Meme World Syndrome

By now it should be clear that the internet, particularly our use of social media, has changed the way we interact with others. What’s more, these changes impact our way of thinking and judging. Psychology plays into it as well—social media stirs up our impulse for narcissism and posturing, thereby incentivizing the creation of a variety of personae separated from authentic existence.

Things in life which used to be performative have entered the realm of metaphysics. Witness the rise of the transgender movement or the ongoing controversy over so-called “Drag Queen Story Hours,” in which drag queens come to schools and libraries and read stories to children. This is a clear example of what used to be a purely performative sphere of life moving into the sphere of family and ordinary life. Whatever one may think of drag queens, it’s clear that the theatrical expressions most often found in gay clubs have suddenly intruded upon the everyday lives of everyday people.

Similarly, we have seen the rise of online political personae. While this development is not harmful in the same way as drag performances in front of children, it is still a cause for concern that demands our attention and reflection. Many commentators now choose to use pseudonyms as they write and publish their work. There is nothing inherently wrong with that and it is very often both legitimate and prudent: Many people have done it to protect themselves and their families. But in many cases these online personae are adopted as mere affectations that are just another part of the social media parade.

Inevitably, the over-the-top personality, visible only online, commands outsized attention. But what about the words? Do these personalities offer an intelligent commentary or is everything just one big spectacle of shock and awe—an extended “reality show” that feeds the monster of already established virtual illusions?

Too often there is a great difference between an online persona and the person behind its creation. But this kind of life is not sustainable. It creates a further rift between the real and false self. It  change one’s metaphysical structure, and demands more shocking assertions, more wildness, more pseudo-political commentary. While all of this is happening, the said persona/person will experience further alienation from him- or herself. Words won’t matter anymore and if there ever was any intelligent commentary to be offered, it tends to be supplanted by meme-like discourse.

Of course, none of this would matter if such created personae existed only in a performative sphere. Take, for example, David Bowie. He was a master at creating theatrical personae—Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke come to mind—yet he was quite different in real life. The difference between Bowie and social media personalities is that he placed personae in their appropriate place. Once the performance was over, the “costume” was put in the closet.

There is much more at stake with political commentators (often working under pseudonyms, though not always) who engage in theatrical representations of themselves. They are making cultural and ethical commentary. These are concepts and realities that must be taken seriously.

The separation between the persona and the person can also suggest cowardice. One has separated himself from his actions, thereby making himself not morally responsible for the words that appear on the page. In addition, this creates an unnecessary inequality in the discourse. It atomizes people, and so each group is merely speaking to their own respective group. For example, pseudonymous writers will pretty much only speak with their “kind.” This is one of the reasons why political and cultural discourse in America is dying—if it’s not already dead. It has become little more than a chorus preaching to the chorus. Nothing gets solved, no minds are changed or challenged, but the show (and the dopamine hits) must go on.

Can we really be surprised by any of this? Online culture only breeds more and more alienated behavior. We often communicate in memes. There is nothing harmful about a funny meme but they are inevitably transient in nature. Something people often forget, but that must be remembered, is that the online world is run by algorithms. People are secondary, often tertiary components in this unreal world. This is crucial in understanding why discourse itself lately is just a zombie roaming around the cemetery of bad ideas.

In his book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier explains memes. “Memes might seem to amplify what you are saying,” writes Lanier, “but that is always an illusion. You might launch an infectious meme about a political figure, and you might be making a great point, but in the larger picture, you are reinforcing the idea that virality is truth. Your point will be undone by whatever other point is more viral.”

The feedback loop knows no end and it is rendering our society insane. Of course, this is not just about memes, which are harmless enough. It’s more about how we feed the algorithm by continuing this charade of an unreal life online. The persona takes precedence over the substance of arguments because there are no intellectual arguments online! The only thing that exists is algorithmic suppression of truth. In an eternal return of the same, one will to power is advanced as every online persona relies on a group of similarly minded personae as well as a great number of followers in order to exist. Yet another rises as the algorithm changes.

To demonstrate this, Lanier quotes the pseudonymous writer known as “Mencius Moldbug,” who said that “In many ways nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth. Anyone can believe in the truth. To believe in nonsense is an unforgettable demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army.”

There is no more political right or political left. We are kidding ourselves if we think that we’re fighting the same cultural battles of previous generations. There is only a continuing fragmentation of brands in a vat screeching like a modem of the “olden” internet days. This is a dead end, an illusion that, just like a meme, has a shelf life. Embracing reality and metaphysical embodiment is the only way out of the hellscape.

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