just asking questions

Lauren Michele Jackson Explores the Inherent Blackness of Meme Culture

Photo: Laura Michele Jackson

We often think of memes as units of culture without context. A funny picture, a viral video, a joke tweet — all of which are universally applicable to any demographic. But that’s not actually how the internet works. On platforms like Twitter, for instance, and Vine (RIP), the most influential posts often come from highly active black and minority users carving out a space for themselves online. If there’s a new meme, trend, or piece of slang entering the mainstream lexicon, the odds are pretty good that it came from Black Twitter.

In her new book, White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, Dr. Laurene Michele Jackson analyzes the conversation around cultural appropriation, including how black people are the engine that powers the meme ecosystem. She spoke to Intelligencer earlier this week.

I guess to start, for our readers who might not be up to speed, you describe the internet as “black as fuck.” Can you summarize what you mean by that?

We have one mythology about tech, about the internet, about what allows us to have an experience of the internet and digital culture — the people who get to be lauded as the entrepreneurs who are responsible for the personal computer, for Apple, for our phones and all that stuff. Really, if we’re thinking in terms of digital culture, it gets a lot more complicated and a lot less white. In some ways, “black as fuck” is a provocation, it’s hyperbole, but in many ways, I really think that digital culture needs black people to sustain itself, or is sustained by black people. That’s literally in the vernacular of so much of meme culture. But also, I think, in the way that memes circulate, the way they mutate, combine with each other. The way that the internet moves and what we love so much about the internet (or maybe at one time did) I think is really indebted to cultural experiences sort of invented by minority populations, particularly black folks.

Why do you think minority populations have been able to drive that culture?

I think it’s the relative accessibility of the internet. I mean, I think things are changing, but broadly speaking, the average person may not have access to other forms of mass culture that we deem important — a film, music. The internet changed all that. You can upload a YouTube video, and at least at one point in time, you could just sort of go viral as a literal nobody. The same goes for a tweet. Instagram makes it a little bit more complicated, but the screenshot on Instagram or the shitpic on Instagram is such a huge currency as well. The barrier to entry is lower. You can buy a burner phone that’s a smartphone these days. If you are basically a normal person but who is very funny, you can create a meme that other people want to engage with and recycle. And that’s really all it takes on the internet to influence the culture.

I’m wondering why haven’t white people been as good at it, for lack of a better word. Like if these platforms are supposedly, as they say, neutral, and anyone can use them, what is it that has stopped white people from storming in and taking over?

I think it’s because white people adhere themselves so closely to formality. I mean, you think about the the trope of like the Grammar Nazi, right? The person who is going to like lambaste you for using their instead of there or something like that. Like, that is white culture, right? I’m being glib, but I mean literally in the history of human language, and the English language, it was middle, upper classes who were imposing things like dictionaries, imposing things like grammar rules, and sort of belatedly trying to enforce rules for how language is supposed to work. And the thing is like language actually doesn’t work like that. That’s why I call it “belated”; language moves and exceeds and it outpaces our ability to describe what’s going on. I think black people, as people who have always been considered outside of the sort of formal or accepted or standard range of language, are much better able to move and shake with the evolution of terms and vernacular and grammar and structure. That’s something that the internet thrives on. That’s something humor thrives on as well. If you’re too rigid, you’re not going to be funny, you’re not gonna be innovative, you’re not gonna be cool. In some ways, I just think being less anchored to classicism — or something like that, I don’t even know — I think that has sort of been a boon to digital culture more broadly, and black culture as the constitutive feature of digital culture.

Are there are there certain platforms that you think black culture thrives on more than others?

Twitter seems the most obvious but I’m also just on Twitter so much that it dominates my social-media imaginary. I think Twitter has the benefit of being able to retweet me and now quote-tweet in such a fashion that I think stuff just moves faster and is seen by more people. Instagram has actually been a really interesting place for the invention of a kind of alternative tabloid-rag space. Think about a place like the Shade Room, which literally started on and is mostly published on Instagram. I think there’s a website but I can’t imagine anyone actually goes to it. It exists on Instagram, it thrives on Instagram, it invented the sort of newsworthiness of Instagram interactions in and of themselves. The fact that somebody followed somebody or unfollowed somebody or commented on a photo or liked a photo — that little minutiae in the vernacular of the Shade Room is a newsworthy event. That was largely pioneered by a certain population and by black people. Something else on Instagram was the rise of the Instagram boutique, which is now at threat of becoming extinct, because now Instagram realizes that, “Oh! People can actually use this platform for commerce. So we’re actually going to integrate that into our into our platform, as a way to stifle the rogue types of business transactions that take place on the app.” There are a lot of features of Instagram that also owe a debt to the way black people have been using it.

Do you think there’s a particularly substantial black component to Facebook?

