Our Memes Are Trying to Kill Us
It’s time to reflect on what we’re willing to do to join the online conversation
Online 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.