Behind the Laughter

Memes are increasingly pervading every corner of society, including sports, politics, universities, and television.  The more memes there are, the bigger and better they need to be to get noticed, and the further the boundaries are subsequently pushed.  Unfortunately, as with many forms of humor the boundaries can be pushed too far and as a result, the meme turns from something funny into something offensive.  Sound a little too serious? We’ll see.

Generated using Meme Generator

Oh, there’s a line? Tell me more about it

The line between funny and offensive is often so narrow that it gets crossed frequently.  But when does it become an issue we need to do something about? Should we take a more proactive approach? or continue dealing with the issues as they arise, in a reactive manner?

It’s a really tricky area when it comes to censoring expressions of opinion, especially in an online forum.  Given the democratic aspiration of freedom of speech, it’s almost counterproductive to suppress a message, despite the thoughts they are communicating.

Frances Shaw is a PhD graduate at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.  She focuses on the politics of new media cultures and says that the onus for ensuring that offensive content is not published is placed on the creator, the hosting website, as well as their audience. Memes seem to be offensive by nature almost, and usually they cater to the specific audience of the page or website.  “Memes carry the ideology of the communicator…A meme that is really offensive might take off precisely because it’s offensive,” says Shaw, “[For example] a misogynist meme in a men’s rights forum, or a racist meme for a racist audience”

Source: Quick Meme

In Australia earlier this year, a Facebook meme page was set up depicting Indigenous Australians in an offensive manner.  “Facebook’s initial and continuing refusal to remove that page, against the letter of their own terms and conditions, was entirely baffling.” says Shaw.  Eventually, according to the BBC, Facebook did remove the page, but only after a significant petition as well as condemnation from the government.  One particular line of Facebook’s response illustrates why there are so many difficulties in stopping people from making offensive memes:

“We believe that sharing information, and the openness that results, invites conversation, debate and greater understanding.”

As offensive as that meme page may have been, perhaps the one positive you can draw from it is the debate it sparked, and the reassessment of racism issues in the country.  Here in America, there hasn’t been a high-profile case like the one in Australia, but it wouldn’t be surprising to find loads of meme pages and sites that publish equally offensive content.

Obviously this issue isn’t exclusively limited to memes, such is the the way the Internet works.  One only has to look at the extreme reaction that the “Innocence of Muslims” video produced.  Can we really predict these reactions? A meme page or site could easily trigger a similar sort of response.  “These show the actual beliefs of sectors of the population, in ways that were less visible before the internet allowed semi-anonymous, semi-free expression.” says Shaw.

Not sure if author dead, or just hiding

No, this isn’t turning into a discussion about the works of Roland Barthes, but rather examining the accountability of the author behind a meme.

As with censoring memes, removing anonymity of the creators of memes comes with it’s own baggage.  Know Your Meme’s Amanda Brennan says that many memes are created for fun, as a reaction to something, and as such, the creators often do not wish to link it with them personally.  To name the author “would also stifle creativity and free speech”, a common contradiction across many facets of the internet.  Systems of accountability such as the the voting on Reddit and YouTube seem like an appropriate method to use for publishing memes, with the content being hidden after a certain amount of negative votes.

Frances Shaw identifies the notion of “trolling” through memes, something which she says should not be confused with vilification or cyber bullying.  “Trolls aim to provoke” says Shaw, and although usually disagreeing with the mainstream thought, they force us to rethink and justify our positions.

Cyber bullying and vilification through memes are a very different, and much more serious issue.  In terms of cyber bullying, Shaw says that in general, the victim of cyber bullying often knows the perpetrator in real life. Maybe the author behind the meme can remain anonymous, but what about the face behind the meme? What about the person that is the meme, the person that everyone is using to express a joke?  Casting our minds back to the case of Heidi Crowter, better known as the face of the “I Can Count to Potato” meme.  Without resurfacing the issues of this too much, we can clearly see some red flags popping up for meme creation.

Source: Quick Meme

When we’re laughing at memes that are using the face of a real person, such as Scumbag Steve, [10] guy, or Musically Oblivious 8th Grader, are we participating in a form of cyber bullying? According to Know Your Meme, [10] Guy depicts a young man that is “clearly” under the influence of marijuana. While we couldn’t manage to track this guy down, one has to wonder how he feels about having a picture of himself associated with an illegal substance, being a “face of stoners”, floating around all corners of the internet.  Maybe it has brought him popularity and fame amongst his social circles, maybe he loves being a meme, but what if he doesn’t? What if [10] Guy, also known as “Really High Guy”, can’t get a job because of this?

The bottom line? Memes can be hilarious, but we need to remember who’s expense we are laughing.

ATM’s Beyond the Memes is an investigatory series  in which we delve into the phenomenon of internet memes. We’re always on the lookout for more mysteries, so if there is an interesting aspect of  memes that you would like to see explored, let us know via twitter @allthememes_.

 

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