Columns, Opinions

Steinman ’19: Tag yourself

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, February 3, 2017

Misery loves company. This saying is as old as humanity. Communities have come together in times of grief as far back as we know. When times are hard, we band together to sympathize, to comfort and often to identify a common enemy. This year the forum for much of that grief was online via social media, and the common enemy was the year 2016 itself. Online, 2016 was anthropomorphized into a scapegoat for an outpouring of fear and confusion that felt endless. Memes, the recurring cultural touchstones that use humor to go viral, became almost a national pastime. Countless articles portrayed 2016 as a force that aged us all, the year that every Onion article came true. No one came out of 2016 quite the same. In a way, this characterization was perfect. It gave us the ability to consolidate disparate and upsetting events in one place, from the election to celebrity deaths to killer clowns. In addition to its convenience, this depiction was optimistic; a year must end, after all, breaking the curse. It’s easy label a set period of time as beyond the pale.

I’m no anthropologist, but I do read a lot of Buzzfeed articles, so here’s my take: The meme-ification of 2016 was not caused by chaotic current events alone. Rather, we’re living in a time when isolation and pain can be digitally packaged and made shareable — ironically, of course. On the one hand, this seems to be a healthy break from the way that social media is often used to display a greatest-hits selection of one’s life, from carefully curated Instagrams and Snapchat stories to posts about personal achievements. Sharing or tagging a friend in a meme about being lonely, scared or overwhelmed is a type of honesty that’s rarely found on these platforms. But the inevitable backlash of this kind of transparency occurs when pictures of Kermit the Frog replace complex emotions and when humor, though often a great outlet for negative emotions, becomes the only available outlet, either online or offline. When current events are turned into memes, it’s nearly impossible to remember the significance they held in the first place. The death of Harambe in May 2016 was upsetting for many animal rights activists, as well as a source of pain for those wondering why the killings of people of color garnered far less media attention. But the meme of Harambe, which was almost inescapable that summer, took sincere expressions of grief and turned them into jokes — the more sincere, the funnier.

On the opposite note, so-called “wholesome” memes, or memes that derived their humor from positivity, developed as a counterculture. Pictures of Bill Clinton playing with balloons at the Democratic National Convention and of Barack Obama and Joe Biden united in a bromance caught on as welcome reprieves from the persistent negativity. Still, the fact that wholesome memes have come into a category of their own accurately sums up the general mood of 2016.

Perhaps the strangest effect, and maybe the most harmful, of 2016’s meme-ification is the barrage of online dark humor and self-deprecation. The first time I really considered the potential harm of this blurring of public and private emotion was, unsurprisingly, at the end of a Buzzfeed article. The article itself was a list of jokes, but at the end the author provided links to mental health resources — just in case anyone actually felt the emotions that everyone was jokingly expressing online. In providing these resources, one could argue that Buzzfeed recognized its role in facilitating a culture of irony that overlooks mental health challenges and was going out of its way to counteract it. But more than that, Buzzfeed’s inclusion of these resources was the culmination of the strangeness of our time, when we laugh to keep from crying and crying makes us laugh.

I haven’t even begun to delve here into the more sinister corners of internet humor, into websites like 4chan where the alt-right thrives, and I don’t plan to. The story of how Donald Trump’s youngest and most radical supporters capitalized on these message boards to build a culture of meme-ified hatred — in which racism and anti-Semitism go unchecked in an echo chamber — has been well-documented since the election. But even far from these extreme corners of the web, it was hard to escape unscathed from both the real 2016 and its online presence. While policing internet culture is not an easy or necessarily worthwhile task to attempt, it is important to more thoughtfully consider the forms of media that many of us consume passively every day. Thanks to its ubiquity and unprecedented relevance this past year, digital culture shapes our outlooks whether we notice it or not. And the subconscious, repeated exposure to self-deprecation and repressive irony has the potential to wither us more than 2016 ever did.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.