Millennials will be studied by their memes. Unfortunately, the only conclusion researchers are likely to find is that there isn’t one conclusion. Once upon a time, surrealism and dadaism were just artistic movements; now the core tenets of those approaches have unwittingly been adopted by our nation’s youth, who routinely clog Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with memes that will reduce the inquisitive brain to taffy.
We’ve written about a great deal of it, from Simpsons Shitposting to the Dancing Hot Dog to the Sheriff Of Suckin U Off, all the while trying to mine meaning from bits that thrive on meaninglessness. In a new piece for The Washington Post, Elizabeth Bruenig first acknowledges the obvious: Millennials live in an America that looks nothing like the one their parents grew up in. Morally, economically, and technologically—this is a fundamentally different place.
Yet the world is full of noise: Information is both more accessible (and perhaps more oppressively omnipresent) than ever and also less reliable; people select their own facts, and business-funded think tanks produce reports indistinguishable from hard data, except that they are not remotely true. Brands pose as friends on social media, especially to millennials, and if the line between real and artificial isn’t obliterated, it certainly seems to matter less than it once did.
Amid these trends, a particular style of expression has spread among young people. Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. In a way, it’s a digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterized the tumultuous early 20th century
When the narratives they were told growing up—college matters, hard work pays off, the good guys win—turned out to be bullshit, the best way to find humor in such foundational failures was to embrace the illogical head-on. As such, an undercurrent of anxiety and resentment courses through these jokes; there’s something comforting, after all, about recognizing nonsense as others strive to search for meaning. For millennials, to acknowledge nothing means anything is really the first step toward meaning.
“I think it got popular because it was this giant emptiness of meaning,” Know Your Meme’s Adam Downer tells Bruenig about the popular Hey Beter meme, one of the web’s most nonsensical creations. “It was this giant race to the bottom of irony.”
Somehow, we’re still not there, and there’s something perversely exciting about that—a frontier to reach for.