An Inconvenient Meme

At some point in the last year I realized that age had caught up with me in the most superficially hurtful way; I left the key demographic. What I value, like, want, and need is no longer relevant to mass marketers. All of the music I like is relegated to classical and oldies stations. A solid majority of the people I interact with on a daily basis aren’t completely sure what I mean when I say “roll up the window.” A frighteningly large minority of the people I interact with believe that “dial up” is a charming relic of my (long ago) early years.

Worse, the knowledge deficit is bilateral. It wasn’t long ago (perhaps yesterday, or maybe last week) that I thought my father slow because he didn’t know what “bad” or “cool” meant. But it was only yesterday (perhaps a month ago, or maybe last year) that I learned what the term meme described. And now, firmly entrenched in the social networks as I am, the concept of meme is painfully unavoidable. A meme is a concept that goes viral, meaning that the number of people the concept is reaching is growing at an exponential rate (like an infectious virus). It is immediately evident that such growth is very good indeed if one (like a blogger) is trying to get their idea into the public consciousness.

But what if the meme is a notion fueled by hate; what if the meme, spread by friend or enemy, is a notion standing in stark contrast to everything you believe? And what of memes that support what you believe in, but do so for the wrong reasons, or are built upon faulty logic and misinformation? We might as a society bemoan mass media driven by the sound-byte  and journalism dominated by opinion, but the individually-controlled media on social networks (Facebookers, bloggers, those who tweet) have adopted the very same package of tactics. Give it a thought, and try to avoid the bias native to all of us. Most concepts (not all, just most) are not so simple that one sentence and a neat picture can adequately explain their strengths and weaknesses.

The inconvenient meme is the one that successfully explains to everyone that a majority of the photo-shopped wisdom we have all clicked and shared is less wise than dumb. A quarter of a century ago, one of the better teachers I have had the pleasure of learning from referred to the same basic idea as “bumper sticker wisdom”. Mr. Leigh had a podium covered with common bumper stickers and, in an era where frank information was a little more important than political correctness, he had one bumper sticker that captured the essence of all the others. The summation of all bumper sticker wisdom in 1988 was “Nuke the gay whales for Jesus”.

I wonder what a meme describing the summation of wisdom in 2013 would read. I can imagine it being equal parts inspirational (to one third of the population), insulting (to a second third of the population), and irrelevant (to everyone else.) Regardless of the sentiment expressed, the reaction by a rational public should be no different now than in the recent past. But it is easier for humans to question when we are with the person speaking. We need body language, we need physical context; we can recognize bullshit lines in person, lines that we click and share on Facebook.

What is needed is a more diligent ethic for the new era of social media. What is needed is credulity, even (maybe especially) when the information is coming from a person we believe shares a similar perspective. We should question, critically, what we are reading, why it is important to us, whether it is factual, and how we should respond. Questioning critically, by the way, being a very different concept than criticizing without question. But this is a lot of work, and we don’t have time.

The inconvenient meme is this:

In our brave new world, there is always time to rage against an unknown machine, rail against an unknown conspiracy, and fight against an unknown enemy.

Then, when we are done with the unknown, there is always time to complain about those other people too ignorant to really think, as we have, about what is important.

If it is funny to us, or fits our world view, or supports our most important values, then the facts and the full story matter not.


The Rational Middle is listening…