This is Not a Meme

Our discussion about cultural appropriation in class intrigued me.  While the Harlem Shake started the conversation, we soon began considering other internet phenomena that went viral. Turning on the television before class, I saw a new “Gangnam Style” parody featuring Psy for pistachios. Psy was panned by many for his anti-America stance, yet here he was again, months after the song initially went viral, dancing with a pistachio for the viewer.  If the Internet is supposed to expand our knowledge of other cultures, is it also desensitizing us?

There have been memes across the internet that are insensitive to the people they are taken from.  Pictures of third world children, aboriginal people, and other cultures litter the internet with script poking fun at those featured in the image.  Attempts at humor, often times these photos are vulgar or offensive to the cultures they are attacking.  In reaction, people have organized to remove some of these memes.  A Facebook group called “Aboriginal memes” on Facebook was finally taken down after a petition on change.org led a charge for its removal.  The petition made headline news on many major networks (I). Social websites like Facebook, however, often respond to slow to react, and by the time the content is removed, it can be found easily on other sites and blogs.  Social websites are also hesitant to remove user content on their sites.

Once something has gone viral, it is close to impossible to stop it from spreading.  While in some cases, such as with Psy and the Aboriginal meme, there are attempts to stop or educate viewers about the content or performer, most of the time the insensitivity goes unnoticed.  While some are meant to be satirical, when released to the internet their original intent can be altered by users without the creators consent.  In a new internet age, global citizens need to be aware of the implications of their actions.  While there is no way to completely control what content is put on the internet, it is important that not only virtual identity but virtual content is discussed publicly to inform all that these often anonymous creations can have more far-reaching ramifications then the creator intended.  As museum professionals, how do we best approach discussing these topics with our visitors, especially if it is relevant to the material we present?  Is it a topic we should be addressing as cultural institutions?

(I) Jacinta O’Keefe, “Facebook: Immediately Remove the Racist Page Called ‘Aborginal Memes,’ petition via change.org, August 2012

One thought on “This is Not a Meme

  1. Even when people mean well, meme culture can have a way of getting out of hand. In the last couple weeks, Facebook has exploded with the now-ubiquitous red equal signs, in response to the Supreme Court’s hearing on DOMA and CA Proposition 8. On the one hand, it has been amazing to see the broad support for marriage equality so visibly expressed, but on the other, the Human Rights Campaign (with whom the symbol originated) has a decidedly mixed reputation within the LGBT community, especially based on remarks people connected to the org have made about trans folks. On the whole I think it’s a meme with a net positive result (which certainly makes it different from the dreadful “Aboriginal meme”), but much like these more bluntly offensive memes, I do think it’s a case of people blindly playing along without looking into the source.

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