What do Pepe the Frog, WallStreetBets and the state of democracy have in common? Meme culture. You heard a whole lot about the “meme stock mania” last week (but did you hear that Jaime Rogozinski, the WallStreetBets subreddit’s founder, just sold his life story to RatPac Entertainment?). You may not have heard of Pepe the Frog until “he” became a meme tweeted by Donald Trumps Sr. and Jr. in 2015. Now Pepe’s the subject of the important documentary about Internet culture and meme politics Feels Good Man.
Whatever we think about meme stocks and meme politics, they’re part of the media environment in which our children are growing up and likely participating. It’s quite possible they don’t find all this as unsettling or chaotic as we do — because they don’t know what life, politics, institutions, popular culture, etc. were like before they were being gamified.
And that’s what we’re zooming in on, here. It’s important to consider what these meme-ified events are telling us about our time, as we start to emerge from the pandemic, as Americans start to experience a very different government, as young Internet users get to see what adults say about their digital rights, as people all over the world are protesting against authoritarians and as governments worldwide struggle more than ever to regulate the Internet.
Memes aren’t only graphics or cultural symbols spread on the Internet. The visual piece is huge — especially with our children — but a meme is powerful off the Internet. It’s a cultural symbol plus the people who adopt it plus a moment in time. Both the documentary and last week’s “short squeeze” illustrate that convergence perfectly. Sometimes a meme + timing give the adopter-spreaders power — at the very least there’s a contagious sense of power. Painfully for Pepe’s creator, cartoonist Matt Furie, the Pepe meme definitely gave its 4chan adopters power — some believe the power to help elect Donald Trump.
Two of the most insightful media sources I found in sifting through all that happened last week and last election were an in-depth interview with the filmmakers of Feels Good Man and a Vox interview mentioned in an article last week by Kevin Roose at the New York Times. Both Vox and the Times refer to a prescient book about our time by former CIA analyst Martin Gurri, who argued that “the digital revolution would transform the information space and empower the public to participate more and more [and would also] … create an impulse to revolt against the dominant institutions of society — government, media, the academy, etc. — and the elites who run them,” Vox’s Sean Illing wrote in the intro to his interview with Gurri. Now we can add “financial markets” to the list between those dashes. [I can only scratch the surface, here, so check these conversations out.]
Memes representing a challenge to “the dominant institutions of society”—so how does that work? Here are some insights I gleaned from those sources:
All a “game”: Picture people in a forum (WallStreetBets, 4chan, Discord, a game, whatever) one-upping each other, whether in stock buys or the edgiest, sometimes most depraved comments or memes. Reporters/commentators refer to (possibly invent) various kinds of “opponents”: Silicon Valley vs. Wall Street, retail investors vs. the hedge fund guys/short-sellers, 4chan vs. the “normies” (see Feels Good Man for that last one), etc. If it’s a “game,” the players are bringing reality into the game as much as the other way around, and the players make the rules. “You start repeating these jokes, and people start believing them,” filmmaker Arthur Jones said. Whoa, there’s a certain irony to GameStop going viral last week (the word, not the stock price ;). Also, if it’s “just a game” or “just a joke,” you have….
Plausible deniability: Whether you’re the (self-perceived) “little guy” (retail investor, gamer, memer) or a politician riding on the little guys’ coattails, you’re Teflon — nothing can stick to you because “it’s just a joke.” “The culture of these boards is really shrouded in irony — irony poisonings they call it,” filmmaker Giorgio Angelini said. And in another New York Times piece on GameStop, John Herrman writes, “To always seem like you might be joking, well beyond the point at which you should be taken seriously, is to guard yourself against accurate interpretation and evaluation.”
“Magic”/conspiracies: “Meme magic” or “chaos magic” is about using art (e.g., symbols such as Pepe the Frog), will power, group think to affect reality in a “positive” way — positive for the participants, anyway. That’s the creepy part, but here’s what’s insightful for our time: *Feels Good Man* has an occult expert, John Michael Greer, on screen talking about how “magic has always been the politics of the unheard.” Throughout recorded history, it has been popular in “communities where people feel like they don’t have any agency in the world” — e.g., in feudal times, slave cultures, colonial societies. It “gives them hope,” Greer said. In thinking about the relationship between agency and hope, parents and educators might then think about the importance of allowing our children agency, or at least not doubling down on surveillance (monitoring) and control (“parental controls”) — a perspective derived from the work of Profs. Amanda Third, Philippa Collin, Lucas Walsh and Maggie Brennan at universities in Australia, Nathan Fisk at University of South Florida and Nathan Schneider at University of Colorado, Boulder.
