Memes: Why So Popular?

What is it about Memes? Am I missing out?

A meme that won't bite. There is a picture of two wirefox terriers side by side. One has a horrible haircut and one is groomed. Is your dog groomer qualified?
A meme that won’t bite!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I don’t usually browse much online but during the quarantine, I was scrolling on Instagram and came across your site. There was a picture of a sign-board, and a meme you called the ‘me me.’ It seemed like a big joke, but not to me. My 12 year old preteen and her friends talk about memes all the time. Can you explain memes please and let me in on the joke! Lea, Belvedere

Dear Lea: Without sounding like a communications PhD, the word meme comes from Greek mimema, signifying something which is imaged. Memes have a tendency, like the times we live in, to go viral. Memes are pieces of cultural information that pass along from person to person, but gradually scale into a shared social phenomenon.

When people like you and me post on social media we are neither professional journalists nor story tellers. We need to create content that is simple, entertaining, and attention grabbing. And, the words and graphics need to be bite-sized, like our smartphones. Once we post, there are few social constraints: sometimes we don’t know, and sometimes we don’t care if the content is offensive or misinterpreted.

Inside Jokes?

During an earlier time of TV and newspapers, content was transmitted from ONE (the media corporation) to MANY (the public). The Internet flips that equation. There is a price for that: content is now fast, free and uncensored. Think of it like playing an old-fashioned game of ‘telephone’; the original message morphs over time and through different oral speakers, often in funny ways.

For most teens, memes are probably a safe way to share ‘inside’ jokes. They are old enough to separate meme- talk from real-talk. This is important because a lot of content does seem to me to condone aggression, bullying, taking drugs and alcohol, or being a smart-aleck.

What if we believe them?

I have two worries: one is that younger children who are not old enough to comprehend the subtlety will come to view the adult-world with cynicism and disrespect. Take, for example, the bizarro memes about Bert and Ernie. Today’s kids don’t watch Sesame Street so they just see puppet figures talking trash. On a broader level, I worry that the content treadmill will spiral even more outlandish, off-color memes in order to grab our increasingly jaded attention.

Like a virus that spreads without vaccines, there are limits to what you can do as a parent right now, except limit your kid’s exposure (i.e. time on the Internet). Perhaps ask your preteen to help you create a meme (disclaimer: this is not a recommendation for the site, just an example). Once your meme is posted, follow it with your daughter to see how often that message is remixed and shared. It may be one of the few things to enjoy that goes viral these days.

How Will Teens Study From Home?

During the Corina Virus ISPs are waiving fees for data plans. This block text from Comcast describes the offering. The link goes to a site called

Dear Ms. Smartphone: For the rest of this school year my son (grade 11) will take high-school classes at home via computer. We live in an urban area, and while we don’t have the same issues as another nearby public school, we worry about the inequities. Many of my son’s friends are on teams at that other school, and these kids (used to) hang out at my house. Of course, everyone is at home now.  I worry that these kids will fall behind if they cannot get online and complete the school year like we can. Dionne, Albany

Dear Dionne: School districts everywhere are having a difficult transition. It is not just about changing the curriculum from classroom to digital instruction so that students cover the requisite material and graduate on time.  It is also about maintaining cybersecurity and student privacy, and, as you intuit, providing each student with digital access and electronic devices. 

Internet for All:

At the beginning of the Internet (The Information Super Highway) there was concern over the digital divide: would the less privileged fall behind?  Two things turned the tables (maybe more too). The ability to access the internet jumped from computers to smartphones. For nearly a decade anyone with an inexpensive smartphone and WiFi has access to the full Internet: e.g. job searches, tutorials, Wikipedia, maps, etc. A data plan is not a necessity. But, a FCC policy called Lifeline service, introduced in 1985, makes data available too. With Lifeline, eligible households get a discount for wireless service, broadband internet access and broadband voice bundles. 

Today, ninety-five percent of teens say they have access to smartphones, and they can use them to find hotspots in novel, creative ways that run circles around their elders. Phones now have the capacity to carry television broadcasts (Quibi), so why not school lessons?  I am not recommending that kids permanently follow their teachers on a smartphone, but it could be a make-shift solution, particularly if they dial-down two-way video. During the quarantine, almost all telcos and internet service providers have waived monthly data limits. Still, we can help kids identify places that offer social distancing and WiFi together, like library parking lots. 

Common Sense Media Means Education:

There is a trove of information to be found on Common Sense Education. They thought about this long before the current crisis and have a seminal 2019 report called “The Homework Gap…Teacher Perspectives on Closing the Digital Divide.” For the current times, they provide a list of free and low-cost internet offers. When I put in an Albany zip code, it returned three “free” offers for Internet service (see image). Common Sense Education also points to a site called pcsforpeople where you can donate your old computer and have it refurbished for eligible individuals and non-profits. (Full disclosure: the website had fulfillment delays on 4/9/19). 

If your son’s friends live in a more rural part of the state they might be experiencing difficulties getting full connectivity and fast-enough speeds to stream their school lessons. In more urban areas like yours, students, educators, and parents need to search out where there is existing broadband access, and they might discover it to be within their own home or apartment.

Privacy & Teen Drivers

Data logger could expose teen’s bad driving behavior…or coach her to driver safer. What about her data privacy?

Data loggers capture the speed at which a vehicle travels and more. This shows the setup between hardware, car, and computer.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: A reader asked about installing a data logger to lower car insurance rates. I looked into it and like the idea but am worried about my teen. (read: Telematics and Teens). My daughter is not a good driver. She has had several near-misses and was once pulled over with friends for a DUI (she was not the driver). But, she is only 16. I worry that if we get this data-logger her bad driving behavior will be permanent on her record. Tony, Cambridge

Dear Tony: This is indeed a dilemma. Loggers are good things because they can coach road users to drive safely: they record events like excess speeding, stop sign violations, and jerky stops and starts. They can also ‘gamify’ driving and be a fun way to help your daughter become a better driver.

On the other hand, the privacy issues you raise are real. One state, California, has initiated a massive consumer privacy rights bill for 2020. In the past, it was illegal to sell information for children 12 and under without explicit consent. Now the age increases to 16. In principle and in most states, you can opt out of the data collection when you download an app. Do data loggers count? By definition, they record data!

Reputation- Digital

What are the reputation repercussions if your daughter is pulled over for a DUI, or a random check finds that she is underage and smoking marijuana? I really don’t know. We are supposed to protect our kids online. Teens are vulnerable when they engage in risky behaviors, and they cannot anticipate that their digital record could follow them permanently. 

2020 is said to be the year of privacy, and we can hope that issues like this get sorted out. However, Facebook has said that it does not need to make changes to its web-tracking services to comply with the new California legislation. Likewise, what happens if the data-logging firm that reports your daughter’s driving behavior is sold, or their privacy policy changes?

Protection First

These are challenging issues to sort out. As a parent, you must protect your daughter’s (digital) reputation.  So, begin at home – well actually in the car. Your daughter is at risk as a driver. Either take back the keys or begin anew with one-on-one driver training.