Humor is an ever-changing spectrum, and we may be starting to see some new colors in that spectrum thanks to the digital revolution. The format of the magazine caption contest has mutated and multiplied on the information highway and now calls itself a meme. The world of memes is a young man's game as it were, making little if any sense to those outside the loop but bringing uproarious laughter to those in it. So, don't feel bad if parts of this column seem out of left field. Just like memes, this column won't tickle everybody's funny bone. But it might be worth discussing now that the blend of pop culture, stock photos and cheap Photoshop jobs has grabbed the attention of some presumably wigged lawmakers across the pond.
What if I told you researchers think memes are linked to obesity?
It's not any real wonder. I mean, many meme historians trace the internet-based form of expression to a gray cat who asked for a cheeseburger (well, a cheezburger, rather). Seriously though, of all the things happening in the world right now, researchers at England's Loughborough University wrote a 10-page letter to UK lawmakers outlining the effect online pictures with text may have on health, according to CNN.
The letter concludes, "With the prevalence of social media as a source of health knowledge among young people…"
Hey, letter from Loughborough University. I'm really happy for you, and I'm gonna let you finish, but I just want to say young people don't use social media as a source of health knowledge.
"…and indications that internet memes may be playing a part in a general apathy towards behaviors that ridicule individuals and groups who display 'non-normative,' 'fat,' 'unhealthy,' 'irresponsible,' 'at fault' characteristics, the risks that this poses to future generations and our youth are noteworthy."
Now, I'll agree with the conclusion's latter points — that, because memes gain influence when shared online, steps should probably be taken to challenge memes which troll, body shame and bully.
But the issue, as stated elsewhere in the letter, is that a meme, "can be re-used to convey different messages."
That's how the meme known as Pepe the Frog was suddenly branded a hate symbol. Someone took the image, gave it Adolf Hitler's hairdo and made some anti-Semitic comments to share with everyone. Memes are entirely reliant on the internet, and the internet is notoriously difficult to police. Once it was out there, there was no putting it back in Pandora's box.
Now, in the same vein of trying to prevent content from being hijacked like that, the EU did try to ban memes all together on the grounds of copyright infringement. They might have had a legit legal point.
But honey badger don't care.
The internet will do what the internet will do — they actually started making memes about how they weren't supposed to make memes.
In hind sight, it was probably a bit like trying to ban the word "glockenspiel" from phone conversations. You can't enforce it, you can't censor it live and you never know where it's going to come from next.
For all the effort, I think the researchers are missing a key factor here. They see the dangers of memes, but there are also potential benefits. Comic books, video games and now online images with text have all been heralded as the thing that will bring down the next generation. Yet, here we are. The world still turns. Comic books are more relevant than ever, and video games are slowing becoming a form of storytelling rather than mindless button mashing.
Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus" showed us how drawings and words can portray the ripple effect of World War II and the Holocaust in a way photos simply never will. Ryan and Amy Green molded the events of their son's childhood cancer treatment into a modern, iconic video game titled "That Dragon, Cancer" in which players honestly experience the emotional journey. My point is this. The issue has never been how you convey a message. It's what message you choose to convey and whether that message is received. That seems obvious, but we have a strange tendency to blame the medium right off the bat.
Case in point, memes themselves have developed a subset sometimes dubbed "wholesome memes." These creations often flip disparaging images on their head to convey encouraging and uplifting messages. A simple search turns up one with a compilation of artfully prepared potatoes and the caption, "If you think you're just a potato, look how beautiful you can be."
So, before we all start to panic about memes destroying society far and wide, let's consider that it's real-world interactions which serve as inspiration for these things. If we shame people for their ethnicity or their politics or any other favored target, that's what the meme-mirror will reflect back to us. If we make the conscious effort to uplift people who are down and help people who need a hand, this "wholesome meme" subset could very well become the norm.
It'd be a shame to outlaw such an opportunity.