Tag Yourself and the Aesthetics of Empathy

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 2 June 2017. It was my last ever piece for the paper, and I hope I managed to end on a high note.

It has been said that memes are inherently communist. Anarchic, decentralised, and divorced from the profit motive, the argument goes that they are therefore inherently suited to left-wing viewpoints. But this argument, while tempting, is not entirely satisfactory. Aside from the fact that plenty of memes have been commercially appropriated, the prominence of memes as an alt-right aesthetic cannot be simply ignored. It’s hard to call anything ‘communist’ when white supremacists are tossing it around alongside the word ‘magic’, but the equal prominence of avowedly socialist memes suggests a certain ideological flexibility. How, then, are we to understand the apparent political confusion of memes?

The tag yourself meme, first seen on Tumblr in 2016, may provide a clue to this political ambiguity. The format is simple enough: a collection of thumbnail images on a white background, each accompanied with a name (misspelled for comic effect), and three or four brief descriptive phrases denoted by dashes. This last point is crucial; the typography of tag yourself memes, in opting for a dash over the more traditional bullet point, centres on soft power, further reinforced by a preference for n-dashes over lengthier, and thus more impactful, m-dashes.

When one of these images is shared, with the accompanying phrase, ‘tag yourself, I’m ____’, the sharer creates an informal solidarity, a non-judgemental space in which the reader is able to choose an identity. Moreover, the format is flexible enough to allow identification with a wide variety of tropes, images, and figures. To tag oneself is to escape the self, to become more than human, or at least not only human. Personal favourites include the classic Dat Boi (I’m ‘it’s him’), and the equally classic Romanticism tag yourself (I’m William Blake). But whatever the specific theme, this à la carte empathy forms the aesthetic core of the tag yourself meme.

This memetic ideology is broadly encouraging. If we understand politics as driven by identity, tag yourself’s flexibility and accommodation of diverse types implies an acceptance, even a championing of, diversity. To gain likes and shares, the tag yourself meme must include different types of content, relatable to different types of people. This aesthetic of empathy, in which memers both conceptualise, and express themselves, as multiple bodies else, has obvious potential for progressivism.

The snag, however, is the word ‘memetic’. While the form ostensibly encourages diversity, the pithiness of the tag yourself meme can also serve to directly enact stereotypes. Language O’Clock’s world flags tag yourself, for example, describes Ireland as “very enthusiastic about potatoes”, while Great Britain is both “compulsive tea drinker” and “carries a pocketwatch”. This adds a reactionary sense of imperialist nostalgia, the opposite of social progress, yet an attitude actively encouraged by the tag yourself format.

The tag yourself meme, then, is a form which ostensibly encourages diversity, while practically enacting crass simplifications of individual identities. The other is vicariously experienced, but never in a state equal to the self. Tag Yourself: I’m Liberalism.


Get Rekt Skrubz: A Brief Analysis of MLG Videos

This article first appeared in Cherwell on 4 November 2016. This extended version restores some content that was originally cut for space. I’m very proud of this piece, and I hope it can help us internet-dwellers remain watchful in the future, especially given what happened the week after this piece first came out.

“Dear FAZE POTTER, you have been accepted at Hogwarts school of MEMES AND QUICK SCOPING.” Such is the opening of ‘Harry Potter and the Noscoper’s Stone’, a short film which, at time of writing, sits at 3,219,168 views on YouTube. It’s a prime example of the MLG video: a short, humorous montage of clips from a popular film or TV show, overlaid with text, memes, and video game assets. These videos have become very popular in recent years, and there are plenty of laughs to be had, but like everything else, they come with a dark side.

MLG refers to Major League Gaming, a professional e-sports organisation—like FIFA for professional video game players. In the same way sports broadcasters produce edited highlights of matches, MLG produces montages of players’ most impressive gaming moments: impressive kills, deft bits of strategy, that sort of thing. These montages started hitting YouTube in the early-2010s, along with a flood of copycats, usually amateur players crudely editing together their own footage. This was, obviously, a bit of a joke. Imagine if every pub league football player started putting out edited highlights of their own performance. The videos made use of several stock elements, including blaring dubstep, anguished shouting, and references to popular memes. They were loud, obnoxious and totally ridiculous, which gave them a cultural presence in excess of their actual popularity. It was only a matter of time before the meme lords got to work.

The process was gradual, but between 2011 and 2014(ish) MLG videos transitioned into what they are now: montage parodies of popular media, having moved beyond video games and into film and TV more generally. This new breed of video was similar to its forbears in its over-the-top obnoxiousness and frequent references to video game culture, but the presentation was both more ironic and far more information-dense. The modern MLG video is a compressed tissue of quotations, audio and visual, its humour coming not just from references but the speed and inventiveness of those references, not to mention a significant uptick in editing quality. What was once amateur backwash had become slickly-produced gold; the alchemy of the internet works again.

