The view from inside the meme

It all started innocently enough. Last Monday I was sitting in my comfy chair watching the Olympics on the CBC. That’s the Canadian TV channel available to many of us here in northern Minnesota.

I watched Canadian swimmer Maggie Mac Neil win Gold in the 100 meter butterfly. She didn’t realize she won because she wasn’t wearing her glasses. This was funny and highly relatable to me, a lifelong nearsighted person. 

So I took a screen shot of her squinting at the leader board and wrote a caption: “The only part of the Olympics I can truly relate to is the Canadian swimmer who didn’t realize she won gold because she wasn’t wearing her glasses in the pool.” I posted the image on my Twitter and Facebook pages and then went about my day. 

The Facebook post went viral. 136,000 shares in six days. At some point, people clipped my name out the picture and caption. This version was shared even more widely. 

Sunday morning, while sitting in the same chair watching the same channel I watched a reporter interview Mac Neil about the fact that she was now a meme. The whole thing had come full circle, beginning and ending in my living room in the untamed wilds of Itasca County. 

Of course, this is hilarious, though mildly disturbing as well. 

While I’ve viewed many memes in my time, I never produced one. What I learned as the meme took off might be useful to everyone who uses the internet. 

First, most obviously, these memes can come from anywhere. I happen to be a person who works in the media and teaches communication theory, but memes can just as easily come from a guy who eats belly button lint and wears a tinfoil sari. You really can’t tell. 

Most often, memes come from people who deliberately generate them. Their motives are either commercial or political. If a website called MemeTimeUSA shares tons of funny memes, people will click through to see their advertising. Or the company will mine data from the social media network, allowing them to direct market to the people who follow and share their posts.

Other memes reinforce attitudes that are politically useful to the meme creators. They influence public opinion and voting attitudes. They erode trust in the government or other institutions. When you hear about “foreign influence” in recent elections, a lot of what’s involved is the generation of memes that are then targeted to audiences that will casually share them. 

This doesn’t just happen in the United States. Nationalistic parties have seized control of large democracies like India and Brazil on the basis of memes. Whole small nations have been consumed by Facebook misinformation, such that their own governments become powerless to counter it. Those who profit from the misinformation are to blame, but they can’t be readily identified. Certain actors benefit from chaos, finding opportunity to make money and consolidate power. 

Memes can be pulled from anywhere. Some companies might generate their own, but most are slapdash snatch and grabs. They find a funny tweet or post and steal it, like someone did with mine. Because I don’t own Facebook (not even a little bit), I don’t hold a copyright on the material in my Olympics post. There are posts like these all over the internet.

But one of the most interesting, and arguably most unsettling findings from my brief time inside an active meme was the way it eroded my recognition of real and fake accounts. Hundreds of people sent me friend requests. Now, those who use social networks often struggle with how tightly we guard our personal information. Lots of strangers means less privacy and higher risk of having our identity or personal information stolen. 

Until now I found it relatively easy to identify a real person I don’t know personally. Perhaps we share mutual friends. I see they are located in my area and share posts that appear to be written by a distinct human being. I know (and so should you) that a buxom Israeli gymnast does not really think I’m cute and that I should not accept her friend request.

Many of the accounts that sought me out were obvious fakes. They lacked personal details and seemed to be products of marketing firms trying to boost the reach on certain posts. But some of them looked real. Perhaps strangers saw the post and thought I was a person they wanted to follow? After looking though a few of these, however, I became suspicious. 

Indeed, even as the accounts began to resemble real ones, there was something fake about them. They shared generic statements about holidays or family milestones in a way that was non-specific and performative. One talked about how she missed her dad. But nothing specific. It could be any dad. Was he dead? Lots of people clicked “hugs” but I still couldn’t believe it.

Then I realized that, while some of these accounts were probably real, the actual problem was that social media made all of us, even me, just a little bit more fake. The more time you spend absorbing social media, including canned memes, the more you begin to speak and behave predictably. 

As funny as it was to accidentally generate a meme, I personally did not profit from it. Nor do I think Maggie Mac Neil was all that happy about it, either. Nevertheless, this lumbering beast called social media, untethered from any known laws or values, fed for a few days on the both of us.

Among the many challenges of our times will be the human struggle to manage our relationship with these online communication systems. Can we maintain our individualism (actual, not the kind people share in memes) and learn to process information that comes at us a mile a minute? Can we create communities that do more than share memes?

Jeez, I hope so. 

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go clean my glasses. Maybe I’ll read a book today. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Joe musich says

    Another piece to the use of technology out of control would be robo calls. The sad part is that both could be regulated. These algorithm creators could I would just bet create one to filter out our nonsense. I did not see the meme created in your experience but I would bet there is a electron trail. The path of that electron trail can be followed. If distinct ads can come to me and likewise be routed away from me I would think that as in this case if the face of the swimming competitor does not have approval then a no go right at that point clicks off use. Is the trade off for these internet giants making moola by being allowed the freedom to graze on the prairies of privacy worth it ? Pardon me for my outrage I just received a robo call from my healthcare provider that really was not them.

    • Even real calls, so to speak, are robo calls these days. My daughter had a phone sales job for a company high on the list of big companies. The computer made the random calls to independent businesses, making them look local. My cell phone and house phone now warn me if some robo calls, but there still are the calls that look truly local, and now I own 47 car warranties. Today was particularly bad for calls.

  2. Glasses off in the pool: bad memories of an already socially awkward teen made even more awkward when in the pool because of nearsightedness. I could hardly see the teacher during swim class.

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