You probably heard about GameStop, the WallStreetBets subreddit, Robinhood app and what’s been called the biggest “short squeeze” in 25 years – all of which was last week boiled down to the phrase “meme stock mania.” You also may’ve heard of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character created for a comic book in 2005 that somehow, in a weird, circuitous, Internet way, became a meme for the alt-right, tweeted by Donald Trumps Sr. and Jr. in 2015.
What do these stories have in common? They’re both about meme culture, part of the media environment in which our children are growing up and likely participating. It’s quite likely they don’t find it as unsettling or chaotic as we do – because they don’t know what life, politics, institutions, popular culture, etc. were like before they were being gamified.
Whatever we think about meme stocks and meme politics, I think it’s important for our children that we consider what these cultural events are telling us at this historic moment, as we start to emerge from the pandemic, as Americans start to experience a very different government, as young Internet users get to see what adults say about their digital rights, as people all over the world are protesting against authoritarians and as governments worldwide struggle more than ever to regulate the Internet.
The two most insightful media sources I’ve found in sifting through all the commentary of the past week were an in-depth interview with the filmmakers of the documentary Feels Good Man, about Pepe the Frog, the Internet and the last US presidential election, and a December 2019 Vox interview mentioned in an article last week by Kevin Roose at the New York Times. Both Vox and the Times refer to a prescient book about our time, The Revolt of the Public, by former CIA analyst Martin Gurri. He argued that “the digital revolution would transform the information space and empower the public to participate more and more [and would] … create an impulse to revolt against the dominant institutions of society — government, media, the academy, etc. — and the elites who run them,” Vox’s Sean Illing wrote in the intro to his interview with Gurri. Now we can add “financial markets” to the list between those dashes. [I can only scratch the surface, here, so check these conversations out.]
Here’s just a handful of insights I gleaned from those conversations:
All a “game”: Picture people in a forum (WallStreetBets, 4chan, Discord, a game, whatever) one-upping each other, whether in stock buys or the edgiest, sometimes most depraved comments or memes. Reporters/commentators refer to (possibly invent) various kinds of “opponents”: Silicon Valley vs Wall Street, retail investors vs. the hedge fund guys/short-sellers, 4chan vs the “normies” (see Feels Good Man for that last one), etc. If it’s a “game,” the players are bringing reality into the game as much as the other way around, and the players make the rules. “You start repeating these jokes, and people start believing them,” filmmaker Arthur Jones said. Whoa, there’s a certain irony to GameStop going viral last week (the word, not the stock price). Also, if it’s “just a game” or “just a joke,” you have….
Plausible deniability: Whether you’re the (self-perceived) “little guy” (retail investor, gamer, memer) or a politician riding on the little guys’ coattails, you’re Teflon – nothing can stick to you because “it’s just a joke.” “The culture of these boards is really shrouded in irony – ‘irony poisonings’ they call it,” filmmaker Giorgio Angelini said. And in another New York Times piece on GameStop, John Herrman writes, “To always seem like you might be joking, well beyond the point at which you should be taken seriously, is to guard yourself against accurate interpretation and evaluation.”
“Magic”/conspiracies: “Meme magic” or “chaos magic” is about using art (e.g., symbols such as Pepe the Frog), will power, group think to affect reality in a “positive” way – positive for the participants, anyway. That’s the creepy part, but here’s what’s insightful for our time: Feels Good Man has an occult expert, John Michael Greer, on screen talking about how “magic has always been the politics of the unheard.” Throughout recorded history, it has been popular in “communities where people feel like they don’t have any agency in the world” – e.g., in feudal times, slave cultures, colonial societies. It “gives them hope,” Greer said. In thinking about the relationship between agency and hope, parents and educators might then think about the importance of allowing our children agency, or at least not doubling down on surveillance (monitoring) and control (“parental controls”) – a perspective derived from the work of Profs. Amanda Third, Philippa Collin, Lucas Walsh and Maggie Brennan in Australia, Nathan Fisk at University of South Florida and Nathan Schneider at University of Colorado, Boulder.
Left out: The mindset of the self-perceived “little guys” pitting themselves against “the man” (the short sellers, the people in the know, the “bully”) is one of aggrievement for being left out or behind (or victimized by the system) and therefore entitlement – perhaps entitled to do harm. Even if they’re helping a bully, they’re their bully; maybe they see the bully as hurting what they perceive as the system that holds them down or left out of the national conversation, or just sees them as down and out (“NEET”).
Side effects in offline life: Memes aren’t just graphics or cultural symbols. With this generation especially, the visual piece is certainly part of it, but a meme is also powerful because it’s a concept + the people who adopt it + a moment in time. Three elements. Sometimes it gives its adopters power. At the very least a sense of power. Painfully for his creator, cartoonist Matt Furie, Pepe the Frog definitely gave his 4chan adopters power – some believe the power to help elect Donald Trump. “Memes have a way of democratizing political media,” filmmaker Arthur Jones said. He was referring to heads of state retweeting tweets from perceived “nobodies,” making the latter (or at least their screen names) famous. Good and bad, right? The “little guy” gets seen, peers join the one-up game, the competition grows and sometimes lives, livelihoods, institutions get trampled in the process. “But it’s just a game” – both players and politicians get plausible deniability while playing for different reasons, from playing a game to gaming the system to outright destruction.
Internet fiction => real life: “The Internet fiction meets real life and then becomes the reality,” said filmmaker Giorgio Angelini at about 45:00 into the interview. Reality steered by the disaffected, the disenfranchised. “Politics ceases to be about competing for votes through ideas and becomes about trolling,” he said, referring to a particular moment in the 2016 presidential campaign, “trolling, it turns out, as an incredibly powerful tool to coalesce movements.” It’s a scary reference to nihilism, “where everyone knows what they’re against and no one knows what they’re for” – author Martin Gurrie’s greatest concern, as shared with Vox’s Sean Illing. We need to keep in mind – and support – all the young activists who definitely know what they’re for, from social justice to addressing climate change.