The MLG effect, like most great art, is better seen in motion than dryly described. You only need to see Albus Dumbledore say, “Welcome back to Hogwarts School of Memes, Weed, and Good Banter” once before never looking back. But the structure and style of MLG is not new in itself, having borrowed most of its tricks from the twentieth-century avant-garde tradition. Jarring shifts in pitch and rhythm are a standard trope of experimental music, and the irreverent remixing of disparate texts is basically Postmodernism For Dummies. MLG is western culture doing what it always does, folding the marginal back into the mainstream in a way which strengthens the latter and legitimises the former. And, as ever, the margins bring their revolutionary power along with them.

The power of MLG is that nothing is above reproach. News, movies, politicians—none of them are immune to this remixing spirit, and there’s nothing they can say that can’t be cut off and replaced with a text-to-speech program making references to cannabis. MLG’s power is its constant and relentless humour —nothing it says is taken seriously. And it is precisely this quality which, as well as being powerful, makes MLG profoundly dangerous.

Do a YouTube search for ‘Donald Trump MLG’ and you will get a slew of results, obviously. Trump is the most-memed politician in living memory. But the most popular videos do not, as one might expect, frame Trump as the deluded, incompetent fool he is; rather, they seem to actively root for him. One of the top results shows Donald Trump “reking” journalist Megyn Kelly at the first primary debate, and another simply shows clips of Trump’s speeches and interviews overlaid with images, often of Donald Trump himself. The presentation is joking, but the effect is to hammer home the message more forcefully than a sincere depiction ever could. This is what makes MLG, and memes in general, so dangerous as propaganda tools.

White supremacist memes featuring Trump are ten-a-penny online, and racist, misogynist and Islamophobic rhetoric has seeped into mainstream discourse. Pepe the frog, once a benign comic book character, has been co-opted by the internet’s worst to such an extent that the he was recently declared a hate symbol. It would be ridiculous to say MLG is going the same way – making a good one requires more effort than most of these people are willing to expend – but memes are beginning to have a material impact on politics IRL.

Nimble America is a non-profit organisation whose activities consist of promoting the Donald through ‘meme magic’ and the power of shitposting. Their aim is to flood the discourse with so many images and perceptions of Trump that support becomes a matter of instinct, rather than reason. In the words of Adam Hess, Donald Trump is “proof that if Hitler was alive today he’d be the biggest thing on Twitter.”

I’m not trying to start a moral panic about memes. But we do need to think more critically about what we encounter online, and with an eye towards memes’ material impact. And if we could avoid shady crooks like Nimble America while we’re at it, that would be good too. Above all, we must be vigilant, and conscious that the ends do not always justify the memes.

O shit waddup: a critical analysis of Dat Boi

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 3 June 2016.

The internet loves frogs. We have observed this fact in various memes, from the safe and reliable Kermit to the occasionally nightmarish Pepe. The most recent addition to these noble ranks is Dat Boi, who has been making the rounds on the Oxford Dank Memes Society and various other hubs of intellectual discussion. You’ve probably seen him by now (in fact he will probably be Old Memes by the time this article sees print). He’s a crudely rendered frog on a poorly compressed unicycle, generally captioned with some variation on “Here come dat boi/ o shit waddup”. On the surface he’s just another daft internet fad, but scratch that surface and you find… well, you find a daft internet fad, but one with interesting things to say about online culture and the re-appropriation of corporate art. Dat Boi is, in his own way, a tool of rebellion.

Dat Boi is, objectively speaking, total garbage. This is, in fact, the point. He is a prime example of a Dank Meme, an aesthetic defined by its self-referential lameness. To quote Ada Pospiszyl, head of the Oxford Dank Memes Society, with such a meme “repetition makes it funny. It’s like a second level of funniness… It just sort of comes from nowhere. The secret is just accepting that it’s basically quite lame, and laughing at yourself”. Dat Boi is an empty signifier, funny because he represents a wider calling card for internet communities. He is funny because meme-makers and meme-consumers, consciously or not, have designated him a symbol of humour. In that way he’s the perfect expression of post-modern comedy. Humour is defined by the unexpected, but Dat Boi is predictable, the comedy emerging from his over-signification. The core of the joke is ‘oh, not him again’, hence the weary existentialism of the phrase ‘o shit waddup’. Dat Boi is an anti-joke, funny because of his mutually agreed-upon unfunniness.

But beyond that, in his peculiarly lame way he represents a strike against the crass commercialism of so much art, especially in the internet age. The image of the frog on a unicycle was originally produced by Animation Factory, a company created during the infamous dotcom bubble of the late 1990s, as part of the Animation Factory Essential Collection 3. A classic example of faux-zany corporate humour, he was created for a collection of self-evidently ugly, self-evidently useless graphics, bearing all the cringeworthy hallmarks of late 90s graphic design. The useless creation of a useless company, the image embodies corporate culture in the information age; not art for art’s sake, but economic activity for the sake of economic activity, serving no purpose other than to give people fleeting, unfulfilling employment doing something, even if it is something stupid.

