Remember Lolcats? I haven’t done any digging, but I think these were the first Internet meme types to really go viral. They were snaps of cats and kittens caught in awkward or interesting poses with captions meant to inspire a giggle (as opposed to a chuckle, or a guffaw, though they were sometimes pretty good at chortles). The captions were almost always quirky and grammatically incorrect, but in that lay their charm. In fact, their particularly idiosyncratic style has become known as lolspeak. “I can has cheezeburger?” still makes me smile. Social media is awash with this type of thing, almost to the point of annoyance for some, but I love the little shots of joy they lend and eat them up without apology. I have said this before and will continue to pound it into you: Happiness is not a state of being, but an emotion that passes through us all too quickly, and these are little bite-sized pieces of it that you should savour while you have them.
Inspirational memes, though, the kind with little messages meant to be equally nibbly but more deeply life-enhancing, often make my teeth grind. Some actually do resonate for me beyond the words on an image of a sunset (Buddha, ocean waves, baby smiling, famous person looking thoughtful), but there are a sad few of those since I always look at them with such a critical eye. Most are at best nothing but unicorn farts – all pretty glitter, but empty and mostly harmless. Others, however, are misleading in the sense that they can inspire people to a belief in a jagged philosophy of life that is, at its heart, shallow and meaningless beyond that shiny idiom they see on their Facebook feed. Still others can be stupidly dangerous.
The ones that are always very glossy and enigmatic are the most misleading, I find. Big words and fancy catch-phrases are like the magician’s trick of focusing your attention on one hand while the other’s doing something dodgy. If you have to furl your brows and read it twice, or, like me, find yourself asking, “What does that really mean?” you’re looking at one of those. Once I actually did ask that question in the comments of a meme I saw on Facebook. I received a reply from someone other than the poster that was long, detailed, and slightly critical of me for not getting it right away, but did little to really explain it. The person who posted it just blocked me.
Hyperbole in a meme is your enemy. I qualified that because I am, admittedly, guilty of it sometimes too, but that’s different, right? Right?? If someone can’t explain it sufficiently in plain language, then they don’t get it either.
I’ve got a whole other essay planned to explain why the power of positive thinking is a crock of shit, but I’m going to bring it up here as an example of another kind that has no depth beyond the pixels it takes up on your screen. The words are bright, they’re feel-good and gushy, but what is it they really inspire? Maintaining a positive attitude all the time is an unrealistic expectation for anyone, and because of the guilt when you can’t do it, can work against your sense of well-being. Not being negative is a much easier, more passive thing, takes much less effort than forcing a smile while your eyes keep leaking, but we hardly ever see this message in a meme. Though this isn’t what I meant when I said some were dangerous, quoting one to someone in the middle of an anxiety episode can also get a can of soup thrown at you. I call it platitudinous bullshit.
No, the dangerous ones are few thank goodness, but this is the one I was thinking of specifically:
Walking through pastoral settings is very pleasant, very calming, and can inspire meaningful introspection or even just simple mindfulness of the beauty surrounding you. Unless you’re being stalked by a wolf (bear, big cat, hungry otter) there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Who was the dick that first suggested a stroll through the Hundred Acre Wood as a valid replacement for a well-considered treatment plan and partnership with skilled, educated, and experienced health-care professionals, though? Anti-depressants are not a panacea, but they are certainly valid tools that should not be so irresponsibly dismissed.
There’s a guy in Australia who was becoming pretty popular on social media as he promoted his life-coaching business. He started groups on Facebook that people flocked to, spewed these little tidbits of purportedly deeper knowledge on Twitter, and gained a fairly big following that he might even still have, I don’t know. He also contracted the creative services of a friend of mine and after racking up a bill in excess of 5 digits started posting memes about how art is a greater calling than the pursuit of money. Not long ago he began promoting a conference in Brisbane, hiring influential speakers on spec and using their names to sell tickets. The event, whether he meant it to from the beginning or not, never materialised and people are still trying to get their money back.
I am certainly not suggesting that if you post or share these things because they speak to you, you are a bad person like he certainly appears to be. You just keep on doing whatever it is that makes you feel good, because feeling good is…good. Have a closer squiz, though. See past the pretty images and test the message for real meaning beyond that bright initial burst of sparkle. Ayn Rand gave a speech to the graduating class of the United States Military Academy that she later published as an essay in a collection of the same name: Philosophy, Who Needs It? It was the first work of hers, of any philosophy, that I ever read, and set the tone for everything like it I read afterward because it was almost an instruction manual for examining thoughts and ideas critically without immediate and open acceptance, something that came in very handy when I later trudged through Atlas Shrugged. Boy she was a pill, wasn’t she?
Don’t judge a book by its cover because it may be pretty good despite that, but conversely don’t judge a meme by its lolcat either.