That’s what I was trying to think about. I don’t know. I think there has to be but I think it’s so outside of my personal networks. I see people screenshot stuff and put a post it to Twitter, I think there’s definitely a segment of Auntie Facebook and Oldhead Facebook, like the black equivalent of, I don’t know, Boomer Facebook, right? I don’t even know what the quintessential Facebook culture would even look like, so I think that’s just like outside the realm of my expertise. There has to be, right? Facebook’s just so boring.

Right, no one’s posting joke statuses on Facebook anymore. Have you looked at TikTok at all? I mostly ask just because I feel like it is being positioned as this Vine successor, but it also seems a lot whiter. Maybe that’s my filter bubble.

It does. I’m the furthest thing from an expert on TikTok, but I do remember reading a piece that was talking about how companies figured out ways to monetize TikTok almost contemporaneously with the growth of the app’s popularity. It took Instagram and Twitter so long — years and years and years — to actually figure out how to make them places where businesses can make money. Now that we already know the capacity for social media to create profit, or at least for capital, for TikTok it was almost immediate. I think TikTok gets very romanticized. It’s the place for, “The teens are alright!” I feel like that is just the oldest statement like anyone can possibly make. It just sounds so old! Like, “Oh, look at these teens!” First of all, is everyone in these TikToks a teen? I feel like that’s an impossibility and so I think this is where I bow to my inexpertise and say that I actually don’t know what’s going on with TikTok. But I’m looking forward to reading in the future what people have to say about it with a critical eye.

Given how much you’ve written on appropriation, how do you feel about meme accounts, and things like that? The accounts that just post screenshots of like other people’s funny tweets or or viral posts or whatever.

They’re obviously garbage. I think they’re kind of garbage. In many ways, it’s ironic because it seems just so anti-archival. The whole point of the account is to, in some ways, archive the best of the web or whatever. But a lot of those accounts post in ways that are super shady, doing things like cropping out the username of the person who made the tweet. And then they think they’re media companies, like Fuck Jerry. All that weird shit makes me so cynical about them. In some ways, they’re just like a microcosm of what social-media platforms already do, which is curate and recycle and repurpose and disattribute and all of that stuff. It just like seems like the accounts themselves get way too big for their britches and think of themselves as important and have way too much cachet. But it’s also the way a lot of people engage with memes and stuff online, particularly people who aren’t otherwise sort of fluent enough on the platform to self-curate people who are funny or posts that are funny. So it’s like, if you’re only gonna follow one Instagram account, it’s going to be Fuck Jerry or something like that.

As you write in your book, memes, at the end of the day, are just whatever people find funny. Overthinking them is sort of a waste of effort. They thrive most without context. But so many of the ones collected by meme accounts obviously come from a black context or a minority context or a specific context that goes intentionally unacknowledged in a way.

It’s a real Catch-22. The idea of a proprietary meme is antithetical to the idea of meme culture and yet, clearly memes have value. And clearly people have used them as intellectual property in a way and made money off them or indirectly made money off them. If you think about the corporate account that speaks In the language of Weird Twitter, you can’t really quantify that. And yet, this is a multinational company worth a gajillion dollars, who is scraping and appropriating vernacular from users on Twitter. Companies don’t do that for no reason. It’s the irreconcilable difficulty of wanting to put your name on something that can only thrive through anonymity.

Do you remember when Arthur memes were a thing for like a week? I remember sitting there trying to figure out like, “Is there a way I, as a white person, can write about this without completely screwing it up?” And I sort of decided no, just because everything about it seemed so clearly not for me. It’s weird to watch meme accounts or people that cover memes as a beat just be like, “Oh, look at these funny jokes!” and then not really know either how to contextualize it, or even whether they should.

Yeah, that’s really interesting. That’s why I tried to draw the comparison between memes and jokes because I think similarly people are really uncomfortable talking about comedy, because there’s the mythos that to talk about a joke is to ruin it. Or that the second you enter the critical mode is when you’re clearly outside of the joke, because you just don’t get it. This gets lobbed at people all the time, especially with what’s going on with comedy right now. Comedians and people who write comedy and jokes for a living, they’re workshopping their shit all the time. You don’t get funny without workshopping your shit. The idea that a joke is ruined by somebody breaking it down to its components doesn’t make any sense. In a similar way, there’s the idea that to talk about a meme is to ruin it or to call attention to yourself as an outsider and I don’t think that’s true. I like close-reading memes; I think people should close-read memes. I do think sometimes we go a little far in trying to diagnose a cultural moment through one particular meme that was like, hot for three weeks or something like that. It’s an interesting problem and I think it’s an interesting problem for publications to think about. So much of culture elsewhere is so heavily informed by digital culture. People need to have people on staff who know how to talk about these things without making them reductive.

To that end, as writing about internet culture has become more prevalent over the last four or five years or so, are there any glaring holes in coverage or things that people miss that you think should be addressed?

