How many Memes can you name?
The idea of a Meme was created by the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
“For this bodiless replicator itself, Dawkins proposed a name. He called it the meme, and it became his most memorable invention, far more influential than his selfish genes or his later proselytizing against religiosity. “Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” he wrote. They compete with one another for limited resources: brain time or bandwidth. They compete most of all for attention.”
Millions of Internet memes exist. Countless ones born and die everyday, partially because the internet makes them so accessible and easy to share. Some pass into one ear and out the other. Others get over 2 billion page views on Youtube. Memes are ideas that compete for our attention everyday. One of the ways they seem to do so is by condensing an experience, one which took an incredible amount of variables, time, and energy to reach, into a bite size chunk of experience which we consume. Sometimes we consume dozens of these bite size chunks of condensed time without the slightest realization that there may or may not be some context or situation which created the situation at hand in the first place. This is where the idea of time and the Internet Meme can give us some context to better understand what is happening when we see a meme.
The life and death of the full idea?
If we happen to be the time we live in our bodies, memes seem to be a virus or infection that somehow changes our perceptions of other people and of time. Memes create attention by changing our views of the world, in tiny little packets of information. It’s been alluded to as viral, as many people enjoy memes which are first shown or given to us in the form of the ideas of another person or their experience of sharing the meme with us. This takes its own life and becomes the meme itself, which almost always surpasses the original meme in popularity. It’s confusing to think about, because the possible variations of how memes evolve is seemingly infinite. Tons of people on the Internet get a shot of inspiration to imitate a meme which is popular, which further warps the meaning the meme originally had.
To make matters worse, Memes being seen as a snapshot of time might mistakenly seem like they tell us a lot about the time and experience of the people who are involved in them. Some memes go so far as blatantly not giving a good view or snapshot of time into what someone was doing in a moment. This continues to distort our supposed perception of the lived time which led up to the meme itself. We also many times collectively spend more time on the Meme then the person who lived and created the experience of the Meme. We are forced into presence around the Meme, and as Rushkoff tells us, this may be an extension of the commercial nature of the current technological practice, and not focused on human connection. It makes sense, as we could easily make just as much or more meaning out of our own experiences and lives, instead of the tiny slivers of lives we get from others via memes daily.
Without technology, these types of moments of time are not summoned at the click of a button, tricking us into thinking that they are valid in understanding the current experiences we are having by watching them. We also have to remember that these snapshots could exist for eternity online, and that people make the most interesting of connections to logic and understanding when they have technology to speed up their thinking. This meaning created through the meme is in itself timeless, as it is part of the larger internet culture which we have formed as well. Memes, of memes, of memes, of memes exist and still inspire people to create new memes today.
What meaning do people make in time by sharing memes with others? How do we slow down and consider the humanity of a meme? Are memes even geared for such a practice? How will these memes survive into the future? What will timelessness do to memes in a world where time does actually move forward?
Making meaning of memes
Let’s think about these types of issues as I review my personal favorite meme, and how my spending time with it influenced my clinical practice as a social worker.
Tourettes Guy was my favorite way to blow off steam when I was in college.
Literally a prototype for today’s more viral videos and memes, the collection of Tourette’s Guy movies documents Danny, an alcoholic, mentally ill Columbus, Ohio native as he attempts to live everyday life. Sometimes it is remarkably sad, other times it’s remarkably hilarious. Sometimes it’s just painful to watch. Snickering and laughter is heard in the background as individuals film Danny’s drunken escapades. Thousands, if not more, of tributary memes arose from Danny’s colorful remarks and attempts at humor, he even started selling commercials for obscure rock bands and was spliced into already existing commercials as parodies. Danny was even spliced into Jurassic Park (part 1/ 2) for a laugh.
