A shoe steps on a banana peel. Meme caption reads I have trouble articulating my own ideas; I'll just post this meme I found on Facebook.

Thinking in Memes

As far as communication is concerned, I was often considered “old-fashioned” by my students. That’s not to say that I preferred (or even used) non-digital methods or media, or that they perceived that I was some sort of luddite (I had a student once say in class, “Mr. Larsen, you internet too much.”). Rather, it’s the way that I use these high-tech digital messaging platforms that relegates me squarely into the “old school” camp. The reason?

I text in complete sentences and spell out all the words. I rarely use emoji. I’m pretty consistent in the use of italics and other formatting conventions when it comes to platforms that allow them, and I use underscores when I have no other option to indicate things like titles. In a word, I write my tweets and my texts as if they were an academic paper, which is a bit of a problem for me when I get right down to it.

See, I’m a big believer in the exchange of ideas. I think that it’s incredibly important to us as individuals, as societies, and as a species, that we not only consider things for ourselves and try to come up with the best answer we can to the numerous problems, great and small, that define our lives, but that we share what we have with one another in order to maximize the power of our individual talents. I’m not much of a mathematician or engineer, but I sure do love the fact that we can send rockets to various places in the solar system. I can’t really sing, and to be completely fair, I can’t even read music, but I’m always happy that others not only know how to do those things, but spend lifetimes making music that I can enjoy listening to.

I’m glad that others can express those ideas for me. That’s a good thing, because I don’t have the language or training to say something that is going to be sensible or meaningful. Still, I’m a little sad that I can’t actually engage in those conversations, but I have other places where I do have some expertise and I can talk without mistrusting my own understanding (sometimes, anyway).

What I’m starting to see more of, though, are people who don’t want to think about anything and who don’t really want to refine what their ideas can mean. Instead, they surf around Facebook and Twitter (which is fine); when they find something they think is either amusing or enlightening (which is also fine), they immediately repost it themselves (which is still fine) without first considering what the meme actually says or even how the people who see your posts will react (this is most decidedly not fine).

In fact, in the throes of this current debate about gun violence and the best way to proceed, my Facebook feed has been filled with memes that not only fail to help the point the person is trying to make, but actually act to create a toxic environment in which we learn not just to ignore what others say, but who others are. The people one reaches on Facebook are supposed to be friends, are they not? Why, then, would you post something that you suspect might not only be offensive (I can handle being offended), but is downright defamatory.

For instance, though I know it never occurred to this individual (which is the problem), I had a member of my own family equate me with Nazis. Think about that. I’m not even upset about the actual defamation that happened there. I’m livid, however, about the fact that my relative, my own flesh and blood, didn’t even think about how what he or she was saying when he or she posted a terrible meme might be understood by others. All this individual did was see something he or she had a gut reaction to, a visceral positive response to a poorly made and deeply troubling point…and then he or she reposted it. No thought was involved.

I’m not sure why folks do this. I don’t really want to say that it’s laziness because I don’t really believe that. I also down’t want to say that it’s because these individuals don’t trust themselves to express their own ideas. I hope that it’s tied to ethos, as in “someone else thought this and I, too, think this, so there’s more credibility here than if I were to just say this thing alone.” Somehow, though, I think it just comes down to wanting to say “yeah!” when you see something that speaks to you. You want to voice your opinion, so your Facebook feed starts looking like the world’s biggest bumper on the world’s trashiest vehicle: covered with stickers that tell everyone around you how you “really” feel, but also act to effectively shut down any conversation.

To be fair, I don’t expect everyone in the world to act politely on the internet. I merely wish to raise the idea that a little more kindness to those to whom you’ve connected yourself online is not a bad thing and should be a goal for everyone, especially those using platforms where you’re supposed to know the other person and actually like him or her. It’s generally not acceptable to sit around a dinner table and spout off about your controversial idea, regardless of where on the political spectrum you lie, because it makes others feel uncomfortable. I’ve done my share of being argumentative over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever said anything without taking my audience into account while saying it. In fact, most of the time I get into trouble by trying to help the other person understand why what he or she said is problematic or offensive. I would like it if we would start seeing the same kind of thought applied within the realm of social media.

That’s why I’m issuing this challenge: if you read this (hahaha) and you think that this is something you think should be happening, as well, then try this out for the next week:

Go about using your social media as usual, but every time you see a meme you’d like to share, instead, try to distill the idea of that meme into a tweet-length post. If you’re using Facebook, feel free to use all those fun colors for your background and put a graphic with it if you like, but post the idea in your own words.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Desire, hate…it matters not
If we cannot be tasked with thought
Of others as we make our pyre
And throw ourselves on icy fires.

(Apologies to Robert Frost for the last two couplets)

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