I think the racial analysis is still really not there. I think that’s the main thing. It’s not like meme criticism (which already just sounds ridiculous) is a mainstream thing. But obviously tech reporting is a real thing now, reporting on what the quote-unquote “kids” are doing online is like a solid thing. I really respect something like Taylor Lorenz’s beat as someone who is really taking seriously this thing that so many publications dismissed for such a long time. But I do think in like tech criticism at large, unless there is an obvious reason to consciously introduce race into the story, race is never a part of the story. I don’t think that makes sense and that’s not something that I would ever abide by in film criticism or in book criticism or any of these other aspects of culture that we have decided to take seriously enough to close-read them. I think in that same vein, the internet is not this neutral, un-raced place. It’s full of like racial signification, aesthetic signification, and I think those things are worth paying attention to and we still need to, you know, get a little bit better at that.

Do you think people are getting better at that? Do you think the conversation has changed in the last few years or is it still sort of an uphill battle?

I think Twitter just like sucks as a place to be right now. I’m feeling cynical about online right now. Maybe you didn’t catch me at the best time. Sometimes I think we’re getting better, sometimes I think we’re getting worse. There was a period of time around 2016 where it felt like there were so many people writing about black stuff and so much good writing about black stuff and there were places that employed journalists of color. Not that those two things are mutually inclusive — you can be non-black and write about black things well, right? But now it really seems like we have subsumed to the Trump of it all. So anything like, say, a racial analysis of digital culture is so small-potatoes because we have to defend the republic or something. I do think there have been a lot of really great reporting about things like labor in tech and racism in tech and like all of that, which I think is really, really important. But it’s hard to put a measure on if things are getting better and if we’re getting better at talking about things.

Even in meme coverage post-2016, I feel like it’s really easy to just be like, “This meme represents our despair and  dystopia” or whatever. But it’s like memes are, to me, more value neutral than that. I don’t know if everyone’s using them in the same way.

It’s like internet culture is and is not mass culture, in a sense. People are even arguing now that TV is not even really mass culture anymore. Mass culture is like The Big Bang Theory; mass culture is not Fleabag. But you could be fooled into thinking otherwise if you have a certain curated network on social media, and so I think memes are the same way. Maybe it’s less of a matter of not doing a symptomatic reading, and more a matter of actually being really specific about who is using what meme in what way. So you might be able to say, “Oh, this meme perfectly captures a certain millennial burnout,” but it’s not all millennials, it’s your segment of a professional class is using this meme in this way. Maybe it’s more taking into account the specificity of audience and usage than like digging deeper into a certain meme itself, because we’re so fragmented online and so much more fragmented than I think we take into account. I mean, I’m seeing my feed right now argue that Kamala Harris’s campaign was canceled by the “Kamala is a cop” meme. And I’m like, that is not anywhere near any version of reality. This presidential candidate or Democratic candidate did not drop out because some media people were calling her a cop. But it can feel like that! When you’re online, it like feels like it’s everybody when it’s hardly anybody.

Given that the end of the decade is coming up, I figured I’d ask if you have a favorite meme of the decade?

That’s like the hardest question ever, because I keep forgetting names that happened. I was gonna say like one of the SpongeBob ones but I think that’s just bias because it felt recent and I wrote about it. Arthur memes were good. The rapper Conceited, that one was really good. I feel like the early decade had some great ones too.

Conceited reminds me of the Supa Hot Fire GIF, but I don’t know if that was this decade. [Update: It is from 2011.]

When I was writing this book, I wanted to incorporate some meme diversity and was trying to think of some old-school memes, like the old macro ones. And it just felt too ancient to even bring up. Bad Luck Brian or whatever feels like a completely different version of the internet.

Insanity Wolf and all those guys.

If you show that to my brother, who’s 20, he’d just be like, “What? Like, what the fuck is that? Like, why? What’s the joke?” And I’m like, “This is what we had!”

We had one font; we had three pictures.

And you made do!

Walking uphill in the snow both ways.

I realize I didn’t answer your question, but that’s a toughie.

The only variant of that is: Do you think there’s a most influential meme?

I don’t even know how to begin. I think there probably is, and it’s not anything that like anyone who’s very online would ever think to name, because it would have to be something that was so widely known that even you’re great-aunt on Facebook would know about it. And I can’t even begin to think of think what that would be. It has to be something that gets embroidered on pillows and sold at Home Goods or something like that.

The boring answer, I feel like, is Pepe.

That’s a bad answer that I think would pass muster for a lot of people because then you get to make the connection of Pepe and the alt-right and Trump. If you can argue that a meme elected a president, then that’s like game over, but I actually don’t think that’s true.

Yeah, it definitely wasn’t just the frog.

It’s not Kermit, but I think like closer to the direction of [most influential]. That Kermit-Lipton meme lived forever in meme years.

I feel like it’s still alive somewhere.

Yeah, like in Instagram circles or people who still use like 50 hashtags on a post.

There’s the SpongeBob ecosystem, which has like a bunch of different memes in it, but I feel like no one talks about the Kermit meme ecosystem.

The Kermit meme ecosystem is so funny! And it’s like, funny because they’re so bootleg. Kermit in the blanket, I use that one all the time, because it’s so relatable.

Lauren Michele Jackson on the Blackness of Meme Culture