This is the mid 2000’s internet at it’s worst. It seems that people still had not realized that by posting videos online they could be tracked everywhere they went, and that the internet made finding information and locations relatively easy. Imagine my surprise after years of his videos being online someone actually visited all of the locations in Danny’s drunken escapades, while mapping out his house and discovering very intimate details about Danny just from the internet videos made of him. This was in response to the filmmakers claiming Danny had died due to complications to a car crash, and then adding new tapes of him obviously aged a year later. It seemed that Danny could not escape the infamy of being the Tourettes guy.
Memes and me
My experience of watching memes online had started to come full circle at when I was finishing college. I was getting my bachelors degree, and I was leaning more and more towards a social work direction. At first I watched these videos for the humor. After a few lectures and hours in social work classes when I watched these videos, I was forced to ask myself – “Is this who I would be working with as a social worker?”
And I still laughed. I wanted to advocate, in some way, but I didn’t have the technical or practical knowledge to do so. I let myself feel both the hilarity of the situation, and trusted that my experience of observing and coexisting in the same world as Danny would inspire something to shift in my own experience. This remains a theme of my practice that continues to this day. I tried to find the humanity in Danny’s life and where I could do something about where it doesn’t shine through.
Some interesting things have happened in the past year which made me think of Danny, his drunken exploits, and my own experience of how internet memes have developed my understanding of the world, and of the time I spend in it. I’ve practiced and learned how to help some of the people who I would see online in the viral memes – particularly those like Danny.
One case in particular has made me consider what it means to be mentally ill in the community, and the ramifications of technology and it’s ever expanding reach into our communities and our clinical practice. What happens when our time isn’t only ours? What happens when it’s condensed and sped up into a meme, which then takes off and becomes a life of it’s own? When Danny’s videos were made, posting videos online were still the exception. Even with the advent of Youtube, Danny knew he was being recorded and many times asks the camera to stop, even if it secretly doesn’t. Today, it’s the norm to be taped without permission or knowledge in many social situations, just because the technology has made cameras and mobile streaming so available in every smartphone produced today. Hundreds of videos exist where people are taped without their knowledge, and it’s impact is being felt all around the world, from presidential elections to fist fights. Hopefully, this case will make the power of memes more clear.
Case Study – Danny, the unwilling internet superstar
My Danny is a almost sixty year old, severely and persistently mentally ill diabetic who instead of getting drunk and cursing up a storm, likes to melt into his hallucinations and walk up and down a major thoroughfare on Staten Island lecturing to imaginary crowds.
It was roughly two PM on a stressful day of traveling between six clients on Staten Island. I was reaching number six, and I was reaching my limit for not drinking water or eating on this eighty five degree September day. It was lunch time. As I passed several restaurants, one stood out in particular. “Oh, I didn’t know there was a Boston Market here!” The restaurant was nicely air conditioned, a blessing on this hot late summer day.
I pointed to where the manager could sit me. She smirked as she lead me to my table, I noticed Danny as my next-booth neighbor. Why didn’t I notice him earlier? Was it my distraction because of dehydration? I might never know.
What I do know was that Danny was thirty minutes into the best speech of his life. He was loud and commanding. Several young Latina women sat around him smirking at his explanations of “the physics of erections” and “President Obama Osama – Nigerian King of the Bugaboo”. I had seen Danny’s bizarre rants before and didn’t even flinch anymore. I had seen it all online, done better. I was confident, but had to remain present and in the moment. I sat down and turned to Danny to greet him, and his sometimes intimidating six foot, two inch frame was pointing a strong finger down at me – “LADIES AND GENTLEMAN – MY THE-RAPIST P-E-T-E-R!” Danny then let out a round of applause, much to his own pleasure.
Only twenty seconds earlier I imagined eating my cheddar biscuit in peace. For someone who honestly gets a kick out of strange situations, this was a pleasant surprise. My first response, to try to start a conversation – “Oh, Dan, you eat here too?”
“Oh, no, PETER! They poison the food here. I want the delicious-ious-ious KFC next door.”
“I’m testing this food out right now, I’ll let you know if it’s poison. By the way, isn’t that a soda?” I taste a chunk of my mashed potatoes and gulp them ceremoniously for Danny to see. Danny takes his soda, which had been floating in his hand before, and finishes it in a mighty gulp.
