Parasitic memes

Recently I’ve been getting back into using Facebook (admittedly, a large part of my motivation was this totally addictive solitaire game…). It’s been nice seeing what my far-away friends, family, and frienemies are up to. However, I have been reminded of some of the reasons that there is a “hate” part of my love/hate relationship with Facebook. One prime example is a parasitic meme that takes the form of blackmail. This sort of status update (or photo, link, whatever) says something like “I love my children! If you love your children, put this as your status for one million hours! I bet 99% of people won’t because they are terrible parents, so I’ll know who among my friends is not beating up their kids by who shares!” Ok, the grammar and spelling is not usually that good and that one is a little hyperbolic, but you get the idea. Here is a real life example I ran across a day or two ago:

Admittedly, not an especially terrible example

The person who posted this had only the best intentions, so I’m not going to name them and what follows is not meant to be a personal attack on them. This is just the most recent example I saw in my timeline.

This little picture has all of the features I hate about this sort of meme: excess sentimentality, a kind of trite and simplistic message, and–worst of all–the “you are a heartless bastard if you don’t re-post this” at the end.

Excess sentimentality

Certainly there are worse crimes on Facebook than being a little bit maudlin when discussing a unpleasant topic like bullying. But the tone of these memes is part of their overall obnoxiousness. All of the people mentioned are having a seriously terrible time with life and the clear implication is that the reader should pity them. And it’s not just the little trials we all face throughout the day–the people here are morbidly obese, victims of internalized misogyny, victims of child abuse, combat-wounded veterans, rape victims, and nearly orphaned. It’s just a little over the top and manipulative to use examples that practically force the viewer to react emotionally.

The message

The basic message of the meme is certainly relevant and good: don’t bully people. However, the way it is presented boils the reasons to not bully down to “these people have these bad traits because of personal tragedy, therefore you should not bully them.” That’s certainly a good reason not to bully someone, but it misses the larger picture: bullying is wrong by any reasonable ethical standard. The really annoying thing is that pointing out that bullying is just plain wrong seems like it would be in total agreement with the statement the author was trying to make! But of course that would not easily lend itself to the emotional manipulation that these parasitic memes thrive on. Bullying itself is also simplified here to mean essentially name-calling. That is definitely a weapon in the bully’s arsenal, but it is certainly not the only one and not even the most potent. The author has made a superficial anti-bullying message, but it lacks the complexity and depth to actually engage anyone beyond simply clicking the “share” button under the post.


In my opinion, the ends of these memes are the most offensive part. There is always a plea to share the status/photo/whatever, a sort of sighing (and probably correct) assumption that most people won’t, and finally a shot at the character of the people who do not share the meme. Basically, if you don’t plaster this stuff all over your timeline, you are part of the 95% of humanity that is heartless, cruel, and probably tortures puppies. UGH.

The thing is that sharing memes on Facebook is not really accomplishing anything. Pressing “share” on this photo is not going to cause any bullies to suddenly say “Oh! Of course! Now I will act totally differently!” Most of these that I have seen also are not even about issues that really need a public awareness campaign. I think that most people (at least people who have or are kids) are aware of the problem of bullying and the harm that it can cause. I find it really irksome that these memes try to manipulate people into sharing them by appealing to emotion and the natural urge to try to be a good person when the only result is further spread of the meme rather than any change in whatever the meme is about.

Just useless, or actively harmful?

It’s bad enough that these parasites spread themselves without doing any good, but often they are actually harmful as well. In the bullying example above, there is a subtext that says that people who are fat but not on diet pills, people who have a child at 14 but weren’t raped, people with scars received other than in military combat, and boys who cry for reasons unrelated to dying mommies may actually deserve to be bullied. By putting the focus on the bad things that happened to the bullying victims rather than on the basic humanity that they share with the bullies, bullying people without tragic backstories is excused. The parallel that immediately struck me goes like this:

  • Female blogger posts something controversial (which could be pretty much anything given how the internet works)
  • Men who disagree with her stance comment on the post or email her saying that she is an ugly cow, so her opinion doesn’t matter
  • Men who agree with her (or who disagree but are not terrible human beings) respond by saying that she’s, like, totally hot!
  • All the feminists looking on bang their heads on their desks

The problem there is the same: the focus is on the attractiveness of the blogger, rather than on the merit of her argument. The guys who respond with their assessment that she is actually quite attractive are implicitly saying that it would be quite all right to call her ugly and discount her thoughts if she actually were ugly. That is obviously wrong, just as bullying a boy who cries about something perceived as trivial is.

A more diffuse harm that these memes (and many other online “activism” avenues) cause is allowing viewers to remain complacent about the status quo. I think most people would try to make the world a better place if they came across an opportunity to do so. This sort of “awareness building” creates the illusion of such an opportunity and a nearly effortless way to take advantage–the viewer just has to press a little button on Facebook to make a difference! Then the viewer can go back to playing Farmville and being as oblivious to the problem as they choose to be. The viewer feels like they have done something and therefore need not do the hard work required to actually change the world.

Again, I want to emphasize that I do not mean to attack the person who shared this item on Facebook. Ze meant well and actually engages in social activism. This was just a convenient example for me to write about.