memes saying a lot in a small way

Being pithy in a long, messy, nuanced and complicated world

Thursday 4 May 2023 2:24 PM

What do you think of memes? 
Love them? Hate them? Share them? Avoid them? And what happens when say you engage one that comes up on your feed? Do you like-react? Wow-react? Anger-react? Keep scrolling? Leap in boots and all to challenge, correct, qualify, affirm, appreciate, reshare, hi-five, caution, friend, unfriend, or go to war?

Whichever of these is you - always, sometimes or never - it should be clear that the meme communication genre is here to stay. It’s a basic staple of social media engagement. It’s loved. It’s hated. It makes friends. It breaks friends. It excites. It angers. But it isn’t going anywhere. I call it a “genre” very intentionally. Like it or not, it’s a form of communication and info-sharing whose time has well and truly arrived (if it hadn’t already?) thanks to the digital age. Thank you, info-overload. Thank you Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And all the others.

Since it is here to stay, like all features of digital communication our only choices are to fight it as an enemy, make the very best of it, or get off our devices. It should be no surprise to anyone who’s followed me on Facebook that I’m an advocate of the second, and probably more than that. Yes, really I’m a fan. It’s imperfect; but then so is all human communication. What I hope to do here is to offer encouragement in the best that memes can be and do.

What is a meme?
The most striking characteristic of memes is their brevity. Brevity is good; I like it. That has to sound good from a Christian preacher, right? And brevity is a curse; I hate it. As do possibly too many Christian preachers. I like it when it illuminates a truth that’s lain buried beneath decades of verbal rubble. I hate it when it misleads with simplism, seduction or half-truth. If you’ve read this far, you’re likely asking one of the world's many '$64 questions’. Is this meme or that one the good kind of brevity or the bad kind? And according to whom? A $64 question. An unanswerable question.

‘Unanswered’ is probably how I’ll leave it; I’m sorry. But please know it’s my question too. It’s my question of 5-word memes. And it’s my question of 55,000-word theses. 

So with that excursus of intrigue, back to the grindstone …

Why are some memes so awful? 
Why are some memes so awful? So infuriating? So …. wrong? I guess it’s because the divine Creator (if you’re a person of faith) or pure fate (if you’re not) has not distributed the skill of saying much with little evenly through the human population. In other words that brevity which illumines is a gift, present a little or a lot in some, and absent in others. I’ll leave it there for now. And no more reference to preachers. Promise!

When I think back over the (too-many) debates I’ve had on social media, whether with friends or strangers, memes must have been at the centre of way more than half of them. Memes without a doubt have been my most argued topics. They’ve been so on at least two levels. First the actual content and message of the meme (on a rich array of subjects); second, it’s very umm  … memeness.

Objections I've heard are varied, of course. But the more common among them might include:

  • gross hyperbole 
  • oversimplification 
  • careless generalisation 
  • lack of nuance 
  • one-sided (or biased)
  • misleading (e.g. the picture doesn’t match the text)

I'm not here to say that any or all of these are not ever valid. Still less that pithy quotes or memes are inviolable, striking the right note always. These and other pitfalls are real and may need to be exposed at times. And yes, I do voice them on occasion. And it hardly needs saying that all such judgements can be subjective. 

Yet common among my own reactions to objections that come would be at least two. First, taking the statement too literally. Second, the insatiable urge to define or delimit (everything!). Both of these but especially the second are it seems to me among the great dilemmas of the educated classes. (Which let's face it, is me and probably everyone who'll ever read this article).

The latter has exercised my mind and passions much. And thus this post has been long in gestation. I suspect that one factor at least in my at times passionate (and just possibly overstated?) defence of memes in general and of particular ones, is a former life when I was given to frequent letters to newspaper editors. Mostly 'The Age', Melbourne. Letters editorial teams commonly publish guidelines on the kinds of letters more likely to be published. It should be no surprise that word limits such as 200 or 300 are prominent among them. Apart from the occasional more extended letter that acquires feature status and prominence, most published letters come in that range. This compels the keen writer to develop skills in saying more with less. Add to that 'The Age's' long practice of ending each day's letters with a section devoted to one or two-sentence 'grabs' (let’s say ’tweet length’), and the aspiring contributor is really under pressure to compress it. In this digital age, that is a skill to be prized, coveted and nurtured. The more so if written and/or verbal communication are among your recognised strengths. (And yes I do get the irony of noting this in a post singularly lacking in brevity).