“Diet Lemonade. FIVE CALORIES! NO SUGAR! BUT SWEETTTTTTTT! I have diabetes!”
”I know Danny, it’s my job to annoy you about it.” I coyly whispered under my breathe. He laughed in response. His eyes look around glaringly.
In a quiet whisper (actually, his regular voice, as Danny was just yelling for half an hour) –
”Peter, be totally honest with me, I was just talking out loud… Did they call you here to get me in trouble? I have been working on not talking in public a long time, but those ladies behind me, they were so sexy I wanted to impress them!”
I held back my giggle. This might have been an advantage of my time seeing bizarre memes online since I was a teenager- I’ve heard and seen worse things than this online. This man wanting to be sexy and impressive wasn’t so bad compared to many of the things I had seen online.
I took a quick look around the Boston Market, which was surprisingly full, especially since Danny was preaching loudly for more than half an hour before I got there. I try to locate these ladies.
I find them, and I am horrified.
Three young looking teens sat snickering and laughing at Danny. One had a cell phone, seemingly talking to someone, but wickedly pointing her camera at both me and Danny while I intervened with his situation. The terror of realizing that the last five minutes of Danny’s hallucinating and my intervening could show up on the internet struck me. It was Tourettes Guy and his social worker, having a ball at the Boston Market.
I was tempted to tell her to stop recording. Deep breathe. Is this situation really that bad? Maybe. If this girl recorded me starting a scene at her for recording it, it’d be even worse. Could I get her to stop if I really had to? Knowing my experience of the internet videos and memes, I knew this was highly unlikely. I had to ignore this potential situation and jump right into the crisis resolution and damage control with Danny.
This felt like a huge leap as this might be recorded for posterity online. It was what I needed to do as an advocate for Danny. I knew, from years of watching internet memes, that the last thing I wanted to do was give this potential one a double reason to turn viral. Danny was already doing enough to make it entertaining, I did not want to cause a scene with this girl and make the video really entertaining. I made the clinical decision to step back and triage my client, instead of telling the girl to turn off her phone. I honestly did not know if she was recording or not, but I bet she would be recording after I asked her not to do so.
“Dan, I know you’re working on this issue of talking inappropriately in public. Let me help you organize your thoughts so you can get on with your day. What’s the plan for today?”
“I’m going shoe shopping, my right foot, right foot, right foot had swollen and I need new shoes that fit!”
“Diabetes does that. And what’s getting in the way of this? How about we plan out how you are going to get this done?” I had already finished my mashed potatoes and moved on to my meatloaf, sitting positioned between the table and the booth, engaging both Danny and my meal. I had moved in such a way that Danny would not be able to be recorded, realizing that if he was actually being recorded, I could do nothing about it without it becoming more of a debacle.
” I’m going to the shoe store down the block. I’m walking for my exercise!”
“Awesome. Listen, I can’t go with you, but if you want to get home anytime soon, you should start leaving now. Anything else you need to talk about before you leave here?”
“Am I in trouble?” Danny looked legitimately scared.
“For what? Doing something the Assertive Community Treatment team knows full well about? You know that we know that this is something that happens, and that you talk out loud like this, and we do want to talk to you more about it. But there’s no trouble here. We just want you to be safe and happy.” I decided not to tell him – “Shut up because someone might be recording it”. Knowing Danny, it would have lead to an even bigger performance.
During the time I had been interacting with Danny, the three young women had stood up and left. My brain twisted with the image of me giving therapy to a severely sick man while downing meatloaf all over the internet. I could imagine the headline – “Social Worker talking to crazy man at a Boston Market while he ate meatloaf”. This image and it’s ramifications needed to go to the back burner for the sake of my current clinical work.
