When we stop to think about the little moments of interaction between the internet and the ‘real’ world, most would conjure up a static, if stereotypical image. For example, a mass political movement à la Arab Spring; a tech convention in Southern California; a kid being cyber-bullied over Instagram. Few, however, could imagine a link between an internet joke and an enormous raid on a military installation, let alone one thanks to a Facebook events page. Yet, here I am, writing an article about how such a joke, a meme, if you will, did just this while also managing to shake up the entire internet and nearly all of mainstream media.
In mid September of this year, around 1500-2000 people showed up in Nevada after a Facebook events page called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” went viral, garnering millions of likes and potential attendees. Many onlookers, including myself, were left marvelling at the absurdity of the situation. Nearly all the big name news-media publications placed coverage on the page, from millennial-bent sites like Vice to such pillars of traditional print as the Washington Post. Perhaps even more ridiculous was the panic from the United States’ air force, which threatened to vaporize anyone who attempted to breach the base over Twitter. Mostly, there seems to be a narrative that the event was an anomaly of sorts.
However, I think that the Area 51 raid is conducive of a growing reality, one where meme culture can be used to organize real world action. Memes, as a medium, have revolutionized the way people interact on the cybersphere. And, if an alien hunt in Nevada is any indication, memes have the power to change the way we look at politics in the real world. Denizens of the internet and the news-media ought to beware.
Of course, it’s hard for a prestigious publication like the Washington Post to look past the ridiculousness of a group of millennials ‘Naruto-running’ through a desert. This leads me to an important question: What hidden potential could be lurking within a meme? More importantly, why should we care?
For those of you who are unbaptised into online culture, the internet meme is an online joke which is propagated through social media channels like Twitter or Reddit. The term is derived from a word of the same name coined by Richard Dawkins. It originally referred to a socially diffused idea or practice; examples include religious ceremonies and holiday traditions.
Memes have become common internet vernacular since the birth of image boards like 4chan at the turn of the millenium. In most cases, memes encapsulate a layering of pop-culture references. It’s like an inside joke that everybody is in on; the more layers of content, the higher the relatability, the larger the audience. This leads us back to the present situation. The meme as a medium is surprisingly powerful, armed by the very relatability I described.
Perhaps the most arresting aspect of this is that memes seem to have a spontaneous organizational effect. The connection to the Area 51 raid is fairly evident. Through a Facebook event, a spontaneous virtual community, and a huge collection of spin-off memes, a group of internet pranksters were able to command the attention of the collective media industrial complex and motivate thousands into action.
Even stranger was the fact that there wasn’t any real point to doing all of this. People made, dispersed, and followed the memes purely for their own amusement. Consider the last time you were able to spur a large group of people into doing something, much less organizing a pseudo-protest at a remote military base. I’ll wait.
My point here is that memes are as much a force of organization as they are individually harmless jokes. You might compare this sort of effect to the mechanisms behind crowdsourcing. In fact, when steered correctly, memes may even be a type of crowdsourcing; memes are produced by online communities en masse, displaying the rare ability to generate attention and publicity with little to no cost.
On the outset, one may view this property as benign, beneficial even. Certainly, the majority of memes are little more than uninspired, easily forgotten garbage that we keep scrolling past. Others have yielded fun, positive real-world results. A fine example includes the ALS Icebucket Challenge in 2014, which helped raise millions to fight the disease.
Nevertheless, there can also be huge political implications to a meme if it is shaped by the correct group. Memes were a huge part in the rise of anti-establishment figures during America’s 2016 presidential election, notably among followers of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I still remember the celebrations taking place on 4chan following Trump’s campaign victory; Rare Pepe memes and gifs of ‘the Donald’ dancing were on every thread, set to the music of anons cheering: ‘We did it boys, we memed a man into office.’
In more recent and serious terms, memes have taken part in the rise of alt-right terrorism. The infamous ‘Subscribe to Pewdiepie’ quip made by the Christchurch shooter before entering a mosque is one such despicable instance that we can’t overlook. Examples like this suggest an implicit, possibly dangerous, connection that memes grant between the online and offline worlds. Memes are not only a filter by which we can frame events, but a motivator to induce us to act. They can connect enormous numbers of people to issues and inspire a rare passion in today’s ever-skeptical youth. Just as easily as a meme can conjure the surreal magic of an event like the Area 51 raid, so too can it be wielded by those with malignant intent.
So, where does that leave us? What, exactly, is in a meme?
In the broadest sense, power lies at the centre of a meme. Not the centralized, homogenous, esoteric power historically held by the privileged few. Rather, the meme embodies the strength of the digital mass; the weight of a thousand badly-photoshopped internet jokes and a million opinion leaders sharing the good news.
To this end, the meme is the future. It expresses political participation, represents a dispersed nexus of impassioned individuals, and suggests latent, real world action. So, if we’re going to be prepared for the next chapter of internet history, we need to start thinking critically about them, and we need to start thinking now. We cannot simply wait for outlets like Vice and the Washington Post to finish gawking at the absurdity of the latest ‘Area 51’. They have little to take away, and offer even less insight about what to do with their findings. And honestly, once the establishment catches up to a meme, it’s probably already dead.
So, the next time you’re trolling through your feed for a funny-yet-relatable image to share, or browsing YouTube for yet another collection of old Vines, take a second to think about the potential power you hold on your screen. More importantly, consider who exactly is sending you the message and to what end.
Perhaps through this process, we can break free of the bandwagon and recognise those who are trying to hem us in, politically or otherwise.
After all, they can’t stop all of us.