Recently there has been some talk about the current and future state of meme culture, or ROFL culture, or whatever the kids are calling it these days (Facebook?). While there is no consensus on how best to interpret the emerging data, one thing most ROFL-types can agree on is that the memescape of 2012 is a far cry from the memescape of 2008. Exactly how, exactly why, and exactly what these changes mean have proven to be a much more vexing set of questions.
Because the thing is, memes—however you define the term, which is a different conversation for a different day—aren’t on the decline, not exactly. Quite the opposite, in fact, which is what makes the question so difficult to frame. Indeed if the blogosphere is to be believed, the internet is made of memes, memes as far as the eye can see, memes all the way down, memes to the point that one more mention of [insert whatever nanostory just posted to Buzzfeed’s front page] and I might be forced to punch every single one of you in the face, because I just can’t take it anymore.
So no, memes aren’t dead. But what used to pass as “meme culture” has in the last few years undergone a profound transformation, in large part because people aren’t engaging as deeply with content as they once did. This isn’t a value judgment; rather, this is based on the simple and observable fact that, over time, the inside jokiness of the most prominent memes have on the whole gotten less and less involved, and require less and less subcultural immersion—the difference between, say, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, which can be explained in a sentence fragment (“well see, he’s photogenic”) and Grinman, for which there is no simple explanation. Even if I said “cockmongler,” which is the punchline, sort of, well one of the punchlines, to the extent that you can even talk about punchlines, the average person would have no idea what I was talking about. And why would they? On its surface, Grinman is nonsensical. But to insiders, meaning inheres within a constitutive subcultural process, one that requires a whole lot of LURKING MOAR. In short, Grinman only makes sense within a very specific subcultural context, and only to people who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to understanding that context. Again, I’m not saying that Grinman is a “better” meme than Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. I am saying that the former necessitates, and is necessitated by, a different kind of engagement, precisely the sort of engagement that helped shape early meme culture.
So what happened? What always happens when new subcultures emerge and are later incorporated into mainstream culture—commodification. But this story deviates significantly from the one we’re used to whining about on Reddit. Specifically, what’s been appropriated isn’t just the stuff of internet culture. This is not, in other words, merely a case of Hot Topic-ification. Yes there are meme tshirts, and meme commercials, and even beautiful meme jewelry. The difference is that we’ve become the commodity. At least, our persistent user identities have. Certain social media companies (looking at you, Zuck) may wax poetic about how emotionally fulfilling it is to have zero personal or professional boundaries, and some of them may truly believe what they’re saying. But by convincing users that the best communication is “authentic” communication, and furthermore that caring is oversharing, these same companies are able to turn a nice profit, or at least convince investors that they will turn a profit, someday—though even that assumption is beginning to wear thin.
But what does this have to do with memes? More than you might think, as moot suggested during his ROFLcon III solo panel. To paraphrase moot’s talk, the rise of the megaplatform has impacted not just memetic output, i.e. the memes themselves (which moot dismisses as “junk,” i.e. empty calories), but also have preempted the impetus to go looking for an online home. Instead, everything comes to us. All we have to do is import our address book, and boom, instant online community. Whether or not this arrangement benefits the user emotionally or interpersonally or whatever, one immediate result is that the user no longer needs to learn a whole new language (speaking subculturally) in order to communicate with his or her friends. Nor does the user necessarily need to create content in order to be a good and productive community member—engagement is as simple as clicking the like button, or using the Facebook connect button, or simply reposting something found elsewhere.
Of course, people do all sorts of wacky shit on the internet. Some engage more than others, some are more creative than others, some have more software and time and incentive than others. It’s simply not possible to make a blanket statement about how all people use (or choose not to use) the internet. What is possible, and what is important, is to think about the relationship between online behavior and online platforms, and to consider the behavioral and subcultural impact of the social web’s increasingly precarious financial situation—which loops back around to the production, amplification and commodification of content, namely memes. In short, the already complicated “meme question” is embedded in larger and even thornier social and economic systems—systems which themselves are shifting, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse, all depending on your particular stake in the conversation. What is clear is that, for the moment, nothing else is.