Meme culture: a barrier for online discussion


Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Mariam Shalaby | Columnist

Occasionally, as I scroll through my Instagram feed, I find a meme to show my mom. Yesterday, I texted her a photo of a cat poking its head comically through the crack of a door with the caption, “When I hear my parents talking about me in another room.”

My go-to conversation starter when I text my cousin who lives in Egypt is a funny meme — the internet-adopted slang term for a funny or timely viral image, sometimes with words pasted on it. Somehow, memes connect us across the Atlantic. One day, it may be Joe Biden and Barack Obama joking about locking Donald Trump out of the White House. Another, it may be Kermit the Frog urging you to give into temptation.

I love seeing people laugh or smile in response to something witty, funny or just plain ridiculous. But at the same time, I’ve noticed meme culture has evolved past that entirely.

Memes have become a simplified form of communication, in both purely social as well as political discussions. We use them today both online and in person.

While meme culture provides a succinct and intuitive method of expressing one’s opinion or sentiment — political or otherwise — it also trains us to abandon our skills of articulate and considerate argumentation and instead rely on a mode of expression that never truly gets to the point of what we want to say.

Almost every year, my family and our relatives from my mother’s side of the family, the Tans, gather for Thanksgiving dinner. As a child, my aunt once told me in a serious tone, “Mariam, there are three things you should never talk about at the dinner table: death, religion and politics.”

I didn’t get it. What were we supposed to talk about — especially if not politics?

I suppose my aunt meant to keep our dinner conversations civil. My grandmother had recently passed away at the time, and the sting of her death was still raw. My family is Muslim and her family is Catholic, so perhaps my aunt saw potential for discord there. And our families’ political opinions did not align either.

But despite this, we did talk about death, religion and politics. It was uncomfortable at times, but we learned a lot about each other and from each other as well. I truly attribute this to the efforts we all made to kindly present our opinions with clarity and articulation.

This past holiday, something different happened. We sat around the dining table, as usual, but there was one word that made its debut appearance: meme.

“Did you see the meme where the black bear sitting at a picnic table, fork and knife in hand, says ‘Black, white, Mexican, Asian, gay, straight, Christian, Muslim … all taste like chicken?’”

“Have you all seen the meme about Joe Biden being sad to leave the White House?”

“What about that one with the …” and so on and so forth. We were all laughing together, and there was no discomfort, but the substance seemed lacking.

Aside from my family being so late to hop on the train of meme culture, there was something a little off-putting to me about our interaction that night. And I see it happening everywhere, not just at home. My classmates at Pitt constantly scroll through meme after meme, showing them to each other.

I can’t even remember the last time I heard two people on the internet truly discussing issues with each other — without the escape route that is referring to a meme instead of expressing a personal opinion verbally.

And if there is online discussion, it’s not long before I see someone divert the serious conversation by posting a meme or GIF in response. In fact, a majority of my news feed consists of viral videos and memes that contribute little to the public discussion except for offering a few laughs. When memes become a replacement for true argumentation and collaborative discourse, you can be sure that the art of language is dying.

Some may argue that the proliferation of meme culture and memes as a means of communication is not the death of language but the evolution of it. I disagree — while memes are great for fun and games, they are not a good replacement for an actual expression of ideas.

They provide us with the satisfaction of conveying our opinions in a light and fun way, without the discomfort that comes with trying to assert our opinions in serious, constructive ways. Not only do we rid ourselves of discomfort through this simplistic messaging style, we also begin to lack the confidence necessary for expressing our own thoughts, delineating the beauty of a real discussion.

Before meme culture, we were forced to develop the skill and confidence necessary to engage in considerate, compassionate and well-thought-out arguments. While we may not have completely lost the ability to learn from each other, ask ourselves questions about our convictions and tweak them when necessary, the internet has certainly made it increasingly easy to ignore these steps altogether. And with a screen in front of us shielding the direct contact we have with one another, it gives us an outlet to be more hostile without any consequences.

Ultimately, developing opinions is part of being human. But memes are just as easy to brush away as they are to show to someone. So the connections we used to make and the questions we used to ask about our thoughts are lost.

No one is forced to truly consider a meme’s underlying message, but we do truly consider the sincere opinions our friends express to us. There is a time and a place for everything. We need to encourage discourse amongst ourselves and our peers instead of resorting to memes and viral videos as a substitute.

Kermit the Frog may say “That’s none of my business,” but what we really should be saying is, yes, my opinions are my business, but let’s have a discussion.

Mariam Shalaby primarily writes on social change and foreign culture for The Pitt News.

Write to her at [email protected]