The minds behind ‘normcore’ describe the latest phenomenon they’ve observed: ‘memethink’
We don’t have to actually know about things to know them anymore. “Memethink” is a term that describes the way people today understand the context of specific cultural items implicitly. Take, for example, avocado toast. While conducting research around the American South last summer, cultural researchers Sean Monahan and Sophie Secaf kept hearing: “You know, these kids in New York, they’re all about their avocado toast.”
“I don’t think most of them had read the viral Australian article that said half of millennials can’t afford apartments because they’re buying too much avocado toast,” says Monahan. “But they knew avocado toast was a symbol of this faux-bourgeois lifestyle in aspirational cities. Memes quickly become decontextualised and take on a life of their own.”
Monahan is an LA-based artist, writer and consultant specializing in trend forecasting. He was a founding member of K-HOLE, the bygone art collective and consultancy firm who invented “normcore.” Secaf is a Brazilian brand consultant, and head strategist of BOX1824, a cultural strategy firm based in New York and São Paulo. In their new BOX1824 report, "GenExit," the pair coin the term “memethink” to describe this collective way of thinking that characterises our social media-saturated world.
The main argument of “GenExit” is that people born after 1995 are abandoning institutions. After conducting research in eight US states in 2017, Monahan and Secaf found that along with Gen Z’s rejection of traditional institutions, like school and government, comes their rejection of social media as we presently know it. In the eyes of the first generation who has grown up entirely online, social media is an institution in its own right, given its brand of unappealing bureaucracy (the algorithm, hello) and basic monotony (too many parents, gross). “GenExit” is opting out of the concept of a personal brand, in favour of approaching digital relationships with more intimacy and creativity.
Memethink is one of the most elucidating concepts introduced in “GenExit.” It speaks to the idea that people are no longer just picking up language from one another, but also images, lifestyle aspirations, and consumer patterns, which we pick up more unknowingly. The result is an “unconscious synchronicity”, detectable on our profiles and in feeds just as much as it is in real life. (This is part of the reason why you can essentially go to the same cafe, with the same decor, the same menu, and the same vibe in every major city.)
This also means that as individuals in this culture, we are increasingly unconscious of some of the things we’re expressing when we, for example, share a meme or dress a certain way. As Monahan and Secaf explain in more detail below, it’s not only significant that it’s usually hard to trace the origins of an individual meme, but also important to note that as the context of a given meme fades, so does our ability to critically analyse it. (Think about people who shared Pepe the Frog memes before learning Pepe had been co-opted as a white nationalist hate symbol.) In terms of GenExit, today’s youth have come of age as the memethink phenomenon unfolds, but the difference in the way they’re exploring social media in comparison with millennials could change the pattern. Simply put: the next generation is making weirder use of social media, and breaking free of memethink.
With all this in mind, I spoke to Monahan and Secaf about the “semiotic nihilism” of the conservative right, the notion that the left can’t meme, and how social media can limit the scope of creativity.
You describe “memethink” really simply in the report: “Our brains think in memes.” Can you explain that a little more?
Monahan: With memethink, we tried to drill into the specific cultural dynamic happening right now, where people are picking up on ideas and repeating them in both image and text-based forms. Of course, social media enables this.
Secaf: “#Goals” might be a meme, or a MAGA hat might be a meme, but when we’re talking about memethink, there’s also another layer to it that I think a lot of people don’t realise. Redpilling is a weaponisation of memethink, loading memes with symbols of hate.
Monahan: “Redpilling” grew out of 4chan and Reddit message boards as a reference to The Matrix, where Morpheus offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill, the blue pill being the fantasy of The Matrix and the red pill being like having the curtain pulled back and realising the reality of the situation. And so, people describe the experience of people radicalising as being redpilled, because as they see it, their radical ideas are the necessary the response to what they think is a world whose values are being fucked by progressives.
One of the memethinks on the right is, “The left can’t meme.” This is something that comes up over and over again. In some sense they might be right, because the right has definitely been more aggressive and successful in taking cultural symbols, but I think that’s partly because the right is kind of nihilistic about the meaning of cultural objects. They’ve realised you can load anything with negative connotations if you use it in the right way, which is a very old right wing strategy. For example, today the swastika is the ultimate symbol of hatred in the west, but it’s an ancient Hindu symbol of good luck.
