What “The Discourse” Has to Do with Internet Discomfort
How One Meme Gives Us the Inclusivity We Crave — And the Distraction We Don’t Need
We all know — or know now — the Internet meme known as “The Discourse,” which became popular on the social media site Tumblr in April of last year. It’s largely used after a “problematic” argument breaks out (most often on Tumblr) and usually by someone who wasn’t involved in the argument in the first place.
This type of distant involvement — an acknowledgement of something that may be problematic, but a distinct refusal to actually get involved in the argument — is rife on the Internet, where fights about anything and everything abound, and those that don’t take part feel isolated when these arguments show up. As someone who avoids conflict at all costs, I know that when I find tension brewing on my dash, I run for the hills.
But why is “The Discourse” the ideal way to respond to something like this? And why do we feel this need to respond at all?
What makes The Discourse so appealing, I think, is the inherently friendly nature of its visuals — a smiling chef, winking as though you and he are in on a secret no one else knows about; the a-OK hand symbol, representing the total chillness of the situation and how everything’s totally fine, nothing is wrong whatsoever, it’s all good here; and finally, the logo appearance, giving the whole meme a polished, professional feel. This meme means business.
But not only is it a high-quality meme, it’s inclusive — this meme, if this could ever be said about one, makes a typical Tumblr user feel safe. Included. Welcome. The key word “discourse,” meaning “written or spoken communication or debate,” ties it all together, and you thus feel like a part of that mass communication. That chef isn’t winking at you for nothing — you are involved in that “discourse” in some way, and he knows you are.
Analysis of this lone meme aside, memes, as a whole, are inherently inclusive: they are “deployed for social bonding,” “developed from niche usage in a small community to general use in social media” (Zappavigna 101). Memes are the Internet’s form of inside jokes — everyone knows their context, everyone reuses and recreates them, and everyone outside of the joke has no idea what the hell is going on.
But memes aren’t exclusively wired to a larger community — they are a way for Internet users to express “both their uniqueness and their connectivity” in “an era marked by ‘network individualism’” (Shifman 30). Memes are both individual and community-driven at their core — they may be created by individuals, as was the case with The Discourse (created by Tumblr user ladygolem), but they are only defined as memes when they are accepted and spread by the larger community.
The Discourse is primarily one individual’s expression — instead of existing initially as a community response, it’s a way for one person to respond to a fight between, again, individuals. But when that individual response is reblogged or spread around social media sites, with the original post attached, that is when the individual reaction becomes the group’s reaction.
The Discourse, thus, serves as a way for both individuals and whole groups, primarily the (occasionally) cohesive Internet community, to respond to arguments we don’t always like seeing in a way that expresses our discomfort, granting us the inclusivity we lack feeling when we stumble across arguments like this.
But despite The Discourse’s attempts to include all of us, it covers up a rather dangerous Internet culture — one where fighting is a normal occurrence and is often vicious, typically ending in users saying “really absurd terrible things” to one another. Internet arguments, and the culture it’s founded, aren’t new things — they’ve been around since the first days of forums and similar open spaces for people to talk to one another, and they’re now so firmly established that you can’t click on any link without running into some form of fighting, like the one showcased here.
The discussion linked above is a more straight-forward example of how a sharing of opinions can quickly delve into an argument: we start off with a forum thread that has one user declaring his opinion, supposedly inviting others to comment on that statement. But when other users try to share their own, often opposing viewpoints, the original poster (OP) becomes “uppity” about it, causing the intended discussion to dissolve into an argument of whose opinion is “right” or not. Thankfully, the thread doesn’t fall into the name-calling, berating nature of most Internet fights, but the thread is still packed with tension that could easily be incensed into a full-scale brawl.
Before memes became a primary mode of communication (and what a time that was), there were really only three ways to respond to an argument like this: ignore it, for any reason at all; join it, being fully aware of what you were getting yourself into; and join it without having that full awareness. Those last poor saps are the ones who weren’t familiar with the Internet argument culture, who tried to make a few logical points, or, heaven help us, tried to break up the fight with a few well-meaning words of placation.
Needless to say, their education was quick and painful. Internet users have a way of attacking those who oppose them or those who try to get everyone to calm down that can often be so extreme the person on the receiving end is probably still insecure about it years later.
But The Discourse allows for a fourth response option to open up: the kind of “distant involvement” I mentioned earlier. This meme, with its friendly spokesman chef, attempts to make the rest of us feel okay while arguments and fights continue to go on in the background, leading us to ignore the problems that lie at the heart of these frequent spats. The mere presence of this type of fighting is indicative of a widespread issue — it’s even been said that Internet fights can “actually [damage] society and mental health” (Wolchover). But while we sit here blinded by Internet soundbites, we cannot hope to ever solve this situation, let alone make others aware of it.
The Discourse may be amusing, but it has become our automated response, and while it seems to be effective at dispelling our mass discomfort, it isn’t helping the widespread and problematic Internet culture of arguing that has taken root. Even if The Discourse dies out as a trend, there’s still the constant evolution of memes that comes hand-in-hand with the Internet, ensuring that if our favorite chef falls ill, there’ll be another meme to take his place. This continual shifting of the ways we communicate on the Internet allows us to continue ignoring argument culture, even as it grows worse and expands its sphere of influence on more and more social media sites.
What is the ideal way, then, to address this? How can we address, and perhaps even stop, fights on the Internet from people we don’t even know in a way that respects both them and others that may see the post?
And how long will it take before one, brave soul decides to really say something? How do we know it hasn’t happened already, and the poor person that did it was silenced by the very same community that both endorses and jumps away from fights?
To be frank, I don’t really know any of those answers. Maybe the answers we need lie in another, self-created meme…
…Or maybe we just need someone else to do it for us.
Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014. Print.
Wolchover, Natalie. “Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?”. Scientific American. Scientific American, A Division of Nature America, Inc., 25 July 2012. Web. 26 March 2016.
Zappavigna, Michele. Discourse of Twitter and Social Media: How We Use Language to Create Affiliation on the Web. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. Print.