Every generation gets the Dimes Square they deserve
Today's email is a special split edition with The Daily Dot!
Today is kind of a big deal. I’m doing a split newsletter with a publication I have absolutely adored for years — The Daily Dot — and I’m sort of freaking out about it. The Daily Dot has been such an incredible resource for digital culture journalism over the years and I’m honored to be teaming up with Ramon Ramirez, The Daily Dot’s news director, for today’s email. The theme we picked is the speed, and the staying power, of virality in 2022. I chose to explore a concept I’m going to call mega-nicheness, or that weird process by which small, bizarre cultural movements now bubble up and out into massive trends. And Ramon covered something near and dear my heart: The boomerification of once-cool millennial subcultures, like emo. I hope you enjoy this as much as we did putting it together and make sure to check out The Daily Dot’s excellent newsletter.
The Forest Of The Internet Is Growing Back
By all accounts, it seems like large online platforms are breaking apart. It turns out, most folks don’t actually like fighting for their lives in comment sections and being bombarded with worthless content they don’t care about. But the consensus, all along, has been that breaking up platforms will kill what’s left of our monoculture.
Mind you, there isn’t much of one left in America, but for a time, between 2012 and, let’s say, January 6, 2021, we had a viral replacement. We could all sort of count on the fact we were sharing the same thing if it was really viral enough. And, so, the thinking has gone, that once we were free of the stranglehold of monolithic internet platforms, we would all sink into our own warm brain-melting filter bubbles. Pundits have warned for years now that a great information crisis would then happen. “We won’t be able to talk to each about a shared reality,” screamed the columnists who have never once in their whole lives shared a reality with the rest of the country.
And while I think we can all agree that the way in which basic information is transmitted is broken in America (and other similarly-sized democracies), we do still have shared cultural experiences. And, even stranger, these shared experiences appear to be getting more intense, weirder, and more all-encompassing.
The Depp v. Heard trial is a great example of this. But so is the Will Smith slap. As is the Elon Musk Twitter soap opera. But venturing beyond the world of celebrity, this was also true for TikTok moral panics like West Elm Caleb. It was true for that ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal. It was true for the GameStop pump.
What’s even stranger is that this feels as true for big things as it does small ones. “Micro neighborhoods” like Dimes Square, a part of New York City’s Chinatown that recently morphed into a psychological weapon meant to make millennials go crazy, or small Discord servers like that crypto collective that thought they were buying the rights to Dune can suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, matter. Which is weird!
But with this newfound mega-nicheness comes new problems. As big platforms die, ones that still function gain outsized importance. This, I suspect, is why Twitter has gone from feeling real bad all the time to feeling like actual hell on Earth. It’s the last piece of driftwood we can all cling to in a sea of nonsense.
So what now? If we are watching the great fracturing of our public social media, where do we go? Well, we have a couple coherent visions of the future. Non-algorithmic curation like Substack and Discord is thriving. Though, as always bloggers and random chat rooms are honey pots for radicalization and conspiracy theories. And, on the other end, we have algorithmic replacements like TikTok, which is, uh, also a honey pot for radicalization and conspiracy theories, but also produces a sort of viral hysteria, which I'm not sure we've ever felt so acutely before.
Ten years ago, the main way to gain relevance, and thus, power, online was mass appeal. Millennial content creators, for years, were pushed by passive aggressive granola capitalist Gen X bosses and their various “connection over everything” ad fraud algorithms into the zeitgeist meat grinder. We ordered to pathologically universalize our thoughts and feelings to such a watered down and sociopathic degree that most of us have been in therapy ever since. All to achieve that one moment of brand safe break-the-internet glory worthy of a Today Show segment. And now none of that really matters! The personality quiz is dead, long live the hyper-specific meme about one intersection in Manhattan that was only relevant for two and a half weeks as an inside joke between 17 college sophomores.
Memes on main
My brother and sister-in-law just bought tickets to a My Chemical Romance reunion concert in Atlanta. I blame the microwave emo memes that wash ashore on Facebook for the revivalism — part of a suffocating new online groupthink that’s destroyed the once subversive and dynamic art form.
A meme conflating Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in Superbad with forgotten emo band the Early November made it to my feed recently, alongside the usual photos of children I don’t recognize. Hated that I got it because it means normie, monoculture jokes now come from reference points I once believed to be hip. It means that memes are finally dead.
We thought the ever-splintering internet would bring niche goldmines of irreverent humor, each meme construct bubbling from weirder corners. Instead, memes became one-note zingers rooted in nostalgia.
Since summer 2016, the internet’s “grunge goes pop” meme inflection point, it’s been diminishing returns. That window offered crossover, titan memes like Harambe, Dat Boi, Exploding Kid, Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer, event invites to fake Limp Bizkit concerts at the Sunoco, Crying Jordan, and “J. Cole went platinum with no features.” Jokes were evergreen and surreal, rooted in the brain rot that comes with living an extremely online life.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next: Red-pill, Gamergate teachings poisoned Reddit as Trumpism soared. The “Damn, Daniel” teens went on Ellen.
Users would send us angry Messenger rants alleging that, in covering viral memes at the Dot, we’d “kill” them. They were right.
Private Instagrams propagated a meme resistance for a while. But share any funny emo meme from @sonny5ideup these days and I bet you’ll get the same iMessage back: “haha saw that.” Everyone who would appreciate a meme likening Toby Maguire in glasses to an emo musician has seen it and recalls the caption: “If the hardcore band’s guitarist looks like this you are about to die in that pit.” [ed. note from Ryan: I love this meme lol.]
The bored kids from the suburbs of Houston are today bored work-from-home mercenaries simultaneously tracking one conversation in uniformed webspeak.
At the end of an era, every generation must reckon with and accept the touchstones that it uplifted. Paramore will be an Austin City Limits festival headliner in October, after all. For us withering, old millennials who suddenly caught ourselves earnestly laughing at Friends reruns during the pandemic, sharing memes on Facebook signals the end of our pull.
Today, Gen Z makes fun of the way we text in viral TikToks. Memes have pivoted to social video. Instead of obtuse slogans like “It’s Wednesday, my dudes,” TikTok humor is self-serious, activist-minded, and built on consumer hacks. Modern dating norms are forged via viral TikToks. Starbucks baristas are making young people reconsider the human cost of custom drink orders. The 20-somethings are learning that offices are weird and bad places. Their jokes are thus purposeful and direct.
The end of memes as cutting-edge satire means we’re all just boomers now, texting Colbert links to our disinterested children. Like the Bright Eyes lyric goes: We are nowhere, and it’s now.
—by Ramon Ramirez
***There are no on purpose typos today***