We live in a society that values things that are quick to buy, quick to use, and quick to dispose of. Fast fashion encourages us to buy cheap, low quality clothing that will last for a season or two before being disposed of because the fad has come and gone. Technological developments result in a new model of phones, computers, televisions, and tablets every year. Even when the actual shelf life of a product is fairly long, advertising and consumerism inspires us to constantly strive for the next best thing.
Our dissatisfaction with our current possessions drives an economy that exploits the low-paid workers who manufacture the cheap items we buy, and we attempt to remedy our discontentment with more purchases. Often, the things we purchase transition from shiny novelties to common trash in less than a year. This certainly has ecological impacts; when we dispose of objects, they add to the growing issue of pollution caused by household rubbish, and the constant production of new items creates more stress on the environment. A culture that values disposable commodities which are constantly replaced by another version of the same thing has resulted in environmental, economic, and personal drawbacks. To put it simply, throwaway culture is all around us.
However, it would be nice if we could experience this type of fast-paced, exciting culture, but we didn’t have to have the exploitation of workers, the constant spending of money, and the ecological impacts of creating rubbish. It’s thrilling to constantly see novel things, to always be on the cusp of a new advancement. Freshness is fun. We do have a way to experience throwaway culture without the disadvantages, though. What do we have in our daily lives that has a short life cycle of popularity? What is entirely free to make, consume, and enjoy? What has nearly no impact on the environment, save for the minimal energy we use to view it on our phones or computers? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, the humble meme.
It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. There are plenty of memes that run through a cycle of novelty to obsolescence in weeks, if not days. As we come to an end to 2019, we may fondly remember the memes that carried us through the year. There was the lunch table meme, which featured an image of a school cafeteria with groups of objects (some as niche as brands of water) and a caption asking the reader where they would sit. In early August, an impassioned Twitter user asked about uses for an assault weapon which featured a hypothetical scenario involving the invasion of 30-50 feral hogs. Within hours, social media was full of memes revolving around the phrase “30-50 feral hogs.”
And almost as soon as it appeared, it vanished again, fading from memory, but forever enshrined in our timelines.The list goes on; the memes don’t even really need to make sense, they just need to be new. Nothing was really that funny about saying “they did surgery on a grape”, but the novelty of the nonsensical image (which was, ironically, several years old) paired with the caption was enough to make it a meme.
These are but two examples of the dozens of memes that sprung up on the internet this year. And yet, there were limited negative impacts caused by the fact that memes arise suddenly, and last only a short while. This article does not attempt to discuss the societal impacts of the content of memes, but rather their nature of being so short-lived. Memes seem to somehow be the golden example of a throwaway culture, as well as the antithesis of the things we hate about throwaway culture. Unlike the previous examples of fashion or technology, no one is exploited for making memes, and there is no billionaire who gains fortunes because of the work of thousands of employees. Except in very rare cases, memes are free to make and free to consume; there is no money involved. When we bore of a meme, no matter how quickly that happens, there is no ecological crisis fuelled by our desire to rid ourselves of memes. To get rid of a meme, you delete it from your saved images, or unfollow an account that features the meme heavily, or you delete it from whatever social media you may have featured the meme on. No oceans are filled with memes; turtles won’t choke on pictures of a cat making a disgusted face, and no whale’s stomach will be filled with several kilograms of discarded memes about invading Area 51. If we have issues with memes, which we may rightly have, they don’t come from the temporary nature of memes.
Memes can be an escape from the type of consumerism that burns a hole in our wallets and leaves us feeling discontent with every purchase we make. Because we don’t have to buy memes, we can simply appreciate it for its own sake, rather than constantly judge it in comparison to other things we may have spent money on. If we see a meme, and then suspect that there will soon be another meme with a better punchline, we don’t regret seeing the original meme. However, if we buy a phone and a day later a new model was announced, we’d probably be frustrated beyond belief. Because the only thing that memes cost is our time, we can take them at face value. When a meme is good, the creator gains only clout, and the consumer spends only time. And when a meme is underwhelming, all that is lost is a few seconds that it took to see the image.
Throwaway culture is toxic not because it is inherently bad to like novelty and to become bored with things; throwaway culture is toxic because of the impacts of buying, disposing, and repeating the cycle. While memes are a prime example of a culture that grew up because we desire things that require a short attention span and a revolving door of fresh ideas, they lack the disadvantages that commercial consumerism leads to because there is no physical object to be disposed of, and no exchange of money ever occurs. Memes allow us to indulge in our natural desire to have new things constantly, but unlike the rest of the culture of disposable goods, the temporary nature of meme fads does not directly harm us.