By: Lea Devon Sorrentino
How well do you remember February 26th, 2015? Does the date ring a bell? Feel important for some reason?
Let me refresh your memory. On that day a black llama and white llama escaped in Arizona while being transported to an assisted living facility (to comfort a man who used to be a llama farmer, no joke).
Millions of internet onlookers watched live streams of the two renegades exploits for hours. They dominated news channels, internet sites and social media timelines. Buzzfeed quizzes emerged to assist audience members in clearing defining which llama (black or white) they identified with the most. The American public took a deep look into those llamas eyes, and saw a reflection of themselves staring back.
This isn’t the first time that the Internet has become engulfed with a viral piece of content that seems ludicrous or kitschy. It certainly wasn’t the last. Most recently (and in Internet time, not that recent) a pizza carrying rat roaming the New York City subway system caught the same kind of national attention (and reverence) as the llamas. But this time the caption was much more transparent, Pizza Rat is All of Us.
The enthusiastic rat reminded us of our own triumphant moments of acquiring and scarfing down pizza. All of us identified times in our lives when we received a prize, a good meal or a satisfying moment provided by an extrinsic reward. Of course a collective applaud was warranted for watching such a little guy get a big “win”.
But what if those are not the reason Pizza Rat is “all of us”? Let’s examine the Pizza Rat meme in more detail. Yes, Pizza Rat was able to experience an abundance of wealth, BUT only when someone larger and more powerful bestowed it on him. Once having the pizza, the rat struggled in front of so many people, possibly fearing that what he loves so much could be taken away at any moment. Finally, what temporarily fulfilled Pizza Rat’s wildest dreams was nothing substantial. We all knew he could never live off of that slice of pizza and we knew it wasn’t good for him. What if the real reason we are pizza rat is not because he is successful but because he is a failure? Here is this small creature trying to navigate a confusing world, filled with unaware strangers, trying to manage an overwhelming burden. Those feelings are all too familiar for many Americans. What if that fear of failure is the real reason Pizza Rat is popular?
Often Internet memes are dismissed by intellectuals and are overly criticized for being vacant. Many argue that they contribute to a more distracted, fractured and bored audience. It is hard to rationalize a boredom so vast that it could be the driving factor for memes continuous popularity. Instead of distracting us from more important imagery, maybe memes are allowing us to collectively share empathy? The common criticisms of these online images has not deterred anyone, seeing as meme popularity has maximized each year. Since there is no impending doom awaiting memes, there must be something more substantial about then that demands examination.
In the article A Defense of Form: Internet Memes and Confucian Ritual, Nicolas Brown analyzes memes and highlights the definition of how humans achieve a state of ren. Within the text he states, “If the truest nature of humanity is the social aspect of experience, then personhood in the highest sense—to live based on an attunement to intersubjectivity, or in a state of ren—is only achieved when a social awareness is integrated seamlessly into one’s activity without the need for abstract reasoning or forced attention”. Brown highlights that ren, a virtuous and harmonious human existence, can be achieved if collectively humans can communicate with consensual interest and without abstraction. If you break down the components to what makes a successful meme, at their core it's the seamless depiction of social understanding and the promotion of clear discourse through accessible imagery. Brown argues that our fascination and participation with memes goes far beyond boredom or simplicity, but is driven by the fundamental experience of sharing core emotions with our communities.
Memes like Pizza Rat and the llamas on the Run might seem ridiculous to fetishize over, but their immediate accessibility and underlying messages makes them substantive. To be successful an Internet meme must be immediately understood. It needs community interaction and participation to grow. Memes must generate an emotional response from its viewers to gain momentum and popularity. It must become an online experience. To assume that an audience is only obsessed or infatuated with the trivial messages presented within the images is to assume a shallowness inherent in the viewers. That seems bleak even for artists.
By not acknowledging and legitimizing memes as a valid form of communication, is to essentially dismiss most online communities. It is dangerous to decide that a meme's popularity is driven by trivial emotions and boredom. Without providing a serious discourse about the impact of memes on society, artists and critics are deciding to not assist in providing clarity to what emotionally drives many online experiences.
So let's not disregard the importance of Internet memes and let’s never forget February 26th, 2015 again.