As people's dependence on social media surges in times of COVID-19, memes face a faster 'death'

Given the physical immobility, people are resorting to social media to stay connected during these difficult times. So, how is the internet coping with the virus?

Anchal Khandelwal and Yarshna Sharma April 17, 2020 10:01:18 IST
As people's dependence on social media surges in times of COVID-19, memes face a faster 'death'

There are few spheres of society that remain unaffected by COVID-19 . At the time of this writing, the virus has killed approximately close to 1,39,469 people worldwide, forcing several countries into lockdown to prevent transmission. The International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, described the current economic situation as similar or probably worse than that of the 2008 global financial crisis. The Reserve Bank of India aims to infuse Rs 1.37 lakh crore in the Indian economy to fuel growth. In this period of maximum quarantine, the amount of time people spend on social media has increased by nearly 20 percent. Given the physical immobility, people are resorting to social media to stay connected during these difficult times. So, how is the internet coping with the virus?

In a rather harmless corner of the world wide web thrives an economy of the internet’s most cherished tool of communication: memes. Despite being the dialect of virality in the current reign of the internet, memes are actually a relatively old concept. Coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, a meme is described as a replicatory model of DNA. Thus, a meme is essentially a unit of cultural imitation, constantly aiming to attain a quintessential status. The Meme Economy is a subreddit where creators post memes on a daily basis, and just like stock market in real life, the public invests in them. It is made up of moderators who make the rules, firms, and roughly 1.3 million economists. In the words of the moderators "it’s not a dumping ground for low-effort, unoriginal memes." A meme in the economy is said to die once it becomes viral on social media, causing the value (in memecoins) of the meme to drop.

As peoples dependence on social media surges in times of COVID19 memes face a faster death

The original template vs the modified one.

Can a meme be broken down in identifiable characteristics? Definitely. First, by virtue of its existence on the internet, memes are equally accessible to most.

Second, each meme is made up of a modifiable template. While there exist recognisable structures, the content within this space imitates or satirises current world events. Third, the content of a meme can exploit its existing parts and make contextually relevant commentary. Finally, internet memes are intertextual, which means that the content often contains references taken from many different sources.

As peoples dependence on social media surges in times of COVID19 memes face a faster death

A combination of the 'Hotline Bling' and the 'Distracted Boyfriend' meme.

Once created, the meme, proliferating through replication, assumes a slightly different meaning, ie, each individual’s interpretation of the content is based on their personal experiences, and communication of this interpretation is also subjective.

The above characteristics are in fact identifiable features of postmodernism. That is to say, equal accessibility, modifiability of templates and exploitation of specific parts of the template resonate with this philosophical thought. In addition to these, memes exhibit a sense of self-consciousness through the use of irony and sarcasm. This school of thought challenged modernism’s notion of objectivity, and therefore, the idea that there are permanent ‘truths'.

Characterised by deconstruction and death of objective 'reason', postmodernism emerged as a cultural reaction to modernism. The boom of technological advancements during the Industrial period that led to magnanimous changes in global cultures was driven by pure modern ideas. Postmodernism on the other hand, challenged the universality of things - that there exists a singular truth about reality.

The meme economy has established a space that accentuates these characteristics of a meme and therefore, of postmodernism. A representation of the real-world share market, the meme economy replicates its mechanisms, procedures, and behaviours. In this way, the meme economy, as a structure only, is a relatively modern one. However, given that it contains postmodern items, the entirety of the meme economy (structure and content) oscillates between the two opposing schools of thought (modernism and postmodernism). This mechanism of reconstructing the deconstructed, assigning objective meanings (value through meme coins and upvoting) of the volatile subjective content, and breaking away from the competition between the two schools of thought is known as metamodernism. Noting from the increase in the number of ‘economists’ on the subreddit and the degree to which the representation of a real-world structure allows objective investment (monetary and otherwise), the meme economy stands to be one of the foremost representations of metamodernism.

Governed by 10 personalised commandments, roughly 20 memes are posted on the market for trading every day. Browsing through the most trending memes, one can see that most of these are about COVID-19 . Of the most popular memes from the month of March, approximately 40 talk about the virus in some form or the other — mocking the things people are resorting to while quarantining themselves at home, spreading misinformation about the virus, etc.

Since 20 March, the number of investments in the Meme Economy has been increasing, with a peak on 30 March (958 investments, as opposed to 856 on 21 March). However, the number of memecoins invested peaked on 25 March and dropped eventually, only to slightly rise again in the last three days of the month. Although just as volatile as the real-world economy, the Meme Economy might just be booming right now: as of 7 April, the number of investments stand at 1042. Countrywide lockdowns across the globe could be causing this — more people are staying in. The downside of this is, since more time is being spent online, the pace at which memes are being consumed has increased, possibly leading to a faster ‘death’ of memes. A complex and layered structure, this replication model has received analysis from leading economic magazines and academia, but, the true purpose of this enterprise is dubbed to be merely satirical.

Anchal Khandelwal and Yarshna Sharma are Research Assistants at Monk Prayogshala with the Departments of Economics and Psychology, respectively.

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