Why memes matter (or what I learned at ROFLCon)

Double Rainbow Guy, aka Paul Vasquez, at ROFLCon 2012

Double Rainbow Guy, Paul Vasquez, at ROFLCon 2012.

It’s easy to write off Internet memes — LOLcats, Double Rainbow Guy, taxidermist Chuck Testa — as trivial but entertaining ways to waste time. At least that was my feeling coming into ROFLCon 2012 this weekend. But then a funny thing happened: After two sessions — one on Supercuts and another on Lolitics — it sunk in that memes say a lot about us as a culture and as such bear serious examination.

For example, even though you can hide your identity on the Internet (where nobody knows you’re a dog) the fact is the web is just as segregated as the rest of the world, said ROFLCon panelist Latoya Peterson, owner and editor of Racialicious. Memes, oddly enough, are one way to address that separation.

Humor, weapon or both

On the one hand, the web is a venue where people can spew bile under cover of anonymity: “If every racist comment is a snowflake, Youtube is a blizzard,”  Peterson said. On the other, it provides a relatively safe place to discuss race, ethnicity and other hot-button issues.

Peterson has seen memes straddle both sides of that divide.

Racialicious editor Latoya Peterson.

Racialicious editor Latoya Peterson.

Example:  The “s**t black guys say” and “s**t black girls say” videos that exploded on YouTube (the latter logged more than 8.7 million views since December.)  These videos, starring women in drag as the men and men in drag as the women,  generated a raft of imitators including “”s**t white guys say about Asian women.” Another,  “s**t Spanish girls say”  sparked a brouhaha over just which “Spanish” girls were being depicted. Dominicans? Puerto Ricans? Mexicans? It provoked a real discussion about ethnic identity.

Memes as platforms for social change

Those videos are funny but also painful. “They’re about the f**ked up stuff other people say to you based on your identity,” Peterson said. In this way these memes are very serious. “Humor is a powerful tool … Some of these videos are so ridiculous you want to make jokes but they’re often about very dark moments” she said.

But then again, over time, these same memes can be subverted and become forms of activism, of self-expression. For example, the “s**t people say” videos, as they got more specific, evolved into platforms for people to assert their own identities as opposed to make fun of others. For example, the  “s**t southern black gay guys say” videos don’t feature people hiding behind fake identities but showcase the subjects themselves –southern black gay men — albeit in an exaggerated way.

Daniel Sinker, another panelist and the man behind the hugely popular @mayoremanuel Twitter account, agreed that humor serves a useful purpose. “It’s not an Internet phenomenon that humor lets us look at dark things. My whole meme was really about how [screwed] up Chicago is — to the point of unrepairability after 29 years of [Mayor] Daley. That’s not very funny. Humor allows us to disarm and engage in conversations that we otherwise couldn’t do.”

Latoya Peterson photo courtesy of Flickr user allaboutgeorg