A new Internet meme indicates our alienation and simultaneous desire for connection.
Many of us are still in COVID-19 isolation, shaken from months of quarantine and horrific headlines followed by yet another month of protests featuring violent confrontations and countless unresolved horrors.
Needless to say everyone's had a different experience during this time—some people have suffered far more than others—but it's certainly been a traumatizing time for everyone.
These months of isolation have cost many of us close in-person relationships we may have taken for granted before, leaving us to rely on screens and endless Zoom meetings for ultimately insignificant connection.
Perhaps that's why the Internet's latest and most wholesome new meme, the "What __ You Are," places social connection and individuality at its center.
The "What __ Are You" meme is essentially the online version of those little tags or tschotskes you'd see in souvenir stores, each labeled with different names to give the illusion that they were created specifically for you. If you had an average name, you'd be able to gleefully pluck your own personal boat or picture frame from the spinning stand of objects, or you'd comb through looking for a meaningless yet charming gift to give to your friend, your sweetheart, or your parents.
This tradition has been all but frozen across America as little gift stores have shut down, and the ancient tradition of giving each other objects has been paused. But now the online world has invented its very own way of creating personalized souvenirs.
The premise of the "What __ Are You" meme is very simple: Accounts pick a theme and add a personalized name to different photos, thus creating digital souvenirs, perfect for sharing on stories or DMing to friends or exes whom you haven't spoken to for months. Why share them? Just because.
The most popular meme account is "what_image_are_you," which has 54.4k followers. In terms of the images it uses, most are what you might call "cursed images"—the kind of warped, low-quality photos that might've been taken on a digital camera in the 2000s. Many are photos that depict objects and suburban detritus in odd juxtapositions: a potato in a cup-holder, a snake smoking a cigarette, a half-naked person playing a saxophone about to step on a massively tangled pedalboard.
Cursed images offer a special kind of catharsis; for anyone who grew up in the hellscape of broken iPhone chargers and lead paint, they resonate. Cursed images are "not just creepy images," writes Jia Tolentino. "The word has acquired new valances, has come to signify increasingly generalized feelings of anxiety and malaise." She continues, "The cursedness that has come to be incessantly invoked online...may be connected to a sense that the very relationship between direct cause and effect has grown weaker."
"Americans are regularly dying in mass shootings but Congress won't pass basic gun legislation; the President has been racking up impeachable offenses since the Inauguration but momentum for impeachment is only building now, as we approach the end of 2019 (and, really, who knows for sure). At the same time, our sense of indirect, complex cause and effect may be tightening. We see Caribbean islands destroyed by hurricanes and look guiltily at our air-conditioning units; the Supreme Court ruled one way in Bush v. Gore and now Ivanka Trump is acting as a diplomat in North Korea's demilitarized zone," Tolentino adds. "I have never been able to interest myself too much in the idea that we are living in a simulation, and yet the idea of cursed energy does evoke a feeling that the simulation is breaking, and that something terrible is emerging from the breach."
That something terrible, as it turned out, was (at least in part) this pandemic and the dumpster fire that is 2020, which will certainly only grow worse as climate change intensifies.
We are indeed cursed; our 2019 forebodings, which seem innocent in hindsight, were correct. Each one of us is living in cursed times, so why not be assigned our own cursed images? Why not take ownership of our own doomed fates, as humans have since Eve first bit into the apple–or some ape was unlucky enough to evolve consciousness that allowed him to have his first crisis of meaning?
Some of the "what __ you are" accounts are far more pure-hearted than others. Since the first "what image are you" account cropped up, dozens of copycats have emerged. There's "what chicken you are," "what bird you are," "what frog you are," "what rats you are," "what rat are you," what rat are you_," "what goat you are," "what cow you are," "what cursed image are you," "what toilet are you," "what lizard you are," "what car you are," "what sandwich you are," "what panda you are," "what squirrel you are," "what fungi you are," and far more niche ones, like "what ed markey you are," and many, many more.
Like most viral memes, this one keeps blossoming, morphing to fit the desires of subcultures and individuals.
Many of the accounts label their photos with the same childish, inflated, rainbow-printed font (though some of the newer ones have chosen to use more basic, default fonts). The meme's power is in the juxtaposition between the font and the image, between the anonymity of the online sphere and the personalization of the name.
If you're lucky enough to see your name printed on one of the memes, you can't help but feel your heart leap. This is me, you think. That dog with the long, flowing, luscious hair on "what dog you are" is me.
This phenomenon—the leap of joy we feel when we see our names, or the compulsive desire to scroll until we find them—perhaps relies on the same sort of psychological pattern that leads us to identify with every horoscope we read. We cling to astrology like a lifeboat, memorizing our birth charts; perhaps it's the same impulse that makes us feel summoned when we see a post saying, "If you're looking for a sign, this is it." We want to see ourselves reflected in the world around us, and the more disconnected and out-of-place we feel, the harder we look.
And in an increasingly dehumanized, impersonal and alienated world, when many of us have been completely cut off from each other, and when the arbiters of organized society are breaking down—in many ways, possibly for the better—many of us may be seeking new ways to shape our identities, new ways to view ourselves in the context of others.
These memes, which link our names with random objects, give us that context while also affirming our own sense of anonymity, unmooredness, and, ultimately, meaninglessness. At the same time, the moments we spend scrolling through hundreds of posts we know are pointless just to find our own name proves that we still are seeking meaning and identity, and always will be, no matter how meaningless and arbitrary our time on Earth actually is.
In the opening pages of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is destroyed. Now if that doesn't scream 2020 so far, what does?
In Douglas Adams's 1979 novel, which premiered as a radio series on BBC Radio4 in 1978 (42 years ago—but more about the significance of that number later), Earth is suddenly blown up in order to make room for an intergalactic superhighway. Now, in a year that has—after only 3 months, people—given us a contentious, confusing democratic primary, the death of Kobe Bryant, new and worsening facts about our climate and habitat at large, appalling leadership, and of course the rapid spread of and global shutdowns by the coronavirus (COVID-19), it seems impossible to turn to any source for comfort.
Enter The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: a novel that starts with the global annihilation that we might be heading for and then follows the characters as they cope with new realities, with isolation and loss, an endless information source that brings with it endless anxiety, and an egomaniacal, arrogant, selfish, attention-craving president of the galaxy.
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It's time to study.
Now that you've flooded Instagram with photos of black squares, it's time to hunker down for some real activism.
If you're a white person, you're sitting on top of about four centuries of institutionalized racism. In the wake of George Floyd's murder by police and countless Black Lives Matter protests across the nation, it's time to show up—with your body, with your voice, and with your brain.