The Problem with Memes

Could the powerful (and often hilarious) overlay of text on photos be cultivating a culture of cynicism?

In the early 1990s, Neil Postman – an American writer and media critic – pointed out the problem with pictures. He said that images short-circuit our ability to separate truth from lies, because “true” and “false” don’t apply to pictures. If you see an advertisement of a happy family eating at McDonald’s, for example, is that “true”? It’s probably not – because photos like that are always staged –  but the question itself doesn’t seem to make sense. We don’t think of images that way – they just “are.”

Because of this, Postman said that modern advertising is a world “outside of logic.” He felt that people needed to be better equipped to judge the truth or falsehood of carefully crafted and manipulative imagery –  something he called a “defense against the seduction of eloquence.”

Since then, of course, our exposure to images has increased a millionfold. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and all the other online sources that we carry around in our pockets are based on images. We haven’t developed any defenses against the seductions of eloquence – in fact, we’ve become willing participants. Every time you slap a filter on a selfie or crop a picture of your meal, you’re producing a false image.

And those are just the everyday, innocent falsehoods. If I use a filter to improve the lighting around my dog to make her look even cuter than she is, that doesn’t really harm anyone. And even if I use photoshop to make my chin look a little stronger or smooth out a few wrinkles – I’m not really hurting anyone. Arguably, I’m only fooling myself – a bit like sucking in your gut when you walk past a mirror.

The far more dangerous image-based lies are memes.

Ironic culture
Even if you don’t know the term, you’ve seen internet memes. They’re pictures of a person or an animal with some kind of witty caption, spread virally from user to user. Some of the first internet memes were LOLcats – pictures of cats with nonsensical and funny text. As the internet evolved – and especially as Facebook grew – memes turned from harmless fun to something a lot more serious. Ironic memes with a political message began to spread and, with them, a kind of helplessness and skepticism took hold as those pictures – which exist in a place logic can’t reach – started to short-circuit our ability to tell truth from lies. I have come to believe memes are a dangerous and crippling kind of virus – spread from person to person across social media platforms – that make us cynical and immune to important issues.

In 2012, Christy Wampole wrote an essay describing how American life is so completely saturated with irony that we hardly know how to be sincere anymore. She wrote: “Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions. But our contemporary ironic mode is somehow deeper; it has leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself.”

As Sarah Horgan points out, memes are a big part of that ironic culture. She says “a meme typically conveys an overt and simplified point, usually via appeal to the viewer’s emotions. Therefore a meme tends to oversimplify the reality it represents, like a flat photocopy of a three-dimensional object. It is like an ink-stamp on your skin: it deposits a single, thin layer of colour that doesn’t go deep and doesn’t stay long.”

Think of the difference between the way a four-year-old looks at the world – with wonder and amazement and excitement. Now consider the way teenagers look at the world – with a kind of slouching world-weariness and ironic detachment.

It’s always been that way, of course – but feeding kids a steady diet of images that are purposely designed to short-circuit our ability to think logically – or spiritually – doesn’t help. Flattening complex and beautiful realities into an image, taking important ideas and reducing them to an ironic joke, or hurling cheap political shots at each other in meme form, ultimately hurts our souls.

And we need defenses against that.

  • Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

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