This garbage graphic only became Dat Boi once the internet got hold of him. The meme originated on Fresh Memes about the Mojave Desert and Other Delectable Cuisines, a meme-focused Facebook page. Since then he has spread like wildfire through the decentralised, chaotic networks of internet communities. Liberated from his corporate origins, Dat Boi can go from being a useless nothing of a product to a joyful symbol of humour and community. In that regard he is a positive sign of where internet culture is heading, and a welcome blow against the corporate establishment. Animation Factory supplied the image, but has long since lost control of it; the people have seized the memes of production.


Such dank, much meme: an interview with Oxford Dank Memes Society

Photo: Luis Bambi

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 13 May 2016. Ada was absolutely brilliant, and I recommend everyone check out the group. DISCLAIMER ADDED 28/08/16 – Pepe the Frog has been designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League due to its popularity among white supremacists. This article was written before this came to light, and both Ada and myself strongly disavow any and all white supremacists, regardless of whether they use this meme. 

Oxford has a lot of student societies but earlier this year second-year PPEist and Corpuscle Ada Pospiszyl noticed that there was no society for lovers of the iconic images we so love to share online; a requiem for a meme. So she decided to rectify this by creating the Oxford Dank Memes Society, a Facebook page for Oxford students to share whatever memes necessary. Assisted by her fellow founders Mark Scott, Srishti Suresh, Shane Finn and Harrison Edmonds, they have turned the page into Oxford’s premier destination for light relief and Doge pictures. She met with me to discuss internet culture, Pepe the Frog, and the secrets of Oxford’s heart of dankness.

I started by asking how the society was first established. “There was one event late last Hilary that we called the Dank Memes Society launch, but then there was no plan for an actual society. We just kind of did it as a joke. Then by the end of term I was obviously doing everything I could do to avoid doing work, so I thought ‘Hey, let’s make it into a real society, that’ll be really funny’. The meme culture is not very strong in Oxford, because we think we’re all so serious, and we have to have Serious Societies. I just thought, you know, it would be an interesting experiment to set one up. If you go on [political Facebook group] Open Oxford, sometimes they’ll start posting memes, and most of them are irrelevant, unfunny, they’re not dank at all. They’re way too political, and mostly like two years old. So we wanted to try and do something better.”

A truly dank meme, to Ada’s mind, “has to be relatable. The whole funniness comes from the fact that this joke is repeated so many times, even if it wasn’t funny at the beginning. I mean, there’s nothing funny about Pepe – it’s just a frog, right? That’s what made it funny in the beginning. It’s not a funny image, it’s a miserable-looking frog, it’s sad if anything, but that repetition makes it funny when it does appear. It’s like a second level of funniness, if you know what I mean. It just sort of comes from nowhere. So I think the secret to a good meme is just accepting that it’s basically quite lame, and sort of laughing at yourself.”

What are the president’s favourite memes? “I love Pepe, just because I think it represents everything that memes are, it’s so lame. I like Doge as well, just because I think it’s very hard to make an offensive Doge meme. I don’t think political memes are the best memes. I think the best memes are just really pure, and I think that Doge represents that. I also love that it lets you use Comic Sans “ironically”. Memes are a very twenty-first century thing, because of the way they’re shared so many times, and that makes them funny. I think that interconnectedness is something that’s quite basic to all memes.”

Memes can also play a unique social, even political role for society members. “If you go on, I don’t know, a Libertarian fan page, there will be so many memes, if you go on a Communist fan page, you have Sassy Socialist Memes, about five different Communist memes fan pages. Every single sub-group in society has their own memes, so I don’t think there is a specific group that likes memes more than others, but I suppose some groups are maybe more open about it. Although on Dank Memes Society we try not to encourage too many political memes, because people get way too excited, and it often becomes quite offensive really easily. That’s not the point of memes.”

Being an admin for a group like this also has its challenges. “Once, one of the admins thought it would be a good idea to accept a middle-aged woman who’d been on Facebook for five days onto the group, and she started just offering everyone a cheap loan. So that was a bit embarrassing. A lot of the stuff that gets posted is quite off-limits, like swastikas, porn, that sort of stuff. Not a lot, but we do get it frequently. It’s a bit gross, but then you just click ‘Delete’. But sometimes you do get borderline cases where something is a bit funny but also not really OK, especially at the very beginning there were a lot of Socialist memes. Some of them were funny, but some of them were just, like pictures of Stalin going ‘Ha ha, I don’t know where all the capitalists went’, and then a picture of a gulag or whatever. It might be funny to a small group of people, but it’s not really OK. At the same time you don’t want to discourage people from posting, so it’s quite hard sometimes to decide whether something is so offensive that you don’t want it there.”

“It can sometimes be difficult to get people to try and make jokes about their weaknesses, so many Oxford students think we all need to be having serious debates about Freedom and so on. That’s good in a way, because it means we’re having meaningful and important discussions, but I think it’s also good to try and take a step back and laugh at it all.”

How would Ada persuade potential new members to sign up? “It’s easy and it’s free. If you feel bored, if you have to write an essay, you can always go on the group, have a bit of fun, or judge the bad memes, because let’s face it, those do get posted. There’s nothing to lose. really, and there is so much dankness to gain.”