Memes. GIFs. Unpronounceable (mehmeh? jiff?) and even harder to define. As far as I can tell, they're both things on the Internet that make you LOL, except GIFs move and memes don't.
The Facebook page "Princeton Memes" burst onto the scene on Feb. 14 of this year, a Valentine for Internet trolls. With specialized Princeton zingers like "Y U NO STOP PLAYING PIANO WHEN I'M TRYING TO STUDY?" the images were all over my Facebook News Feed as my friends linked them to their friends' walls and said, "Hahahahah this is you."
Next, a Tumblr called #whatshouldwecallme wormed its way into my rotation of procrastination websites. For those who don't know what it is, it's a collection of headings like "Trying to Sleep After Drinking Too Much Coffee" paired with GIFs that show what the effect of this heading is on a person. Instantly I was linking them to my friends' walls saying "this was u last nite lol," and they were laughing and linking and the cycle continued. Next came princetonsenior.tumblr.com, with untold troves of reality television characters' reactions to Princeton-specific problems. And then I found whatshouldprincetoncallme.tumblr.com, which does what princetonsenior does but even better, because there are fewer thesis-related posts.
There's always whining about online fads: Every new Internet thing seems to come coupled with outcry about how the Internet is making us all fat, stupid and lazy. In this case, I can see more evidence for the familiar case that the Internet is the death of language. Memes and GIFs make it seem like we're devolving back into ideograms: Instead of posting "hahaha" on someone's amusing link, we'll just post a picture of someone laughing. Instead of people saying, "When I got an email to do course evals I rejected the idea with unequivocal certainty," we can use a premade GIF of a picture of Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" looking at his computer, shaking his head and saying "No." Of course, I can't capture in this article why it's funny -- something about the lack of emotion on Sheldon's face, how spastic his movements are -- but that's exactly the point: The picture does it better. Why use words when you can just link to images?
I don't think Internet trends like this necessarily mean we're getting stupider. I think, instead, they provide important societal lens, a vital opportunity to glimpse mass consciousness. If we approach from the right angle, even the Y U NO guy can teach us something. Memes' and GIFs' appeal has something to do with these images' inherent humor or witty captions. The images themselves -- reality TV characters making ridiculous faces or saying ridiculous things -- are funny. Another part of it is that the creator is combining personal experience with cultural allusion, connecting realms of celebrity/fantasy and the everyday life of the college student, lending an ironic bit of glamour to everyday annoyances.
The most important part of the meme or the GIF, however, is the "so true" effect -- the thing that makes me laugh out loud and share with a friend. This compulsion to share the joke explains the appeal of these GIFs. As funny as the images can be on their own, they're funnier when a friend thinks they are too, precisely because of their ability to validate even my most mundane experiences. By virtue of their anonymity, the creators of these blogs are able to speak honestly about their lives, validating all my secret neuroses, annoyances and insecurities about my Princeton experience and my young adulthood in general. And this feeling of recognition is one of the most vital purposes social media feeds.
I encountered the term "atomized masses" in a Hannah Arendt text I read for one of my classes this semester, and it has lodged in my psyche. Arendt uses the term to describe how, as an effect of modernization, we are isolated from each other and from our shared history. Though it dates from around World War II, the idea definitely applies today: As Information Age Americans, we are splintered and disconnected from each other, partly because we're human, and all humans feel some measure of loneliness, but partly because these feelings of fragmentation are intensified by technology's grasp on our collective consciousness and how isolating that technology can be. Embracing this technology in the hopes it will alleviate the loneliness is paradoxical and not really a lasting solution. For that, I'd recommend getting off the computer and finding someone or something to love. But if logging out is too hard, knowing someone out there has made a GIF about it makes 3 a.m. Facebook stalking a little less sad.
Susannah Sharpless is a freshman from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.