The Black Hole of Today’s Memes

Are we doing too much for our memes?

What are we willing to do for internet phenomenon? Where do we draw the line for a “challenge”? And are we even capable of stopping ourselves?

On and offline culture have permeated one another, with whatever happens within our digital spheres now more frequently spilling into our physical realities. One of the most evident examples of this convergence has been our internet memes. From the passive Dancing Baby to now the active Mannequin Challenge, today’s internet phenomenon are behaving more like black holes, energetic, dense and unpredictable forces of nature, forcibly sucking in and imprisoning everything around it. Never before have we witnessed trends manifest themselves physically and gain traction at such ludicrous speeds. But while they can be shrugged off as fads, memes not only substantially illustrate a culture and its collective ideas, but today’s are revealing a concerning degree of conformity worth discussing.

The Early Days

From Bert is Evil, Peanut Butter Jelly Time, and Badgers, to Charlie the Unicorn, Numa Numa and Star Wars Kid, our original internet memes, preceding today’s social media platforms, acted as novelties on the outskirts of culture and monuments of early viral content. Such benign sensations gently stitched the web and its users together. Traveling slowly via email, their longevity was frail. With their essence also innocent, these memes can easily be considered the childhood of our online lives.

The Now

What we’re witnessing today has evidently matured. We’re now living out our memes, playing games with the physical world around us. Today’s most renowned online phenomenon are less static images, videos or animations, and more participatory exercises, dramatically poignant. From Kony 2012 and Ice Bucket Challenge, to Diet Coke and Mentos and Water Bottle Flipping, the ask or demand of these memes has surged, despite continuing to seduce bystanders, hypnotizing them to join.

Explaining the Evolution

With the infrastructure of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Vine (RIP) set in place, the act of viewing, producing, and sharing has never been as routine. New sacred spaces like Feeds have made exposure to memes unavoidable. Advancements in technology have lowered barriers to entry. And the proliferation of devices, users and time spent on these platforms have expanded the reach and speed of transmission.

More so, today’s emerging memes invite personalized participation, allowing for socialization on a mass scale. Planking, Dabbing, Harlem Shaking, Nea Naeing, Running Manning, Ball Pit Jumping, Cinnamon Swallowing, Gallon Smashing, Pokémon Go Catching, and Kylie Jenner Lip Suctioning are all opportunities to document and upload oneself, boundlessly bonding over a shared experience while validating one’s own existence within culture.

When something is posted online that either directly or indirectly invites others to participate, the poster amplifies the pressure and tendency for viewers to participate themselves. When a viewer eventually folds to participate, their post intensifies the magnetism for others to engage as well.

When posed with the option to follow or resist the trend, as beings evolutionarily trained to join the pack to survive, we ultimately end up filming ourselves dropping a water balloon condom on our head or even snorting one.

Wait. Hold Up!

Absurd? No doubt. And that is what’s troubling about this all. Sure, we’re strengthening relationships with our co-participants, forming a sense of self, entertaining one another, and tapping into human creativity, but what we’re exchanging for views and likes is something much more sobering.

By no means should we stop the fun, but we should begin to question, “Why now are the gains of filming yourself snorting a condom outweighing the cons, if any?”

In 1951, Asch famously demonstrated the power of conformity when his participants knowingly answered questions incorrect just to comply with others. While engaging in silly behavior and posting it online doesn’t necessarily call into question one’s intrinsic beliefs, what’s worth noting is how unbelievably quick we are to join the group. No matter how absurd the ask is, there are millions who still participate. Peer pressure is dangerous when it exists within a small, closed group, but when it involves larger networks with billions of people online, it can potentially be deadly.

The Dark Side

In the US as live streaming grew, gamers began to share their screen with an audience online. However, some viewers weren’t thoroughly entertained. Eventually dubbed Swatting, by locating the streamer’s address and calling in a bomb threat, viewers could watch a Swat Team raid the gamer’s house and arrest him in real time. When bystanding viewers watched the action unfold, it tempted others to copycat.

In another dark internet meme called Neck and Nominate, videos began to surface across Europe and Australia showing participants chugging booze and then engaging in a physically extreme activity. After the chaos subsided, the participant finally called out a friend to one-up them. What began as a harmless game, resulted in multiple deaths from alcohol poisoning.

Another deadly phenomenon from Russia is known as The Blue Whale Challenge, which has spread to the US. In this game, teens are instructed to harm themselves, beginning lightly, like waking themselves up in the middle of the night. As the severity increases over the course of 50 days, the final task instructs players to kill themselves. While over 100 deaths have allegedly been related to the game, it’s undeniable that the escalation of compelling internet memes can be fatal as well as influential.

Now What?

As participatory memes continue to gain hyper-visibility, we must cautiously evaluate which ones we’d like to mindfully engage in, and which we’d like to cautiously avoid, or even denounce. We’re witnessing peer-pressure on the largest scale in history and our thirst for participation is eclipsing reason. If we are what we share, we must actively determine what we are becoming.

Should we outlaw all internet phenomenon out of fear that they will ruin society? No way. Will engaging in a silly challenge dissolve our independent critical thinking? Not a chance. And will participating in these memes lead us down a path toward dystopian groupthink? Probably not.

That said, when we press the record button, we mindlessly surrender ourselves to the spell of online social conformity. Considering our current susceptibility, we must prepare for what tomorrow’s meme may be. When we knowingly embarrass ourselves or engage in behavior that would otherwise be irrational viewed in isolation, we should be more suspicious of our antics. This black hole of submission to our social networks can be deadly.

How far are we willing to go to conform? How absurd or radical can internet memes become? And do we have the wherewithal to resist the urge to be sucked into the next “challenge”?

Since Publication…

Teens Are Daring Each Other To Eat Tide Pods” — WaPo 1/17/2018

The Condom Challenge is Making a Comeback” — Motherboard 4/2/2018