This weekend I spent three days completing a game with five other people, but another person from my class did the same thing and also blogged about it so I’ll let the post about my experience simmer a bit longer before I post about it here. You can check out Elias’s blog about his experience here: https://eliasblogorg.wordpress.com/.
What I want to a talk about this time is something I eluded to in an earlier post, memes.
The Wikipedia page on memes has very eloquent and well formulated definition.
“A meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture … A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.”
While the idea of memes is far from new, the popularity of the world wide web has made the term highly relevant in our everyday lives. Codes of conduct manifests in the forms of memes, filter bubbles expect certain reactions which to a wider audience would seem random or carry little to no information. For anyone new to the twitch chat, Kappa might just be one of a thousand silly faces, but in the community, it’s prescribed meaning. Any statement containing the Kappa emoji is sarcastic or in some way over the top. Complex issues can be treated in a light-hearted manner by captioning your thoughts over a picture of a penguin.
In older times memes were harder to transmit. One of my favourites is the story of Martin Luther and the anabaptists. Luther as you might know proclaimed his dissatisfaction in the way the Catholic church handled its affairs. He also proposed the radical idea that the bible should be translated from Latin to German so that everyone, not just the priests, could read the holy word of God. While this was not a new idea, plenty of people argued against the church before Luther (and were killed off), but Luther had one tool available to him that the ones who came before had not. The printing press. He could share and spread his ideas to more than the people living in the same town. Sermons and arguments where printed and distributed among the populous and even if the church had gotten to him, they were powerless to stop the printing of his heretic ideals. One of the results of this spread where the creation of a radical version of Protestantism/Lutherism, the anabaptists.
This religious group was built around another idea Luther had thrown about, that the everyday man could not only read, but understand the bible in their own way. Through debates and a pinch of the expected religious spirit this was interpreted that anyone could be a prophet which in turn ended up with one of my favourite moments in history where about ten thousand poor people took over a city, made it a pseudo communistic city state which promptly descended into a burning mess. For anyone interested in reading more about the topic I urge you to listen to Hardcore History’s “prophets of doom” episode or just reading the Wikipedia article.
In both the instance of the awkward penguin meme and the teachings of Martin Luther we find complex ideas and thoughts represented in a much simple from. By boiling down ideas to the core they have gained the ability of being shared much faster than the whole truth. Nearly every instance of education does this and for good reason. Trying to explain calculus all at once would be an impossible task, but by cutting it down into manageable bits we can over time paint a picture of the whole. The problem is in the “over time” part. If you where do drop out in the fourth grade, your view of what calculus is will be extremely incomplete and in many ways wrong. If you’ve only had depression and social angst explained to you in two sentences a pop, you’ll have a very naïve view indeed.
So, what happens when our form of communication more and more resembles memes? When most of our impressions and understandings of a subject comes from Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, blogs and 4chan? Where most debates happen in a filter bubble or in anonymous discussions where the participants are ever changing and there is no possibility of creating a lasting vocabulary understood and agreed upon by both sides. I’m far from having any academic understanding of these implications, but instead I have subjective observations which I can build a case on. Not a strong case, but maybe something to build upon later.
This quick pace and aimless discussion style invites the use of the “us or they” mentality. Either you’re a feminist or your one of “them”. Wither you’ve swallowed the red pill or you are part of “them”. You agree, or you are one of “them”. By splitting any debate into us or them you paint a black and white world view. Any question becomes a Boolean result of true or false. Fact or fake news. By having this mentality, groups are invited to prove the other side wrong instead of proving yourself right.
I have myself done this plenty of times and I still do. Certain ideas or ideals are cemented in my mind as undisputed truths which I’ll never let go. I have however, tried to be more critical of my “simple fact”, but as neuroscience has shown us, evaluating the brain using the brain is damned difficult. Compound on top of this the social pressure of not going against your “gang” and introspection ends up being a lofty goal. You can see this social pressure to conform to an idea everywhere. Feminist disagreeing and falling out over the topic of “are we using #metoo to much?” or the alt rights “is it okay to be gay if you don’t show it?”. One missed step or poorly phrased thought can leave you shunned from your community.
#HasJustineLandedYet is a digital artefact which haunts me every time I act in public. Jon Ronson has an excellent ted talk about the vindictive and pleasurable experience it is to tear someone down. How one person can become a meme in themselves. The talk capsulate how Justine Sacco went from a nobody to the embodiment of white privilege and how Twitter went about solving the issue. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAIP6fI0NAI&t
There are many conclusions that can be drawn from my musings. The easiest might be that social media makes us dumber and we should all go back to our Nokia 3310, but might that not be to simple a solution to a complex problem? Maybe if the problem was as simple as our bit sized understanding of it, but sadly I don’t think it is. Maybe we just have to do the same as we do with so many other complex problems. Try to educate one another and ourselves. By keeping in mind who we can hurt and how we blind ourselves. If we consider that the scumbag Steve meme is a picture of an actual person before we share it, maybe we’ll find ourselves in situation a tiny bit better than we find today.