31st January 2017

Is ‘relatable’ online content homogenising us?

Our emotional and expressive capacities are changing the age of the meme

After the ‘post-truth’ age — the entirely new phenomenon of propaganda informing belief systems — the world came to realise the insidious effect of lives being spent online. One such effect was the issue of people’s newsfeeds on social media creating echo chambers of opinion. This occurs because the ‘suggested content’ on one’s social media stream is informed by those sites and accounts you already follow — hence, reinforcing opinion. All that you see holds a mirror up to that which you already believe. It was quite right to bring this problem to light, but the issue we have now is that many have centred their critique of the internet around this single fact, despite a host of other problems.

So, now, in between my normal routine of scrolling through popular tweets that somehow always seem to understand exactly how I am feeling at any given moment, I am going to take a second to ponder whether our online lives are reducing our expressive and emotional capacity.

You might have guessed by the heavy stench of pretension emanating from my prose, but I am a literature student (and, yes, I did just categorise my own article as ‘prose’ to enact that level of pretension. Well done if you got it.) One of my concerns is that the effect of soundbite articles and churned-out retweetable lifestyle-based content intended to appeal to the masses is a generation of people who think the only way one can feel in a variety of situations is through the visual conduit of a frog. For, apparently, this is the most ‘accurate’ way of describing the whole gamut of human emotion.

I don’t want to harp on about books too much, especially as I have forgotten to bring in my harp today, but these kinds of glib, shallow and essentially meaningless turns of phrase make me wonder how the creative process of many of the literary greats could be reimagined through the prism of the relatable content machine.

I see Virginia Woolf. She is taking a seat in a room, a room of her own presumably. It has been a day of deep depression for the long-time sufferer. But, she thinks, putting pen to paper might prove cathartic, as has been the case many times before. She begins writing on a page she has marked, “accuracy af.” It might be noted that this title sits next to a crossed-out title of “it me” — well, she always was a perfectionist. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, reopens them, and, focusing intensely on exactly what it is she is experiencing, begins to write: “17 times life was less than chill”. She proceeds, in the form of a relatable listicle, to bare her soul. She closes her eyes once more and lets out a deep sigh. Tears fall slowly down her cheeks. She feels some type of way.

The narrowing of our emotional and expressive capacity is in some ways inverse to the problem caused by people’s newsfeeds being reduced to echo chambers of opinion. This issue relates to the content you turn towards when you have had enough of news and politics. Instead of appearing to be a narrow tunnel, this online content seems general, generic, universal even. The scope seems so wide that it can relate to everyone. Yet, once again, it actually has the effect of reducing a wide variety of people and their modes of self-expression into one person who dabs, says things are “lit”, and quite often “can’t cope” with various situations. They just can’t. “I just can’t”, they often reaffirm.

This may seem to be a banal issue. It may seem as though the way we express ourselves does not change how we are on the inside, how we process things, how we feel. But for better or for worse (hmm let’s have a think about that one) the influence of popular culture need no longer wait in line to offer its suggestion on how we should be acting, but is now with us on our phones even in the most private moments.

Populist media may have damaging effects regarding the inculcation of unfounded, inaccurate political convictions; but we should not overlook the ways in which the relatable meme industry, fun and funny as it can it can be, is similarly pernicious in that it shapes those parts of ourselves that we might think in our vain way transcend the reach of a picture of a man sprinkling some salt.

If we don’t step away from the tweets for at least a few seconds a day, perhaps all emotions will be rendered through meme-based content. This will make us feel sad. But when we try to break down how we are feeling there will just be a picture of a frowning frog imprinted deep within our soul.

Literary critic Harold Bloom said, “no one can bear to see his own inner struggle as being mere artifice.” This turmoil is doubled when mere artifice becomes meme artifice. In the midst of this struggle, I know I can relate to these words, and I am sure you can too. Like, share and subscribe, if so.

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