Before I launch into another diatribe about internet memes and politics, a friendly reminder:

The Discourse is not the world. The tweets are not the territory.

No two people see the same feed. We all grapple with hyperdimensional algorithms that attempt to influence our behaviors. There are so many of them. We cannot win every time.

When a meme breaks the threshold of our herd immunity, it surges in population. Each person that screenshots the meme creates a copy, a mutation, a re-production. It adapts to its surroundings, absorbs more attention, prints new copies.

The meme, like other living beings, expands exponentially to fill its resource pool, then overshoots that capacity and dies back. Biologists know this as the S-curve:

carrying capacity s-curve diagram

You can’t opt out of memes, in the same way you can never get away from germs. Because they’re always inside and all over you. We are made of memes. They intersect humanity horizontally: along some slices, you and I are part of the same meme, and along some we are not. In that dimension, such entities as “you” and “I” are not actors. We are the terrain. We are surfaces and substrates for the memes.

But we are uneven surfaces: we have biases, which are the ecological limits of the memetic environment. We get to exercise our judgment about what to replicate. We do have that agency in the world. Our choices may be limited by our evolution and environment, but we can yet make choices. We can amplify memes, ignore them, repurpose them. Perhaps, even, engineer them to our purposes.

On to the Discourse.

trend diagram for three memes

Three memes from the latest news cycle. In the dear hope that they’re no longer relevant by the time you read this, I’ll try to explain:

  • “Ok boomer” was an eye-roll response to the type of people who invented the “Millennials are killing capitalism” narrative while their peers installed neoliberal austerity around the world. It was a mediocre meme, boosted by a shitty thinkpiece in the Opinion of Record on October 29. It got a second dose of attention on November 4 due to an idiot tweet from a radio host saying: “‘Boomer’ is the n-word of ageism. Being hip and flip does not make bigotry ok, nor is a derisive epithet acceptable because it is new.” The tweet was immediately ratioed into oblivion. It has since been deleted.

  • “Warren’s Meme Team” was a failed attempt to engineer a metameme. The concept, explained in an excruciatingly smarmy Google doc, was to design and distribute meme templates to an army of passionate supporters of presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren. The “team” was invented by a single man, M.I.T. graduate and former McKinsey Killer Consulting employee Misha Leybovich. Leybovich talks nakedly about the need to convert supporters into meme producers to win the “asymmetrical battle”, to “fight back, in a way that’s authentic to our values”. Needless to say, the astroturf did not spring to life. The WarrenMemeTeam twitter account deleted their posts and Leybovich’s personal account is now locked. The Team account appears to now be run by a bot.

  • “Epstein didn’t kill himself” is a reference to deceased ruling-class pedophile Jeffery Epstein, who died in prison under suspicious circumstances. The use of the phrase as a non-sequitur punchline meme took off after a Fox News interview where the interviewee, a trainer of military dogs and former Navy SEAL, asked to do a “PSA” and dropped the punchline on live TV. But the meme also made hay on The Daily Show, where the host asked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “How did you kill Jeffery Epstein?” to surreal, forced laughter from Clinton and her daughter. Clinton’s husband, former US President Bill Clinton, flew on Epstein’s private jet at least 11 times.

I think “ok boomer” is an organic outgrowth of tension in society. The zoomers who invented it, and the millennials who latched onto it, are growing up worse off than their parents. We’re pissed about the state of the climate and the economy and the government we’ve inherited. For decades we were told that we’re snowflakes who can’t handle any suffering, while housing costs and college debt ballooned and wages stagnated. It’s not ageist to be mad at the category of people who benefited from the economy that’s killing the rest of us. It’s a poor substitute for class analysis, but it’s genuine.

The Warren Meme Team, on the other hand, was an obvious plant. It was mask-off technocracy, a wonk talking to other wonks about how to manufacture support for his wonky candidate by brainwashing the dumb idiot voters who don’t know what’s good for them. This sort of elitist sharp-power approach might work for the right, who (despite all their talk of freedom) love to be dommed by authorities. But as grassroots movements go, “persuade the suckers to advertise for free” is a pretty bad look.

Not all engineered memes are so obvious. Take “Epstein didn’t kill himself”. Some percentage of its success is genuine. It is certainly curious that a very rich pedophile, who may have had blackmail on any number of rich and powerful people, hanged himself in his prison cell awaiting trial. While both guards were asleep. And the camera happened to be on the fritz. But there’s something fishy about the meme itself.

In the so-called intelligence community there’s a trick called a “limited hangout”. When some secret surfaces and can’t be sunk, the spies release a controlled amount of information mixed with lies, steering any investigation astray. To me, the Epstein meme looks like a limited hangout, an attempt to instigate a “truther” mentality, to attract conspiracy theorists and generally muddy the waters.

If Epstein didn’t kill himself, who did?

If you imagine, for a moment, that there is a secret cult of rich people doing international child sex slavery – people powerful enough to ice a material witness in custody – it takes a different tone. Who is behind the hangout? Is it a boast, or a threat?

None of us are above the meme. Even if you can escape the Discourse to find a pure beautiful moment in nature or in art, you must return to the world of humanity eventually.

Keep your judgment sharp. You never know who might be rummaging around in your mind.

Thanks for reading,

– Max


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