The other day I received a kind note from a concerned stranger on Facebook. I didn’t see it at first; it ended up in the no man’s land of that folder reserved for correspondence from those beyond my bubble.
“I don’t want to cause [expletive],” she wrote, “but I think someone is impostering [sic] your husband.”
Below that, she attached a link to a message she’d received from an account with my husband’s name and photo, but with none of his flair for smooth talkin’.
“You’re sweet and beautiful,” the faux beau had written, “Can you introduce me to one of your friends if you don’t me [sic]. I really need a serious relationship.”
Upon further investigation, the account was one of presumably thousands — maybe millions — on Facebook fraudulently opened under other people’s names with other people’s pictures. You’ll often see panicked posts on social media warning undefined groups of people: “Don’t accept a friend request from me! It’s not me!” This nearly Lynchian struggle against our unseen doppelgangers has become part of daily life on social media.
I wished my fake husband fake luck in his fake search for fake love. Then I reported his account.
As we've been learning lately, vast stretches of the Internet are simply not real. As in not just fake as in fraudulent but as in imaginary. A recent report in New York Magazine from writer Max Book tears open this phenomenon, revealing that large swaths of the accounts making up the ostensibly conversational noise of social media (and even the traffic that drives the climate of those conversations) belong to nobody.
Massive click farms around the world fuel fake engagement that drives bogus metrics. Algorithms generate pages of authorless content consumed in the most technical sense by bots caught in traffic on an Internet that is “less than 60 percent” human. And the burgeoning development of deepfake videos and “generated adversarial networks” promises a future with even less discernible reality.
The extent of it is jarring, if not completely surprising. But when even my fake husband seems to be struggling to find someone real out there, the situation seems especially dire. And it may be why lately I’ve been treasuring memes more than usual.
Memes, after all, aren’t just aggressively opaque in-jokes for people who waste too much of their time online (though they are very much that); lately memes also seem like signs of life — flashlights blinking from windows across a darkened neighborhood.
Humor — especially opaque, absurd humor — has long been one of humanity’s go-to methods for reclaiming its bearings in uncertain times. I think of the Dadaists of Cabaret Voltaire raging against the absurdity of a world in collapse by simply raising the bar on the absurd — preferring honest gibberish over disingenuous speech — and it doesn’t seem too far removed from the [expletive]-posting memesmiths of nearly a century later.
And the more inscrutable and strange the humor — i.e. the less accessible it is to bots — the more human it becomes. In this context, the humor of memes seems like one of the last holdouts for truly human thinking online; and in the first few big memes of 2019 we see the beginnings of a humanism that seems almost like a rebellion — and I don't mean putting makeup on potatoes.
Take the wildly popular egg meme, for example. A simple picture of an egg, indistinguishable (even by Google Image Search) from other images of eggs, unspecial in every way. It’s only distinguishing mark was a call in the captions to “like” the egg with a goal of “beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)!” This motivation — a referendum on banality by way of amplified banality — is something like a classic move. The egg now has close to 50 million likes.
Over on Facebook, the unavoidable #10yearchallenge took over thousands of timelines, encouraging users to juxtapose profile photos separated by 10 years (in China, the counterpart was the slightly more challenging “4 generations challenge”). It instantly became a fun way for friends to tease each other, but the meme also accidentally landed as a reminder that our lives weren’t always lived through our thumbs. (And that the pressure to be photogenic wasn’t always so present. That’s a nice way of putting it.)
Wired writer Lousie Matsakis made a valid point this week when she wrote “the egg is really just a mechanism of the same social media economy it feels like it’s mocking”; and certainly the #10yearchallenge would be nothing without the endlessly renewable resource of narcissism to fuel it along. But I still see both as evidence of people poking through the matrix.
But in this first meme crop of 2019, my favorite so far, the one with the most human fingerprints all over it, has quickly become known as the South America meme. It’s story is short. Imagining her shocked response to reciprocated flirting, user @is_meguca meant to post the now-standard expression of predictable surprise, Surprised Pikachu. Instead, she accidentally posted a picture of South America.
Thus, South America = Surprised Pikachu, and you can follow the meme math from there. Before long, images of South America were everywhere, users scrambled to figure out the joke and employ it themselves, and a global project to redefine South America’s place in symbology was underway.
In just a few days, South America has become a lab where pure human error has mutated into an in-joke of nearly unplumbable ironic depth. The stubborn inscrutability of the meme and its offshoots feels like a celebration of stubborn inscrutability — a test of the human ability to turn nonsense into sense through humor. In this respect, memes can make us feel like we have a leg up on the bots — with South America being the comedy equivalent of a captcha.
Will bots ever be as good as we are at making each other laugh? And when they are, what use will we have for each other? How will we know where humanity ends and simulation begins? Until we do, don’t accept any friend requests from me.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.