At this time Danny decided to walk over to the KFC for some non-poisoned food. I wasn’t going to follow him, but I did verbally usher him towards the exit, as he stopped once to start talking again to his crowd. “Dan, I’ll see you and talk more about this tomorrow at home! Time to get lunch and shoe shop!” I finished my cornbread in peace. I also grabbed a restaurant worker, and learned that Danny preached to his imaginary crowd four times a week both inside and outside of this restaurant . More information for the staff meeting tomorrow I summed in my head.
The rest of the day, I imagined Danny and me online as the newest viral video. How many social workers who work in the field end up in a situation like this one? Isn’t it amazing that not even fifteen years ago that having this problem was practically non existent? What does this mean for clinical work, especially in community based settings? How does confidentiality work for people who aren’t legally obligated to not make certain observations and record them? It probably doesn’t. What if the situation went sour, and Danny’s hallucinations told him I was sent there to attack or hurt him and he defended himself, and that was put on tape? Or if I couldn’t handle the pressure of having a lunch interrupted, or my thought that the situation was being video taped and I engaged the recorder? All of these questions make my head spin faster then the memes I love to watch so much.
The Meme Delusion
What does this situation us about the culture of memes and their potential to express the human experience of time? First off, memes tend to be short. The video I started this article with is titled “149 Internet Memes in 300 seconds”, and gets to the crux of each one pretty quickly. If we are forced to exist in a world where our public and private worlds are not only mixed, but speed up considerably, we have to consider that those fifteen second clips we find online show such small bits of humanity that they are functionally worthless in understanding what exactly happens in a situation. I knew this when watching Tourette’s Guy, and realizing that Danny was many times blisteringly drunk, or in a bad state of mind. Who wouldn’t react the ways he does in the worst of situations? To the same merit, who wouldn’t assume the worst if my client was being recorded during his time in the restaurant? No one would know the lonely hours he spends alone at home, or the complexity of his mental health case. I knew that I had to perform as much harm reduction in the moment, even if it was just to calm down my client so that his humanity was apparent to anyone and everyone in the area, including himself.
The second part is that memes exist out of time. Who would expect something that you were recorded doing fifteen years ago and put on your private website could explode into something huge, like the Nintendo 64 kid? How long will Beyonce’s ugly pictures live on web forums, after her publicist infamously asked the Internet to delete them? How is it that we exist out of time when it comes to Internet memes? If memes don’t literally change our sense of time, the immediacy and power of controlling your experience definitely allows you more control over the perception of time you spend. Is controlling time actually changing time? These memes will probably exist for the duration of the Internet as emotional commodities that people access and trade in. This is a dilemma in a system which allows you to create a meme, which can be seen as a short cut to a narrative, and then allows everyone to make their own meaning of it, without your intent or will being known.
Memes – a sign of the times and what is to come?
When things are both so quick and easy to create and share, it gives us the chance to create dilemmas and issues which have literally never existed before. We need to summon memes out of the ether in order to use them as a tool when we wish to, and the Internet allows for that. I agree with Reddit user ILikeToDoSomeStuff and his assertion that “for some reason people continue to upvote this shit”. The Reddit user is referencing the fact that people continue to consume and approve of memes which he doesn’t see the point in. What is it about the time spent on the Internet that invites this dynamic of commodity and turning the meme experience into social currency rather then just enjoying the moment? Is this the destiny of all technology?
Ultimately, by thinking of the fact that memes exist both out of time, and in a very condensed time, I weighted the risk and benefit of engaging these girls and their potential video taping of myself and Danny. The video of myself giving therapy at Boston Market doesn’t exist online to my knowledge, and I’ve looked somewhat extensively. Knowing my luck, they shared it online in a language I don’t speak and it is the newest viral hit in South America or Spain as you read this. This shows the difficulty of not only practicing social work in a technologically advancing world, but the fact that the impact of internet memes can be felt in every aspect of our lives. We can see the power that memes hold when we consider that we can be both on the outside looking in, and on the inside looking out of the meme experience, both variations with pretty much the same amount of effort. The question is how will memes change our perceptions and abilities to communicate with each other via technology? Let’s hope that time will tell, at least better then the memes seem to.