twitter memes in the age of despair
The presidential election of 2016 has been marked by a groundswell of populism and anti-establishment furor across the political spectrum, from Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic candidacy to Donald Trump’s failing presidential run. This prompted a slew of excited pieces that this could be the year — finally, the year! — when a third-party candidate broke through to the mainstream of politics. None succeeded, in part because the arguably most popular option refused to run out of fear of serving as a spoiler and in part because those who did run were frankly incompetent. But one candidate did nearly crack the 15% necessary for a place on the debate stage. No, it wasn’t your angry uncle Gary Johnson or the increasingly baffling Jill Stein.
2016’s hottest new candidate is a fiery meteor, crashing into the Earth and killing us all.
It’s not just jokey poll questions, either. The performative death urge is everywhere. It’s cliched by now to note that one of the biggest recent trends in science fiction is our collective desire to see the end of the world and what comes after, ranging from the artful agony of The Road to the ecstatic catharsis of Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s not just fiction, though. Death, and more specifically its sweet embrace and/or the blissful release of oblivion is itself a meme now. It’s like when talking about how much you loved and wanted pizza was the big thing, except now we just all talk about how awesome it will be to finally die.
Nihilist memes aren’t entirely new. It was 2013 when Gawker (RIP) declared a endless loop of the spinning phrase “lol nothing matters” to be “the gif to end all gifs.” And it was January 2015 when the Nihilist Arby’s Twitter account launched, gracing our feeds with topical gems like:
Nihilism is everywhere. It’s not just hyperbolic responses to minor setbacks; a quick scroll down the Twitter search for “crave death” or a glance at a few choice tweets reveals jokes that only work if you think the intense desire for death is itself funny or relatable. We are all well aware that we are all dying, and many of us would like it to happen faster.
Slightly more complicated than establishing how much Twitter wants to die (a lot) is figuring out why everyone wants to die. To better understand why we all want to die, it helps to understand the profile of the death tweeter. Most of the people tweeting about death are young and liberal. A lot of them are media types; Twitter comedians are big death fans (Weird Twitter especially has always been a fan of laying down and dying), but so are culture writers and critics and even some journalists and reporters. They are deeply immersed in today’s content streams, and probably regard the word “content” itself as something of a meme. They are mostly, though not universally, white.
(I am, I must admit, working mostly off of personal experience and anecdote here. Still, if you spend significant amounts of time on the internet, I trust you’ve noticed similar trends.)
There are two major, and interrelated, motives for the death wish in this group. The first is the constant, uninterrupted stream of ~content~ to which we are now exposed. Complaining about how social media is corroding the fabric of our society is old-fashioned, but the increasing pace of meme production and consumption — and the speed with which memes move from the internet to corporate monetization — is deeply wearying. Chewbacca Mom felt like one of the first viral videos where the backlash preempted any actual enjoyment, thanks to the assumed monetization and oversaturation that was predicted to (and did) follow. Ken Bone became a meme on Sunday, monetized on Monday, and we all found out about his weird Reddit comments on pregnancy porn by Thursday. Twitter users, of course, were declaiming their exhaustion with the Bone meme by Sunday night, and that was before we got to the “Actually…” takes. There are layers to the exhaustion, too: here’s a tweet complaining about Ken Bone which is itself a way for MTV News to interact with you, demonstrate its media literacy and promote its brand:
Everything that was once fun and spontaneous about the internet will, inevitably, be repackaged and sold back to you. Against such a backdrop, who wouldn’t want to die?
There is also, of course, the election. Here, we should take a moment to distinguish the death urge on Twitter from your run-of-the-mill political apocalypticism. Even more than the 2012 campaign, which featured among other wonders an alleged end-of-the-world prophecy and the tenacious “Obama is the Antichrist” meme, 2016 has wrapped itself in the end of the world. Witness Rudy Giuliani, quivering, howling that there is no next election, this is it. Michele Bachmann, too, said that this is the last election. It’s not just the right, either. Clinton said in her DNC speech that American faced “a moment of reckoning.” It is difficult to get much more on the nose than her claim that she is “the last thing standing between you and apocalypse.” These aren’t a craving for death, though; they’re an elaborate, spicy GOTV scheme. They’re selling Armageddon, not apocalypse.
While the end of the world that the presidential campaigns are selling us isn’t at fault, this election season has still been, to put it mildly, disheartening, especially to those on the left. Take it from the point of view of an American progressive: the Republican candidate for president is highlighting and embracing white nationalists, putatively moderate Republicans are advocating ruinous obstruction, and right-wing armed insurrectionists who captured all their own crimes on camera are being acquitted. The GOP candidate is, by any reasonable measure, a loathsome misogynist and racist who has called for violent unrest and undermined American democracy. Those who supported and enabled him will probably enjoy lucrative work after the election. Forty percent of the country will still probably vote for him. Your reward for helping to beat him is four years of Hillary Clinton, who has actively sought the endorsement of foreign-policy hawks, whose gun control policy is weak at best and unconstitutional at worst, who refuses to take a clear stance on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, who is just about as far removed as it is possible to be from the concerns of ordinary Americans. Also, evil clowns are lurking, which doesn’t really have anything to do with progressive politics but still, man. It is right and good to struggle against injustice, but this election has made that fight feel more hopeless than ever. A meteor striking the earth and killing us all isn’t quite justice, but it’s closer to it than the status quo.
These two trends combine, too, into the stultifying memeification of American politics. Reading Twitter forces you to act as a meme archaeologist on questions ranging from the easy (“Why do so many random twitters have a picture of a frog as their avatar?”) to the esoteric (“Why is Clinton’s campaign chairman tweeting at Wikileaks founder Julian Assange about risotto?”). Individually, memes and politics can overlap in ways which are enjoyable, but taken cumulatively, these overlaps begin to make the very real issues at the heart of our politics feel like a joke. Example from earlier today: here is the left’s widely-beloved candidate, Bernie Sanders, tweeting at the Koch brothers, one of the greatest and most destabilizing sources of money in politics:
One tweet like that is funny. One thousand will make you crave death.
It seems pretty unlikely that liberals on Twitter actually want to die. If they really did, then death is a very achievable goal.* Instead, Twitter death memes work sort of like misandry jokes among feminists: a way to blow off steam and build in-group solidarity. The performative death urge is a telling sign about how someone feels about a number of issues (politics, pop culture, the crushing weight of increasingly fast meme production) and it also, when constructed well, makes us laugh. A tweet recounting the myriad ways in which the system is totally, utterly fucked is depressing, not cathartic. Tweeting that an article about how alt-right racists are (ironically?) worshiping an Egyptian god because they think it gives them magical powers over reality makes you want to die can alleviate a little bit of the pressure of 2016. When someone else responds “lol same,” it lets you know you’re not alone.
*as other have pointed out below, this doesn’t accurately reflect complex ways this humor can interact with actual depression/suicidal ideation. i’m sorry; i was being dumb and glib. (edited 12:55 p.m. 11/1/16)