In a way, the process of how rapidly and expansively a new meme spreads is impressive. Someone takes an image that is only mildly funny and then does something to it that suddenly renders it into a new creative medium of expression. If the meme is hot, “memelords” from around the internet will start using the new template and begin the production of new content utilizing this meme. For a few days, it will be the only meme you see on the internet, until it dissolves into irrelevancy just as quickly as it entered it, the ultimate fate of every meme.
But just like any substantial economy, the meme sector of the internet has its own categories and common themes, with self-pity and depression being a large component. The last couple decades of postmodern thought have instilled a strong — but potentially debilitating — strain of self-awareness in our generation, which now believes a little too heavily in making fun of oneself and laughing at one’s own shortcomings.
Nihilism seems to be cool nowadays, especially on the internet, where large sects of the meme community place existential dread on the same comedic level as slipping on a banana peel. Spend 10 minutes browsing Reddit, or the cesspool that is the “explore” section of Instagram, and you will see the far too prevalent jokes and overall mishandling of themes like depression and hopelessness.
It kind of makes sense. I’ve laughed at such memes many times, but the laughter is usually followed by the unsettling feeling of having Kermit the Frog remind you of your life’s struggles.
Depressed college student memes are popular because they are relatable, and that is exactly what memes are to be. Memes are essentially massive inside jokes, tapping into the collective experiences and culture of our demographic and somehow generating humor out of seemingly meaningless pictures.
The majority of the time, self-awareness is an incredibly useful and beneficial trait to have. It allows you to honestly assess yourself (strengths and weaknesses) and your situation, ultimately helping you improve overall. But the strain of cynical and twisted self-awareness found online has transformed into “woe is me” and self-pity and has ditched the one thing that is supposed to make self-awareness an admirable trait — the motivation to take that awareness and improve yourself with it.
What used to be a way to kill time between classes in high school or grant a laugh at lunch now reminds me of upcoming midterms, the possible outcomes of utter failure and the overall plight of life as a college student. It’s not a coping mechanism, but instead a catalyst that only furthers the negativity.
Memes are generally a wonderful thing, but like any resource available to anybody, they can very easily be abused and contorted. Make a creative template open to anybody with an internet connection and you’re bound to have users creating offensive content. Such terrible and offensive memes are rarely stumbled upon innocently and are instead nestled deep in the dark corners of the internet, the regions that require some deliberate searching to arrive at.
The sad part is a significant portion of mainstream memes (found on the front pages of Reddit, Facebook and Instagram) are this toxic strain of “everybody is depressed” and “life is suffering” mentality. Aside from completely mishandling and negatively normalizing the sensitive topic of mental health, such memes only create a detrimental feedback loop of woefulness and self-pity.
I don’t know when exactly it became funny or cool to celebrate personal shortcomings or hurdles online, but it turns out to be a hit. It’s not as if it doesn’t make any sense either. Humans have always stuck together and built social bonds to cope with and confront their collective plight, but this is not a healthy method of coping and does not actually confront the issues in an effective way. Such memes are funny, but I fear the popularization of depression and self-pity will only propagate more of the same, instead of encouraging people to stand up and confront their lives with confidence.
Andrew Hall is a UF management senior. His column appears on Fridays.