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.
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.