(ANTIMEDIA) Have you ever stopped to consider that the photos, videos, or memes you’re currently laughing at might have been uploaded to the internet without the consent of the person involved? Have you ever considered how that person would feel, waking up one morning to see themselves plastered all over the internet—not as a hero or celebrity, but as a joke?
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Have you considered how you would feel?
Before we can go any further, we must first understand what a meme is. The term “meme” was coined by evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book, The Selfish Gene, to refer to a “self-replicating unit of information.” This includes ideas, information, or behaviors that spread across groups. The term seems rather fitting for the modern age given social media’s ability to spread information and ideas like wildfire.
In order to understand how something that could potentially be so advantageous can have such a devastating effect on the life of an individual, we need look no further than the story of Ghyslain Raza (a.k.a. Star Wars kid). Raza is famous, unfortunately, because on one regretful day in 2003, he felt confident enough to take a video of himself swinging a broom around as if it were a lightsaber from the Star Wars movies. Unfortunately, this video fell into the wrong hands and was uploaded to the internet. It has now been viewed over one billion times.
So how did Raza feel about this sudden rise to fame?
“What I saw was mean. It was violent. People were telling me to commit suicide…No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living,” he said, as quoted by the Telegraph. Raza was even offered invitations to be interviewed on a variety of talk shows, including Jay Leno’s. He turned them down, however, because his intuition told him “they wanted to turn me into a circus act.” Raza then became deeply depressed and was forced to drop out of high school and hire a private tutor due to the increased levels of bullying.
“I want my life back,” Raza sadly stated.
In an impressive attempt to flip every one of his bullies the middle finger, Raza was able to turn all of this around, and despite dropping out of high school, he went on to study law. He now offers hope and advice to those who have also found themselves the subject of internet bullying.
Another meme equally as well-known is that of Blake Boston, a.k.a. “Scumbag Steve,” who attracted unwanted fame in 2011 when a photograph from his Myspace page was uploaded to create a meme. According to Know Your Meme, the theme “generally centers around unethical behavior regarding drugs, partying, and other hedonistic behaviors.”
His life spiraled downhill when cyber bullies took the liberty of tracking him down on Facebook to message him. They even obtained his phone number and called him in the middle of the night. One bully went so far as to post an ultrasound picture of Boston’s unborn child, hoping it would die.
Contrast this with an overview provided by Business Insider, entitled, “What 7 Viral Internet Meme Stars Look Like in Real Life”:
“Hundreds of millions of people have watched ‘What Does The Fox Say.’ They’ve also seen funny photos of the Overly-Attached Girlfriend, Scumbag Steve, and Grumpy Cat on Reddit or BuzzFeed. Each of those are Internet memes.”
There is no mention whatsoever about the devastating effect the spread of these memes has had on the individual victims. There is no acknowledgment at all that some—if not all—of them have suffered because of this unwanted fame. In fact, publications like the latter even seem to encourage and exacerbate meme culture to the detriment of those who are most negatively affected.
Of course, there will always be those who are able to embrace their unexpected rise to fame. This will always depend on the nature of the meme and the intentions behind it. Even Boston provides hope for other victims, as he was kind enough to write an open letter to another victim, known as the “Annoying Facebook Girl,” to remind her it would pass. However, even those who enjoy their fame are subject to all manner of bullying, story fabrications, and death threats. One victim of widespread internet mockery, Aleksey Vayner, subsequently died from an overdose.
Finding oneself the subject of a meme is something that could potentially happen to anyone who uses social media, as blogger Helene Sula found out the hard way. The simple message from all of this is to stop sharing and uploading memes that have a photo or video footage of someone that is not intended to be shared by the individual—unless you’d be fine with it happening to you.
Memes can be creative, funny, informative, and witty. However, they can also achieve all of these things without victimizing young adults to the point they are too depressed to finish high school.