It should also be added that what we now call "memes" are scarcely a digital age phenomenon, let alone invention. A printed and published anthology of wisdom sayings from the ages will be replete with one-liners, often from (or at least attributed to) the ancients. Aristotle, anyone? Or Confucius. Or relatively more recent, say Mark Twain or Voltaire. I’m one of those who maintain a modest database of quotations which appear in my email signatures. These can be as long as the user likes. But instinct says (mine at least) that just a memorable line will be more useful than an erudite paragraph.

How do you argue with a soundbyte?
One objection to memes, touched on above, is their tendency (often) to so simplify that nothing of lasting worth is left. Be assured friends, I get it; I really do. What may further frustrate or worse is that if it’s too small or too thin there’s nothing to hold while you debunk, correct or explode. The thing is too small, the subject too big. Or it’s like catching a greased pig at the country fair. (Ok, I get that the proportion of humanity who’d get that one is approaching extinction. Still …) How do you argue with a soundbyte? And yes, some memes are little more than that. 

Continuing in the vein of asking much and answering little, might I suggest one thought to grab onto? It seems to me that there are essentially just two ways to respond to memes, especially what I at least would rate as good ones:

  • treat it as the whole subject? (Meaning critique it on how well or poorly it covers the essential elements and nuances of a grand theme); or 

  • take it as one pithy angle, or a reflection on one part or aspect of a larger, richer whole?

My short grab (meme?!) on those:

  • On the first: Well good luck with that. Some small chance of correcting the wayward, enlightening the ignorant, or guarding the truth. A far greater chance of war, bloody or otherwise, ending with a stalemate at best, one less friend at worst.
  • On the second: A small risk of furthering error or falsehood.  A good opportunity to benefit from one studied insight. One that mines the depths of wisdom, one strand at a time. Among the reasons I call that a positive is that such was likely the intent of the original author and/or the meme creator. It's unlikely they thought they'd captured the entire landscape in a single frame. It's likely they felt they'd illuminated a few pixels for our appreciation.


Why do people post memes? 
Why do I? You?

    • for me at least it's because I think it says one thing well, one that bears reflection

    • It's rarely if ever because I think it profoundly captures the length and breadth of a subject. There may possibly exist such condensations of wisdom. But I can't recall even one just now. And if I could ... well there would begin the next social media war.

Addendum #1     25/1/24

When responding to memes or short quotes it's wise to "parse" them first. What I mean by that, on a practical level, is ask myself "What is the main point?" Basic high school literature study, really. My premise here: A short quote is unlikely to want to make four points; more likely just one. Thus my best chance of doing justice to the original author (and quite likely also the poster who shared it) is to look for the central point, and confine my response to that.

There might be several words or phrases that one might react to. But which of them, if any, is the author's main point, or at least germane to it? I’m thinking of one particular recent meme post* of mine, and the ensuing discussion. As the poster (not the author) of the meme, the main point on my reading (and thus my basis for posting) was (quoting the meme) "Prophets have never been called to conserve social orders that have stratified inequities ..."

Along the way the author uses phrases like "there has never been a conservative prophet". That might be disputable as a main point, on political and/or theological grounds. But it isn't a main idea or point, and is incidental to the main point, which could stand without it.

I'm not proposing that there isn't a place for comment on what I'll call secondary ideas. Not at all. But having in mind the many inherent social weaknesses of this communication medium, and our (surely?) shared wish for respectful and constructive dialogue, it isn't helpful to pursue a secondary idea as if it were the main one. A simple prefacing acknowledgement to that effect is a good idea.