If you ask computer nerds about when the internet started, they’ll mumble something about the 1960s and ARPANET TCP/IP packet-switching blah blah blah, but talk to anyone else and they’ll tell you about the memes. And I’m beginning to notice something terrifying about them.
Internet memes really started taking off back in the early 2000s. Dancing baby. Chocolate Rain. All your base are belong to us. Ragecomics. Image macros. The primitive days when it took years to get popular and years to fade out. Memes burned with a slow flame, spreading slowly but staying popular long after they had any right to.
Contagious ideas have been around since forever, but only recently have people started to figure out how to make them super-catchy. If you read old political cartoons, you’ll notice they often seem strangely hard to understand compared to modern advertising. The text is hard to read, the drawings aren’t particularly eye-catching, and it just doesn’t stand a chance compared to what we have today. Successful memes nowadays are weaponized brain-worms laser-focused on one thing: get as much human attention as possible, as quickly as possible.
If regular words are your standard-issue germs, modern memes are antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Except they don’t get you sick, they just hold your attention.
Back in the day, I wanted to learn more about what made these ideas so contagious that they could take over the internet. I scouted out every corner of the internet, stumbling across more obscure forums than I could count, discovering the weirdest niche hobbies you could possibly imagine. And eventually, I started to find the people I was looking for. They, like me, had recognized the true potential– and danger– of the meme before the rest of us had realized how many cat pictures were out there.
No, I’m not joking. These people figured things out about memes you wouldn’t believe. You’d be dazzled by what they’d learned about ideas, marketing, psychology, marketing psychology, neurons, biochemistry, vulnerabilities in the human psyche. They knew it all. They were psychological surgeons. Memes were their scalpel.
These were people who’d realized how incredibly useful it’d be to have contagious ideas for marketing. For signalling their social status. For announcing their beliefs to the world, for being heard over the shouting contest that is the public internet. For deciding what we talk about, and for swaying our opinions on it. For controlling the way we think.
I found pockets of the internet where they’d unlocked the secrets of contagious ideas. Back then, their message boards and chats were only partially hidden. It took careful searching skills to find them, but it didn’t require specialized computer skills or encryption blah-blah to find the public parts of their forums. They generally seemed pretty friendly, if a bit tight-lipped, around newbies.
Although I’d learned quite a bit about general psychology from the public parts of the forums, I never did get an invite to the restricted areas where the real research happened. Despite their willingness to share the low-hanging fruit, they didn’t just tell anyone about their most powerful discoveries about humans and how we tick. And I was young and inexperienced, so I didn’t have any new and useful findings to offer in exchange.
But I know their research worked and their discoveries were real. I saw it in action.
They’d run experiments to see what kind of memes would capture public attention the most effectively. They’d predict the experiment’s results in the public forum beforehand to prove that they hadn’t cheated or manipulated the experiment’s results. Their predictions didn’t always pan out, but there were an uncanny number of hits. It wasn’t just luck. It was too good to just be luck.
Remember when we made a huge deal out of Harambe? That was one of their trials. If they hadn’t made it into a big deal, most of us would never have heard about it. Yanny vs. Laurel? Spongebob memes? They’re behind all of those. They usually didn’t make the content themselves, but they were really good at getting it popular. Remember the dress? They planted a few people to argue for one color and a few to argue for the other. A few of their carefully-placed, carefully-worded messages were all it took for social media to turn into an absolute free-for-all in a matter of days.
But what really scared me wasn’t how easily the memes split us into opposing sides of arguments. What scared me was what happened when the memes disappeared from our collective consciousness.
Every super-contagious meme they investigated ended up doing something really weird to our brains. As crazy as it sounds, being exposed to the memes actually changed the way our brains think. They’d figured out a weak point in the biology of our brains and over time they sharpened their tools to probe it more and more.
The thing is, every time we forget a meme, we start to overlook all the ideas that look similar enough to the original meme. It’s not that we just stop seeing Nyan Cat’s poptart body as the height of comedy, it’s that certain foods used to be considered inherently funny and nowadays “Bacon!” is nowhere close to an acceptable punchline.
Or Chuck Norris facts. Those used to be popular back in the day, and we ended up with all sorts of exaggerated facts for other celebrities, from Mister Rogers facts to facts about an Indian actor I’d never heard of, Rajinikanth. And yet they all stopped being funny at roughly the same time, because it wasn’t just the fading appeal of Chuck Norris facts, it was the fading appeal of all one-liners that sounded like Chuck Norris facts.
The examples might sound like minor things, but you have to remember that this is just the beginning. The research is still in its infancy. We have no idea what the next generation of meme is going to change about us, but their techniques are only getting more advanced with time.
Catchy memes don’t just latch onto our brains and then disappear in a week or so. When they go, they permanently take away our ability to have certain types of thoughts. What was once hilarious now barely gets a chuckle. Once the meme fades from your attention, everything too similar to it also fades. With every meme that the phone screen beams into our faces, we lose a little more of our capacity for thought. Our minds become a little more numb to the world.
But it doesn’t end there.
As memes got catchier, their lifecycle got shorter and shorter. Today, they go from nothing to the most popular meme of the time and back to nothing in the blink of an eye. Our brains got amazingly good at chewing them up and spitting them out.
The older memes weren’t as catchy because the techniques weren’t advanced enough. Older memes were like inside jokes: perhaps not as funny to a huge audience, but we all know how inside jokes between you and your best friend can last for decades. Social media looked different back then and things didn’t spread like they do today. Old memes would stick around for a long time. It took a long time for other memes to get popular enough to replace them.
To recap: memes make us forget how to think certain types of thoughts, to feel certain types of feelings. And their lifecycle is getting shorter, which means this pattern is happening faster. It’s accelerating.
Somewhere along the line, perhaps after social media started getting more negative attention, all the public forums I used to visit disappeared. I haven’t been able to find any trace of their existence, not even on internet archive websites. Maybe they really vanished. Maybe they went underground. I don’t know what happened to them. It doesn’t matter. Either way, we have no way of telling the difference.
But there are really only two possibilities I can imagine: either all the advanced researchers in the world collectively lost interest in a new and powerful way of communication… or they decided that they needed to hide the terrible power they’d discovered, that they themselves needed to go into hiding.
Delete Facebook. And Instagram. Stop browsing Reddit. No more Twitter. Get off all your social media. Leave your group chats. Stop sharing the catchiest memes you come across, for the love of all that is holy. If more than five people laugh at your joke, stop telling it and make up some new stories that you share with only your best friends. If your friend likes to share funny pictures with you, change your name and buy a one-way ticket to Tanzania.
One of these days, someone is going to release a new meme: powerful, catchy, so contagiously viral it will infect all of us.
When the ultimate mind-virus inevitably fades from our consciousness, everything that we truly care to think or feel is going to disappear with it.
This story is fiction and for entertainment only. I do not necessarily endorse any of the views expressed here.
This story was inspired by Sort by Controversial. Anything here that seems way too similar to that post is probably because I read it many times.