Left out: The mindset of the self-perceived “little guys” pitting themselves against “the man” (the short sellers, the people in the know, the “bully”) is one of aggrievement for being left out or behind (or victimized by the system) and therefore entitlement — perhaps entitled to do harm. Even if they’re helping a bully, they’re *their* bully; maybe they’re bucking what the little guys perceive as the system that holds the little guys down, left out of the national conversation or just sees them as down and out (“NEET”).
Side effects in RL: “Memes have a way of democratizing political media,” said filmmaker Arthur Jones. He was referring to heads of state retweeting tweets from perceived “nobodies,” making the latter (or at least their screen names) famous. Good and bad, right? The “little guy” gets seen, peers join the one-up game, the competition grows, sometimes lives, livelihoods, institutions get trampled in the process. “But it’s just a game” — both players and politicians get plausible deniability while playing for different reasons, from playing a game to gaming the system to outright destruction.
Internet fiction => real life: “The Internet fiction meets real life and then becomes the reality,” said filmmaker Giorgio Angelini at about 45:00 into the interview. Reality steered by the disaffected, the disenfranchised. “Politics ceases to be about competing for votes through ideas and becomes about trolling,” he said, referring to a particular moment in the 2016 presidential campaign, “trolling, it turns out, as an incredibly powerful tool to coalesce movements.” It’s a scary reference to nihilism, the concern author Martin Gurrie shares with Vox’s Sean Illing: “where everyone knows what they’re against and no one knows what they’re for. We need to keep in mind — and support — all the young activists to who definitely know what they’re for, from social justice to addressing climate change.
Social media’s role: We need to parse this carefully. For young people feeling cut off by the pandemic, it’s a source of connection and way to reach care; for young activists it’s a tool of mobilization, as well as a crucible for learning from mistakes and testing ideas on peers. Yes, one way to look at it is the Internet as having “incentivized bad faith operators and put them in charge of our world,” as Angelini put it, but we can’t only look at it one way. The Internet has incentivized and become a tool for good faith actors as well, including our children. “The platforms need to start thinking of themselves as like a public utility,” Jones said, with diverse representation on their boards. I absolutely agree about the diversity, and geographical diversity as well. “Including ethicists,” he said — yes, most definitely. These global companies have people from many countries on advisory boards and Facebook the Oversight Board it launched, but their Boards of Directors must represent multiple countries as well — for the very reason Jones cites: “This stuff is wreaking a different kind of chaos in the Global South,” as he juxtaposed Silicon Valley culture with vastly different ones on other continents. There are many parts to the prescription for a better media environment. Watch this space.
Meanwhile, though it’s easy to forget in the middle of a techlash, the challenges we find in meme culture are not just media-based. It’s unhelpful to blame media. To what degree is media causative and what degree reflective of what’s happening in society? How much of it is positive and how much negative? I suggest we don’t know yet, on either count, but it’s good to be asking those questions. We’re collectively moving out of the previous, hierarchical Industrial Age, with the information monopoly the systems of that time required, author Martin Gurri told Vox. I’m seeing that too, so I’ll cite him and let you find counterarguments (you won’t have to look hard). He’s not arguing that we don’t need some hierarchy; it’s that a top-down form of governance doesn’t reflect today’s networked, neural, more lateral reality, where information is limitless and hard to control (except by governments that we may not want to emulate). Governments, too, are creatures of the last age and not designed to solve the problems of the new one, Gurri says. Whether or not you agree, our children will be wrestling with this.
So what to do now? Short answer: We don’t know yet. It’s going to take time, the airing of ideas from a lot of people with many skill sets and perspectives representing many cultures and countries to figure it out. “In order for a lot of this stuff to change, we have to realize that some of the economic underpinnings of our culture have to shift and change [perhaps he’s referring to those who’ve felt left out, left behind], and that’s going to be a slow and kind of painful process…. This is not going to be a couple of social media platforms changing their flagging of truth or conspiracy, it’s going to require a series of smaller, very intentional decisions made over a long period of time by a bigger group of voices.”
Anne Collier is founder and executive director of The Net Safety Collaborative, a US-based nonprofit organization. She has been writing about youth and digital media at NetFamilyNews.org since before there were blogs (1997) and advising tech companies since 2009 (full-length bio here).