I often wonder what my generation will be remembered for. There will be the great achievements and the trivial tropes, as there has always been with every previous generation. Perhaps the most significant mark the Millennials (or Xennials as one New Zealand sociologist has named those both between 1977 and 1983) is social media. Of course the internet and World Wide Web are gifts from the generation above us but we’ve taken it and run with it giving the globe access to bad jokes, portmanteaus and memes.
Memes are wonderful things at times. In the wake of any world event some genius with a smart phone pulls a captioned photo or ingenious word play out of the bag and draws us a few millimetres closer together. I find myself as that weird guy laughing on a train, all too often from a meme that someone has shared. Recently though, they seem to have taken a nastier turn.
I think I first noticed when a few memes of the phrase, ‘tag her/his boyfriend/girlfriend’ appeared on my Facebook timeline. These words were captioning a photo of a person whom the original poster (OP for the savvy) deemed unattractive. Thousands of shares, tags and likes later the OP had had their hoped for moment in the sun.
Then I noticed other similar memes, ‘Me at the wedding buffet’ accompanying a child suffering with extropia. There is the wholesale mocking of those who can’t spell, or are poorly educated because their statuses are grammatically incorrect. Others include people dancing and being recorded without their knowledge with tags like, ‘me dancing ten drinks in.’ The meme that got to me the most is that of a man recovering from addiction issues, having lost everything and being recorded for the US tv show Intervention, letting out the wrenching and pained cry of a broken heart – this is accompanied by things like, ‘me when the popcorn is finished’ or something equally as trivial.
I’ve laughed at memes, I have laughed at those similar to these, I am guilty and not innocent, but it’s time that I stop. We have created the memeing of humanity and I’m convinced it is causing widespread personal trauma. It is one thing to laugh at a well edited frame from a TV show with a clever moment-relevant caption. It is one thing to laugh at a reality tv clip placed into a different context. Celebrity photo shoots recast as something different can be hilarious too. But the widespread mockery of everyday people for their appearance or education or mistakes is something entirely different.
I often wonder what happens to the hearts of the people who are the ‘ugly boyfriend/girlfriend’ meme. I know I would crumble and potentially never recover. What happens to the parent whose son is the wedding buffet meme as their son becomes an object of ridicule? Or the person who cannot spell correctly due to their dyslexia or poor education but whose engagement with the world is ridiculed by strangers; what happens to them? Or the recovering addict, whose pain was so evident, who we share and recast to our taste, his shame has become our humour, what becomes of him?
Has the internet made us mean? Has the ability to share or retweet what is essentially the humiliation of another packaged as lighthearted joking made us numb to the consequences in the lives of strangers. I’m sure social media has caused many of us to write cruel things to one another that we’d never say to someone’s face, check every political post for evidence, but I think I also think the instant, disposable forms of online humour have detached us from the reality of what can happen to the subject of a joke.
We are memeing people, not just their facial expressions or their body types. We are memeing their humanity for our entertainment and I am sure it is devastating to their lives. I know that posts like this make me a luvvie, social justice warrior, snowflake or virtue signaller but I’m more than willing to wear those labels. Can we do better? Can we celebrate one another? Can we laugh together at the hilarity in the world that doesn’t destroy the human dignity of others?
I’m sorry that I’ve not been good at this in the past but I want to be better. My Christian faith speaks of all of humanity being created in the image of God and yet I have laughed along at those who carry that same image as me being undermined and humiliated. I have got to change; thus just isn’t right.
We have so much we can laugh at without resorting to this. The world is full of funny things. Feel free to reply with some memes, just try to make sure they aren’t degrading strangers for quick laughs.
(That’s me in the photo by the way – teenaging was confusing and difficult.)