Mean Memes

What’s in a [meme]? That which we call [bullying]
By any other name would [seem as mean]

Memes have become the epitome of youth techno-culture; they are an accessible form of remediation that anyone can create. As Amelia Eqbal emphasized in her blog post, memes are inevitable and impossible to ignore. It is terrifying how instant technology has become; within seconds an image can be distributed to fingertips around the world – at this point it is too late to simply take it back. As Amelia said, in this age of digimodernity, anything “can flood the Internet without having been given a second thought.” Memes can serve as a way for our generation to interact with the past and alter the context of images, as the good-natured one to the right. While Renaissance paintings remediated into memes may not be considered blasphemy, where is the line drawn?

In the Independent News article “Real People Who Became Memes”, the use of photographs of ‘average’ people who have become memes is confronted: “One of the weirder things that can happen to someone is to become the basis of a meme. A photograph of that person is taken out of context, remade and repurposed into something else, and a novel’s worth of captions rewrite who that person is, and what he or she is like.” So, where does meme culture draw the line? Can a line even be drawn virtually when the image is instantly shared with thousands? If Jesus becoming a toilet-talk meme isn’t considered too far, is there a limit?

There are whole communities devoted to memes – online website domains such as www.memes.com, hundreds of Facebook and Instagram pages, and even Twitter accounts impersonating the people behind the memes – as if they are fictional characters. Amelia noted that memes are for youth “to express themselves and to critically analyze their world in a relatively safe way…. after all, it’s just for fun.” While they can serve as a critical analysis on a subject, it’s important to realize who is having the fun. Jesus may not be worrying about his appearance in memes, nor are “Jobama” memes leaving Barack Obama crying into his pillow at night. But what about the memes that are created from (sometimes even non-consensual) photographs of ‘average’ people? Even the slogans of popular memes are recognizable to youth today: from Good Guy Greg, Bad Luck Brian, Overly Attached Girlfriend, and the ERMAHGERD girl. The only party ‘having fun’ with these memes is us – the audience. Imagine your face on the next meme that sweeps the internet. When a friend takes an embarrassing picture of you, initially you may find it funny… but if that photo becomes saved on smartphones around the world, with captions and edits you have no control over, who’s laughing now?

Maybe it would help to put this into context.

Do you recognize this boy?

How about now?

As you may be aware of, this is 16-year-old Alex. He was an ‘average’ teenager working part time at Target, until someone took a photo of him and posted it on Twitter. Within hours he had unknowingly become internet famous; during that same shift his Twitter account went from 144 followers to over 100,000. However, behind the scenes Alex was left to deal with unwanted attention: “Within minutes, the image seemed to explode on the internet. Soon a meme was born and the hashtag #alexfromtarget became a trending topic. Yet the dark side of this marvel, including death threats against him and his family, would not become clear for several days to come” (New York Times). Alex soon began attracting attention at work. Girls would come into Target shrieking his name, and trying to take selfies during his shifts. It caused such a distraction that he had to stop working at the cash register and move into the back stockroom. In the article from New York Times, “Alex says he can barely go outside for fear of being accosted. ‘I’ve been in the house the entire time,’ he said. ‘I’m kind of scared to go in public’…. There have even been dozens of death threats on social media and in private messages (Alex from target, I’ll find you and I will kill you). Alex’s father “said that in addition to death threats, people have leaked the family’s personal information online, including Social Security numbers, bank accounts and phone records.”

So, I’ll ask again, where is the line drawn? Are you still laughing?

Sources

Ohlheiser, Abby. “The Story of Five Real People Who Became Memes.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 17 Oct. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Bilton, Nick. “Alex From Target: The Other Side of Fame.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

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