I watch a friend as she pulls out her phone, clicks to her photo album, and scrolls to the folder where she keeps her favorite memes. She enlarges the first in the lineup and looks it over quickly before holding it up for me to read. I sense her watching for my reaction.
I push the corners of my mouth into a smile. She swipes a finger across her screen to the next meme. I nod at this one and she swipes on to the next. And to the next. And the next.
The concept of the meme is both broad and narrow. According to Google, a meme is “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.” Any image, any text, made by anyone, as long as it’s getting likes and shares. Memes are only memes if they’re circulating.
Because memes draw their power from the size of their audience, they are made to appeal to as many people as possible. They are meant to be, more than anything else, relatable. They hone in on everyday moments we have all experienced and show characters making faces we ourselves make. The best ones make us exclaim: “That’s me,” “My life!”, “ME.”
In this way, images of fuzzy creatures and stock images are stand-ins for our own faces. Every meme tries to assert, “this is a scene out of your life!” and by hitting the like button, we say, “You got me, it really is.” But memes have an inherent limitation. Because their primary function is to circulate, they tackle moments that are specific but not so specific that it keeps them from being one-size-fits-all. Memes speak to us only in the ways that we are like everyone else.
The result is an Internet littered with images and captions that normalize dangerous drinking behaviors.
But we have not all had the same experiences. Where memes can’t speak to every life narrative, they speak to the dominant ones, and that’s where things get sticky.
Memes often operate on the basis of shock value— the more extreme the ideas in the meme, the more attention it will get. In the past five years, the Internet has mostly been the stomping ground for teenagers and people in their twenties. It’s no surprise, then, that memes are made by and for those born in the Nineties or the Aughts. And since many in this age bracket are exploring alcohol use for the first time, a lot of memes deal with alcohol consumption. The result is an Internet littered with images and captions that normalize dangerous drinking behaviors.
Most memes are supposed to be funny. Many memes are funny. So why look too closely and wreck all that? Isn’t comedy supposed to be one of the few domains where we’re allowed to ditch social responsibility and laugh without thinking too hard?
Memes speak to us only in the ways that we are like everyone else.
While the great magic of comedy is that no topic is off-limits, jokes operate on formulas, and there are rules about how to tackle specific topics. Humor that promotes a dominant narrative isn’t much more than propaganda.
Many memes make light of dangerous drinking habits in ways that shame not only the sober community but also sensible drinkers.
We live in the era of the sound byte. Many of us are spending less time reading books and more time scanning our newsfeeds. The studies are already out. Memes are playing a role in national political debates. They may be encouraging unhealthy eating habits.
Let’s take a closer look at the memes above, going through both rows from left to right:
The first meme mocks a fictive person who does not drink more than one shot. We’re going to take the generous route and assume that this character’s passing out was not a medical emergency. But the image of an Asian individual holds some ugly racial implications.
The second meme glorifies binge drinking by creating an entire crew of binge drinkers and associating them with cartoon heroes. The notion of “the weekend shit show” implies that it is normal to binge drink as regularly as every weekend. Finally, the joke “we can stay out of jail” may not be funny to people who have been incarcerated or who fear racial profiling.
The third meme tries to laugh at itself and the result is cringe-inducing. It presents drunk driving as an obstacle that was overcome and absolves the drinker of all responsibility for their own actions. The pairing of the popular “Success Kid” image with such adult content makes for an uncomfortable juxtaposition between childish attitudes and a horrifying situation.
The final meme is particularly unsettling. I’ve seen more variations on this one than any of the others. It insists that the only acceptable way to celebrate is by consuming alcohol. More than that, the character in this meme doesn’t want to have a drink, but rather to get someone else drunk. Their goal is not to socialize. They are not interested in whether the person they’re speaking to wants to drink at all.
These memes reinforce dominant narratives. They glorify drinking as the only acceptable way to celebrate. And we know memes play a huge role in perpetuating the dangerous stereotype of wine as “mommy’s little helper.” They mock the sober community and sensible drinkers. They ignore the possibility that a person might choose not to binge drink. They enact a form of sober shaming.
Because memes are easy to make and share, it is easy to find and create captions that are both funny and empowering.
We already know that memes are meant to appeal to as many Internet users as possible and that they have the power to warp our ideas about alcohol use by normalizing dangerous drinking behaviors. They also have the power to work in the opposite direction, by normalizing sobriety.
Just as people have reclaimed language to turn hateful words into loving ones, the sober community is reclaiming memes. Because memes are free and easy to make, anyone with Internet access can make one. That means we get to define our relationship with alcohol on our own terms without worrying about appealing to the dominant narratives about alcohol on the Internet.
I’m thinking about my friend and the folder on her phone. I can’t remember now what memes she showed me. But if every meme she saved was in some way a representation of her life, then this collection was an album of her, a narrative of her life that she reads and rereads every time she brings it up on her phone screen. Each time, she internalizes it a little more deeply.
We might not all store memes on our phones, but on some level, we are storing them in our memories.
If we vote with our attention, by liking and sharing the memes that speak to our experiences, then thanks to custom news feeds that quickly learn our tastes, we will continue seeing those kinds of memes. And when we decide what makes it onto our screens and what we define as relatable then we are taking control of our own life stories.