The Trivialization of Trust in Our Meme Culture

Back in high school, a buddy of mine used to tell me all kinds of interesting tidbits about music — specifically classic rock, a genre we were both very much into (I still am). We both had our favorite bands, and though our tastes didn’t always intersect (I’ve never been a Rolling Stones guy, for example), we’d sometimes swap cassette tapes.

For my younger readers (if there are any), cassette tapes were an audio format for albums, singles, and what became known as mixtapes (self-compiled recordings, which were a lot of fun but I think totally illegal). Cassettes were popular in the 1980s, in between the eras of vinyl records and CDs. And yes, I’m being a bit silly by even including this paragraph.

Anyway, when it came to unasked questions about topics like a rock group’s origins, the evolution of a particular band, preferred instruments, and the stories behind certain songs or lyrics, my friend usually had the answers.

I was never really sure how he came to know so much about music. He grew up in Canada, and didn’t move down to Colorado (where his father lived) until his junior year. Having seen a number of McKenzie Brothers skits, I suppose I just kind of figured that Canadians took their pastimes more seriously than Americans did, in part because there typically wasn’t a whole heckuva lot going on up north.

The name of Bad Company’s original front-man; the job Eddie Money worked before he became a rock star; the title of AC/DC’s first album, the inspiration behind Hotel California. He could rattle those things off with unflinching confidence, and I was usually a pretty receptive audience — primarily because the content was cool. Rock music itself is cool, and I probably I felt as though any passed along knowledge on the topic might just make me a little bit cooler.

Believe me, I needed as much help on that front as I could get. (I have the pictures to prove it.)

Even if the added insight was really only good for just shooting the breeze at a party, or talking at a bar after work (twenty-something co-workers at the local restaurant we worked at made such things possible), it was a net plus.

I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of rock when I as younger (my parents were fans of old-school country), so in the pre-Internet age, I didn’t have the expertise to push back on my friend’s musical prowess, and I really didn’t even have a reason to question it — not when it came from such a familiar, clearly informed source.

I haven’t seen or heard from that guy in many years, but he left a lasting impression on me… That impression, for all intents and purposes, is that some people are simply full of sh*t.

Sorry, but it’s true.

As it turned out, a good 80% of my buddy’s wisdom on the topic of rock music (among other things) wasn’t, well… real. It some instances it was partially wrong, but in most cases, it was completely wrong. It was fake news decades before “fake news” was ever a thing.

I came to realize this very slowly over time with the help of the Internet. Over the years, I’ve found myself looking into this stuff (usually because of some off-handed comment from a radio personality or a personal acquaintance) only to discover that much of what I thought I knew was wrong. But I bought into it at the time because my friend was someone I felt I knew, and he always presented his narratives with confidence.

Was he lying to me — just pulling things out of thin air? It’s certainly possible. Or maybe he truly believed what he was saying, perhaps because he himself had been given bad information — information conveyed with the same conviction. I don’t know; maybe it was a combination of both.

Either way, at the time, I gladly accepted what I heard as fact. And I’m pretty sure I even passed along some of that bad information to others.

Now, it’s not that those flawed understandings directly affected me in any meaningful way, or compromised any important decisions I’ve made in my life. After all, we’re talking about what amounts to nothing more than music trivia. One can be wrong on all sorts of things in that arena without it manipulating or interfering in their best interests.

But what about when in comes to more substantive topics and issues that do potentially affect the lives of individuals, and their capacity to make informed decisions?

This a concern I’ve long had with the meme culture we live in.

If you’ve spent any time at all on the Internet, you’ve assuredly seen memes. They’re those snappy narratives (usually in the form of an image, video, or phrase) that certain friends (you know who they are) are always sharing on their Facebook pages or perhaps forwarding to you in emails.

Some memes are inspirational. Some are just silly, fun, pop-culture-type stuff, and they’re harmless. I have no problem with either. Other memes present a brief, bold, seemingly informed statement in order to get a particular societal point across. And they’re pretty darned effective at bolstering certain views or mindsets.

So effective, in fact, that a lot of people debate some awfully serious issues (whether political, religious, or cultural) almost exclusively by sharing memes that convey their positions and perceived wisdom.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of big problems tied into this form of commentary and debate.

If an issue is indeed serious, it’s also either complex or — at minimum — nuanced. And memes don’t lend voice to complexity or nuance.

Secondly, most such memes are blow-horn shallow or misleading at best. At worst, they’re downright false. They offer an altered or alternate, often non-contextual reality that floods the zone of our consciousness at breakneck speed. They’ve also become one of our most popular and preferred methods of discourse, readily accepted at face value by an extraordinary number of people.

Why are memes so well received and even trusted? Part of it has to do with confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret material as confirmation of one’s pre-held beliefs or theories.

We’ve all been guilty, from time to time, of lazily deciding that if something rings true… it must be true. Memes take full advantage of this human condition, and also of the common trait that prevents us, at times, from even wanting to know the truth or validity of an argument (because the truth might conflict with our valued sensibilities). And if we can lower the status of our perceived rivals or opponents in the process of confirming our biases (a particularly self-satisfying exercise), well that’s all the better!

Another reason for our faith in memes: a lot of people consider the source. Individuals put trust and faith in their friends, so when a friend shares a particular piece of information, one is more inclined to accept and advance it without question or challenge.

Lastly, memes are kind of cool. They’re bold, often funny, and visually appealing. They even come across as somewhat profound. In some cases, they make people feel as though they’ve actually learned something. They provide at least a perception of wisdom that people want to share with others. What’s not cool, and takes some time and effort? Research and fact-checking.

These are largely the same reasons I bought into my old friend’s non-insight on rock music. They’re also the same reasons political figures, media figures, and other influencers have come to rely more and more on memes. (This would include the Russian government propagandists who like to interfere in our elections.)

From campaigns, to clickbait, to arguments among friends, a good meme is worth a thousand words. At least, that’s the prevailing mindset.

None of this is healthy for our culture and our capacity to have serious discussions and make informed decisions in regard to real issues and challenges. Communication is a dying art, and it’s happening at a time when substantive dialogue is needed more then ever.

As Kevin Williamson writes in his book, The Smallest Minority, “We think in language. We signal in memes. Language is the instrument of discourse. Memes are the instrument of antidiscourse, i.e., communication designed and deployed to prevent the exchange of information and perspectives rather than to enable it…”

So what’s the answer? Should we declare a war on memes (which sounds like a meme in itself)?

It would be a losing battle, of course, and an epic defeat at that. Any kind of legal remedy would be a terrible idea, and would come at the cost of our First Amendment rights. Pressuring web companies to serve as hall monitors wouldn’t be much better.

No, this is a personal responsibility issue, and not an insignificant one. Individuals have it within themselves to choose whether or not participate in this erosion of constructive thought, but the ease of accessibility and wide reach of social media make it all too easy (including for lots of good, smart people) to make the wrong decision…and do it time after time.

There are certainly positives to the social network, including the capacity to communicate in meaningful and healthy ways, but it also lures us into cheapening our discourse, and narrowing how we process and advance information. On the topic of something like music trivia, we can afford to be reckless. On issues that really matter, we can and should do better.