‘If you can say it in a meme, you didn’t think about it hard enough’

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Updated Jan 20, 2021

satirical trucking meme witha truck on the highway, 'alarming text' and flames

A Facebook post with actual writing in it got my attention a few weeks ago. I’d been mulling about doing something I don’t often do. I finally did it and you can see the results right above. Yeah, I made a meme. (Tip of the hat to our art director, Ken Stubbs, for his custom flame work.)

When you work for a magazine, imagining combinations of text and pictures is sort of second nature. Though memes in the contemporary sense, of course, have become much more than that.

“Memes are sort of an evil product of marketing,” said Phoenix-based Jewel Jones, herself with a marketing and design background. I know her in association with past work with Over the Road Apparel, which her sister Amanda Roth founded. Roth also heads up the Meadowlark Transportation brokerage and fleet out of Montana, founded by their father, Rick Jones.

Today, Jewel Jones added, “I struggle to even work in marketing. I find a lot of the practices that you use in marketing, targeting people based on their demographics” or “psychographics” to be questionable.

Like me, to an extent, for years she didn’t have much of an issue with the widespread collection and use of what she calls individuals’ “personality” data for targeted marketing via so-called social media platforms. “They’re just going to try to sell me stuff,” she said. No big deal. People are trying to sell us stuff all the time.

Yet using the meme as a tool — what Jones called the “easiest way” to dilute a message to its essence — has been picked up of course by the legions among us. It’s been propagated by the attention-holding nature of those so-called social media platforms’ algorithms. And boy, we might just have a problem here, one that’s hard to capture/explain in a meme. Or a Facebook post, really. Which brings me back to Jones’ own post, excerpted here:

“We will all be on the wrong side of history for allowing social media and meme culture to create a society where people can’t talk to each other anymore. I can’t stand by and watch the left high-jack the beliefs of the empathetic souls whose progressive minds led to feminism and the civil rights movement…. Just like the right high-jacks Christianity to appeal to conservatives. From a marketing perspective, I see how both sides are taking advantage of what you believe in, in order to create division, and it looks like everyone on FB is taking the clickbait hook, line and sinker. I’m sick of sheep calling other people sheep with memes specifically created by marketers to be shared by sheep. Look at your Facebook timeline. If it’s mostly memes, you are a sheep, and part of a bigger problem than whatever issue you think your meme is going to solve.”

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Jones, like so many of you, I know (Jeff Clark, I’m looking at you), makes an active effort to stay out of what she calls a “content vacuum” — i.e. solely consuming opinion that mirrors your own. If your digital-content-consumption is limited to Facebook, good luck with that, given the way its algorithms keep fully whetted whatever “constant umbrage” appetite you may have, to borrow a phrase from my friend and colleague Paul Marhoefer. Marhoefer recognized dynamics similar to what we’re seeing today in the turn away from music to talk programming in most trucking-focused radio post-9/11, as memorialized in his interview of/tribute to Marcia Campbell in episode 7 of our Over the Road podcast.

“Don’t put yourself in a vacuum of content that agrees with you,” said Jones. “That’s the fastest way to get stupid I can think of.”

News media “turning every news story into a trailer for [TV series] ‘The Purge’ isn’t helping either,” she added, which was sort of why I came to this topic in the first place. (See my goofball meme at top, not too far off what trucking today looks like if your only view of it is through stories shot at you through your Google or Facebook feeds.)

But what about the “true” memes? (I might wager mine up top is pretty true, eh? Accurate, at least.) So you’ve fact-checked that meme you’re about to share, and you know what it says is at least accurate and verifiable. Should you share it? Jones at this point believes the quick-takes opinion/marketing culture around memes is just too fraught with problems, particularly given the amount of headspace we’re all devoting to the online world since (and before) COVID-19 came to town.

Ask yourself: “Is it worth it to share it?” she said. “From your perspective in history, are you so sure you’re right?” Self-doubt is in plenty short supply these days. I’ve lately had more than one occasion to actually say that out loud to people in my presence. And I’ll share that with you as if we were sitting across the table from each other, if you don’t mind. It’s a hot commodity we could all use a little more of, I think.

As Jones put it, “If you can say it in a meme, you didn’t think about it hard enough.”

I think I’ll swear off memes for a while longer.