail to communicate their ideas are trapped either doing everything themselves, or doing without.

Here I have gathered a gallery of memes which we can separate into “leftist” or “rightist,” except perhaps for those that suggest both parties are full of idiots.

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We need to discuss, to talk, to argue, and give each other the respect owed to any human being. There are those that are violent, that will threaten us, that are not interested in conversation — there is no denying that. But they do not outnumber us, nor are their numbers specific to any one side of the debate. This does not mean opening ourselves up to abuse, but it does mean making ourselves vulnerable to challenge, to having our ideas and biases laid bare.

These memes are much more likely to anger than to convince. So many of them put a picture that is engineered to lay border-fences between groups: the liberal ones feature liberal celebrities distrusted by the right, and the conservative ones similarly post pictures engineered to incite fear or distrust by the left. If my aunt or cousin or friend has an idea shared by someone I already distrust that is one thing: they are still they themselves. Why not put something in your own words, instead of using a celebrity whose fame stems exactly from their divisive nature? For example, I am uncomfortable with some of the things Bill Maher has said — he is unapologetically anti-Islam and distrustful of religion. I know he, like me, has some left-of-center ideas, so I will listen to him some of the time. But for people on the right, he is a rage-inducing talking-head.

Similarly, the pictures we see are chosen for specific poses. Trump is a godsend because of his incredibly mobile face — he can look calm and compassionate in right-leaning memes and like six kinds of clown-faces in left-leaning memes.

Bumper Stickers

Bumper stickers were memes before there were memes. They crystallized political, religious, and sociological tenets into a space measuring less than four inches by fifteen. The nicest, most charitable description of bumper stickers is that they allowed the owner of the car to communicate some basic message. More than that, however, they set boundaries. Imagine two connected, controversial viewpoints, that we will call X and Y. They could be abortion rights (X) and the sticky issue of when a human (soul) becomes worthy of consideration and gets its own recognition from the state (Y). They could be federal supreme court appointments (X) and the issue of whether or not supreme court justices should be life-long positions (Y). If I saw X bumper sticker on your car, I might assume it would be unwise to bring up Y in conversation with you… which is counter-productive, since in reality you would most likely enjoy a conversation on Y. You are probably versed in its arguments and reasons, considering how much they know about X and how it relates to its opposite, Y. You care about X, which means you probably care just as deeply about Y.

On a car, I think, you can argue a bumper sticker is okay because we cannot talk between cars, between strangers. The only chance I have of expressing myself in the anonymous crowd of bystanders and other drivers is to write some big text on my car’s backside… or put up my own do-it-yourself billboard, as many in rural areas adjoining interstates do.

Facebook (and other social media platforms) have ZERO need of bumper stickers. The whole point is to communicate with each other. Rather than using the memes generated by strangers to communicate with our actual friends (and Facebook friends), we should use our own words. Instead of letting someone else put these ideas and feelings into action, we should own our beliefs ourselves. I do not care if you got your ideas from that book or that actor or even that meme — but tell me yourself.

Money and Click-bait

If the importance of communication and argument is not convincing, consider the fact that by sharing memes we allow others to make money off our inability to articulately our own beliefs. The road to fortune is littered with the burnt-out shells of countless people struggling to turn meme-creativity into money… but the model is there. One can find “howtos” and write-ups explaining how current millionaires made their money by crafting Lolcats and UMadBros. At its most simple, content-producing sites make money by selling as much advertising as they can fit on the screen. Many of these sites have Facebook pages and legions of subsidiary Facebook pages (both business and personal) — all of them producing, sharing, and cultivating streams of memes. Clicking on them will take you to their last sharer, and within one to three clicks you are on someone’s business page, reading drivel while your page-click has made someone $0.03. It might not sound like much, but this is the model that drives Click Bait…

And Click Bait is probably a more serious problem than memes… but it has been so well covered over the last few years, there is little I can add to the conversation. I wrote this post because I have seen political memes increase on both sides of the proverbial aisle on my Facebook feed and thought I might convince some people that they are doing themselves and our society a real disservice by sharing such memes.

Published by

Michael Hancock-Parmer

PhD, 2017 History & Central Eurasian Studies Indiana University Bloomington