Secaf: It’s way more subliminal as well, than you would think. Someone might take a meme as a joke without recognising it might be loaded with all these other things that mean different things for different people. It’s sort of the ultimate confusion of language.
This “confusion of language” is dangerous, right?
Monahan: Yeah, and that’s why the “left can’t meme” thing is partially true. Images are inherently more seductive and often bypass people’s critical faculties, because most people don’t really have an education in critically engaging with images. The average person doesn’t look at an image and wonder if it’s true or false or if it’s propagandistic.
Also, we live in a landscape that’s so mediated by advertisements and branded content that a lot of the content we’re used to interacting with functions with this in mind too, that people are more likely to bypass their critical faculties when engaging with images. When people are reading text, they’re much more skeptical and more able to think of counter-arguments. But images don’t really have counter-arguments.
Secaf: That’s when the whole unconscious synchronicity happens. You don’t even realise you’re copying or aspiring to something, but you are doing exactly that instead of experimenting with your own reality, and being creative with what you have. People copy without even knowing what they’re copying, and ultimately this curbs creativity. All the same shit goes on over and over again, no matter where you are, and I think younger people think that’s lame. They’re responding like, “Ew, these old people think that social media should be about having brunch and posting selfies, but maybe it could be something more interesting or weirder or more transgressive.”
In the report, you characterise Gen Z’s relationship to social media by its preference for Finstas (‘fake’ Instagrams) and Snapchat (the most impermanent of all platforms). What’s significant about that?
Monahan: We were trying to talk about Gen Z’s response to social media through creating Finstas or being very obsessed with the most private platform, Snapchat, as an attempt by them to exit this very visible, marketing-oriented social media reality and create their own private spaces. It also comes from this older idea that there’s only two real political responses to any situation. One is voice, saying something, and the other is leaving the situation if you don’t like it.
Secaf: It’s not about social media ceasing to exist. It’s about the exhaustion people experience when they’ve invested all of their resources in maintaining a platform for themselves, and instead being a bit more pragmatic about yourself instead of being a constant brand. It’s “exiting” in terms of remaking the current social media environment into one that is more fluid and prone to creativity.
Monahan: Millennials have reacted to social media by treating it as a business platform where they’re repping their personal brands. They see it tied to their reputation and career prospects.
In some ways, younger people are reacting to that with a little bit of an, "Ew,” because that’s a reductive approach to the possibilities of social media. Like should social media just be an advertising platform? When social media first emerged on Web 2.0 platforms, the thought was that it would present an amazing opportunity to democratise and diversify culture by filling it with all these voices. Instead, we’ve had a narrowing of culture in a lot of ways. Instead of having a television subscription with a thousand channels, now there’s only a couple channels, and they’re Instagram and Youtube and Facebook… And if you don’t use the platforms the way they’re supposed to be used, the algorithm will edit you out.
Secaf: All of a sudden, managing one’s image on social media became a whole side business. GenExit comes as a response to that. People are tired of investing all of these emotional resources and maintaining these marketing platforms for themselves. Thus, this generation is going to reinvent their relationship with social media and it’s already starting with Finstas and their use of Snapchat.
Monahan: There’s also a pure age angle to this, where some young people also feel weird because they know that the internet is forever and 15 year olds don’t want to commit to one identity. Young people don’t want to have to define their brands when they haven’t even gone through puberty yet. They don’t see the need to establish their image online in a certain, fixed way. Of course, images help people communicate in a way that just wasn’t possible in a pre-smartphone, pre-internet world, but that’s not the whole context of how memes work.
“Meme” is an old word. Richard Dawkins invented the term meme in the 1970s to talk about how societies transmit cultural practices and cultural values over time. He thought that if human beings replicate themselves, culture replicate themselves through memes. Memes came back into prominence in recent years because the internet suddenly made that phenomenon viscerally clear. You can actually track how an image shifts and changes and moves around and see how quickly cultures can communicate and context can disintegrate.
Secaf: People today are having astonishing success loading online symbols with the sophisticated language of memethink, and using those symbols to convert and manipulate people into supporting their perspective.