Social media’s role: We need to parse this carefully. For young people feeling cut off by the pandemic, it’s a source of connection and way to reach care; for young activists it’s a tool of mobilization as well as a crucible for learning from mistakes and testing ideas on peers. Yes, one way to look at the Internet is as having “incentivized bad faith operators and put them in charge of our world,” as Angelini put it, but we can’t only look at it one way. The Internet has incentivized and become a tool for good faith actors as well, including our children. “The platforms need to start thinking of themselves as like a public utility,” Jones said, with diverse representation on their boards. I absolutely agree about the diversity. He said “including ethicists” – yes, certainly, and geographical diversity as well. These global companies have people from many countries on advisory boards and Facebook on its Oversight Board, but their Boards of Directors must represent multiple countries as well – for the very reason Jones cites: “This stuff is wreaking a different kind of chaos in the Global South,” as he juxtaposed Silicon Valley culture with vastly different ones on other continents. There are many parts to the prescription for a better media environment. Watch this space. Meanwhile…
Where our children come in: As I mentioned above, it’s quite likely they see all this differently from the way we do, less disturbing and chaotic because they know less than we do about what led up to this time. “Kids are the R&D division of the human species,” said Alison Gopnik, author and psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in another Vox interview. Our seeing the past as better and letting the news keep us up in our lizard brains, our amygdalae, talking with kids from that vantage point, is not going to be good for parent-child communication. They also understand the tools – the symbols, memes, media, etc. – better than we do, for the most part. Which supports their confidence. So…
- Do we want to take that confidence away from them or suggest that the tech and media they love need to go away? Our children would not see that as a realistic (or desirable) option.
- Why forfeit meaningful opportunities to work with our children to make tech and media work well for each in our individual ways? Rather, why not think together on what can be done to make tech and media serve each one and humanity better?
- Top-down parenting is working less and less. Leading authorities on parenting in the digital age are saying that the family unit is being reconfigured “to be more democratic,” with negotiation now the “dominant pattern” for today’s parenting – see this on the new book Parenting for a Digital Future.
- The challenges we find in meme culture are not just media-based. It’s unhelpful to blame media. To what degree is it causative and what degree reflective of what’s happening in society? How much of it is positive and how much negative? I suggest we don’t know yet, on either count, but it’s good to be asking those questions – together. We’re collectively moving out of the previous, hierarchical Industrial Age, with the information monopoly the systems of that time required, author Martin Gurri told Vox. I’m seeing that too, so I’ll cite him and let you find counterarguments (you won’t have to look hard). He’s not arguing that we don’t need some hierarchy; it’s that a top-down form of governance doesn’t reflect today’s networked, neural, more lateral reality, where information is limitless and hard to control (except by governments that we may not want to emulate). Governments, too, are creatures of the last age and not designed to solve the problems of the new one, Gurri says. Whether or not you agree, our children will be wrestling with this.
Now what to do? Short answer: We don’t know yet. It’s going to take time, the airing of ideas from a lot of people with many skill sets and perspectives representing many cultures and countries to figure it out. I agree with filmmaker Arthur Jones: “In order for a lot of this stuff to change, we have to realize that some of the economic underpinnings of our culture have to shift and change, and that’s going to be a slow and kind of painful process…. This is not going to be a couple of social media platforms changing their flagging of truth or conspiracy, it’s going to require a series of smaller, very intentional decisions made over a long period of time by a bigger group of voices.”
His fellow filmmaker Angelini added: “Trolling only works if it strips you of hope.” Since hope is associated with agency, the capacity to effect change, let’s help our children exercise their options for stripping social cruelty of power and upping the level of hope.
- Pepe the (NFT) frog (added later): And now Pepe has also taken the form of a NFT (a cryptocurrency non-fungible token), in “a postmodern bid to reclaim the meme frog from the alt-right,” Wired reports.
- MGM Studios already bought the rights to a book about the GameStop story before it’s written, Deadline.com reports.
- A practiced eye: From long-time financial markets reporter Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times: “Column: GameStop has spawned 1,001 theories, most of them wrong. Here’s what’s right” at Yahoo Finance
- About the Robinhood trading app: “The Silicon Valley Startup that Caused Wall Street Chaos” in the New York Times
- About Roaring Kitty: “Reddit trader who led GameStop stock frenzy lost $13 million in one day” goes the CBS News headline, but he’s definitely ok. “The Reddit trader [and registered securities broker] who claimed he made tens of millions of dollars leading an army of amateur investors to snap up shares of GameStop … lost $13 million on Tuesday [Feb. 2] as shares of the struggling videogame retailer retreated. Keith Gill, who goes by the name … “Roaring Kitty” on YouTube, revealed in a post on the WallStreetBets discussion board that the value of his GameStop holdings had sunk to $7.6 million. That was down from nearly $21 million the previous day and as much as $50 million from last week, when GameStop’s shares peaked at $483 each.”
- Feels Good Man, the documentary film about Pepe the Frog and “The Controversial Meme that Changed the World,” a conversation with its creators on the Rich Roll podcast on YouTube
- Conversation with Gurri: Vox’s 12/26/19 interview with Martin Gurri and the New York Times’s Kevin Roose on how prescient Gurri’s book was
- It’s complicated: For more on the struggles we’re currently encountering around global media companies, national governments/political systems and the safety and rights of social media user worldwide, here’s my post on that.