Our Memes Are Trying to Kill Us

It’s time to reflect on what we’re willing to do to join the online conversation

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

OOnline and offline culture have permeated one another. Whatever happens within our online networks now spills into our physical spaces, more frequently than ever. One of the most evident examples of this convergence has been our memes.

Never before have we witnessed online trends manifest themselves physically and gain traction at such ludicrous speeds. But while they can be shrugged off as fads, memes have always illustrated a culture and its collective values, and today’s are revealing a concerning degree of conformity worth unpacking.

Memeing fast and slow

There have always been ridiculous memes. While we used to just watch, enjoy, and forward memes like the iconic Dancing Baby, now we participate in them, like the recent Bottle Cap Challenge, which featured uploaders around the world spin-kicking a cap off a bottle. Today’s internet phenomena are increasingly behaving more like black holes — energetic, dense, and unpredictable forces of nature forcibly sucking in anything and everything around it.

Original internet memes like Bert Is Evil, Peanut Butter Jelly Time, Badgers, Charlie the Unicorn, Numa Numa, and Star Wars Kid, which preceded today’s social media platforms, acted as novelties on the outskirts of culture and now serve as monuments to early viral content. These benign sensations gently stitched together the web and its users. Traveling slowly via email or message boards, their existence was frail and childlike.

If Dancing Baby and Peanut Butter Jelly Time were the infancy of the popular social web, then we’re clearly now experiencing extended adolescence. Over the past decade, our memes have matured. We’re now living them out loud, playing games with the physical world and the people around us. The most renowned online phenomena of this decade are less often static images, videos, or animations and more frequently participatory exercises. Consider Kony 2012, the Ice Bucket Challenge, Diet Coke and Mentos, and Water Bottle Flipping. The ask or demand of these memes has intensified, seducing bystanders and hypnotizing many others to join.

The evolution explained

With the infrastructure of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine (RIP), and now TikTok set in place, the act of viewing, producing, and sharing has never been as routine. New sacred spaces like feeds have made exposure to memes nearly unavoidable. The proliferation or democratization of devices that allow everyone to record and upload instantaneously has also expanded the reach and speed of meme transmission. In other words, we’ve got the tech and networks to ignite memes faster than ever before.

With this progression, modern memes are therefore inviting personalized participation, allowing for socialization on a mass scale. Planking, Dabbing, Harlem Shaking, Nae Naeing, Running Manning, Ball Pit Jumping, Gallon Smashing, Pokémon Go Catching, Hot Pepper Eating, Kylie Jenner Lip Suctioning, and Mannequinning are all opportunities to document and upload oneself, bonding us over a shared experience while validating one’s own existence within a very large, seemingly infinite school lunch table.

We ultimately end up filming ourselves dropping a water balloon condom on our head.

When we post something online that either directly or indirectly invites others to participate, we’re amplifying the pressure and tendency for viewers to participate themselves. When a viewer eventually gives in, their post intensifies that magnetism for others to engage as well. That we call memes today “challenges” implies a forceful invitation.

When posed with the choice to follow or resist the trend, as beings evolutionarily trained to join the pack to survive, we ultimately end up filming ourselves dropping a water ballon condom on our head.

The dark side of conformity

But while dropping a water balloon condom on someone’s head may tiptoe close to the line of absurdism, snorting one certainly struts over it. Arguably, sure, not everyone is partaking. We’re strengthening bonds with co-participants, forming a sense of self, and entertaining one another, but what we’re exchanging for views is something much more sobering: autonomy.

By no means should we stop the fun, but we should at least begin to question it. Why are the gains of filming oneself biting an inedible hot pepper outweighing the pride of not doing so? And while participation may be exaggerated, a YouTube search reveals more uploads than should exist per absurd challenge.

In 1951, Yale psychologist Solomon Asch famously demonstrated the power of conformity when his research participants knowingly answered questions incorrectly just to comply with the group. While engaging in silly behavior and posting the antics online doesn’t always call into question one’s deeply held values, it’s worth noting how unbelievably quick many people are to join that group. No matter how irrational the ask becomes, there are still those who willingly participate.

Peer pressure is dangerous when it exists within a small, closed group, but when it involves larger networks of billions of people and a global stage, it can potentially be deadly.

The spawn of deadly memes

Memes like the Choking Game, Cinnamon Swallowing, Swatting (the act of calling in a bomb threat to a livestreamer), or Neck and Nominate (a game that encouraged young men to one-up each other’s drinking videos) have led to actual deaths. Those deaths haven’t made these dangerous challenges disappear. Instead, they’ve intensified over the years, especially recently.

Over the past couple years, Tide Pod Eating, Rooftopping, Condom Snorting, the Kiki Challenge (dancing outside a moving vehicle), the Bird Box Challenge (driving blindfolded), Eye Bleaching, Fan Grabbing (sticking a hand in a moving ceiling fan), and the Vacuum Challenge (sealing oneself in a trash bag) attracted participants, publications, and police. These challenges not only encouraged potentially fatal documented behavior but also made it clear that these senseless internet challenges are now a part of mainstream culture. Such memes are now so commonplace and violent that YouTube made an announcement banning dangerous pranks and challenges from its site.

In early 2019, the Momo Challenge, a hoax meme that supposedly instructed teenagers to kill themselves, took the headlines by storm. The idea that an internet challenge was directing teens to commit suicide sparked global hysteria. That the meme itself was fake didn’t seem to matter, because it was so conceivable.

Smash that pause button

While some of these viral sensations can be chalked up to media-driven moral panic, rather than the number of participants, the ideas and implied invitations still exist online. And so do impressionable teens.

If we are what we share, then we must actively determine what we’re becoming.

As participatory memes remain hypervisible, we must cautiously evaluate which ones we’d like to mindfully engage in, which we’d like to cautiously avoid, and which we should denounce in order to save lives. We’re witnessing peer pressure on the largest scale in human history, and our thirst for participation is eclipsing rationale and reason. If we are what we share, then we must actively determine what we’re becoming.

Will participating in these memes lead us down a rabbit hole toward dystopian groupthink? Probably not. But when we press the record button, we mindlessly surrender ourselves to the spell of online social conformity. Considering current susceptibility, we must also brace for what tomorrow’s challenge may be. When we knowingly embarrass ourselves or engage in behavior that would otherwise be irrational in isolation, we should question what it means that we’re more willing to engage if it’s on display for all to see.

Participatory memes have been productive — encouraging voter turnout, activism, or protest. But the black hole of meme submission also exists in extreme, violent, and even maniacal cases.

How far are we willing to go to conform? How absurd or radical can internet memes become? And do we have the wherewithal to resist the urge to be sucked into the next challenge for the sake of being a part of something?

I sure hope so.

Cultural Theorist + CyberPsychologist + Marketing Strategist. Zine.KleinKleinKlein.com

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