I write about Internet gaming culture which means I often write about memes.
Memes are social currency. By sharing a meme or participating in the discourse that surrounds it, one signals to the larger group that they are informed and up-to-date on the “issues of the day” (the issues that generate the most hits on BuzzFeed and the most likes on Facebook).
In her recent piece for The Atlantic, Megan Garber describes the function of one recent and extremely popular meme: #TheDress. If you are unfamiliar, peruse back through your Facebook feed for the last few days and look for people arguing with each other.
Theorists of play, from Huizinga to Piaget, have pointed out how powerful the infrastructures of games can be. They allow us to explore ideas and bond in a mutually-agreed-upon environment. Jane McGonigal, the game designer and theorist, suggests that the alternate universes provided by video games allow us to think in terms of collaboration and problem-solving. Games’ constraints, she argues, are actually empowering.
And what are memes if not games? They are small; they are low-stakes; they are often silly…. But they are also communal. They invite us to participate, to adapt, to joke, to create something together, under the auspices of the same basic rules. That is not a small thing.
But not everyone agrees that #TheDress is all fun and games. Garber describes a group of meme-participants she calls the “attention police,” folks who want to gather the cultural currency associated with participating in a meme without actually admitting to being interested in its content.
What I want to focus on, though, is a little sliver of all that: a particular strain of commentary that arose during the explosion of conversation about #thedress. Here is a representative tweet, from God (well, @TheTweetofGod) himself:
This is a line of logic that will be familiar from most any Meme Event—the logic that says, basically, “don’t look at that; that is unimportant.” It’s attention-policing, and it’s reminiscent of so many other strains of rhetorical legislation that play out in online conversations: You can’t say that. You can’t talk about that. GUYS, the attention-policer usually begins. How can you be talking about a dress/a leg/a pair of llamas/a dancing neoprene shark when climate change/net neutrality/marriage equality/ISIS/China/North Korea is going on?
Ah yes. The attention police are too sophisticated and worldly to stoop to discussing such trivialities.
They are also too masculine to play along.
Let’s look at the representative memes that Garber selects to illustrate the phenomenon of attention policing:
The Llama Drama
The Left Shark
What do all of these memes have in common? They could all be categorized as “girly” interests: fashion, cute animals, and Katy Perry (who, via The Left Shark, combines fashion and cute animals with a third “girly” interest: pop music).
I do not think that it is a coincidence that the memes the attention police consider too frivolous and unserious are gendered female.
I’ve written elsewhere that the act of trolling consists of crafting a sort of “cool pose” which allows the troll to appear dispassionate and impartial, above the fray while luring his targets into unseemly and unmanly displays of emotion. Attention policing might be thought of as a style of trolling, an attempt to derail fun conversations and redirect them towards topics ripe for mansplaining.
People who run in feminist circles online are very familiar with this kind of troll. Sometimes, they claim to be trying to help the feminist cause by pointing out more important things for activists to be discussing than, say, depictions of women in American popular culture. Sometimes they insist that they only “pure” form of activism is a kind of “equalism” or “humanism” in which men’s issues and women’s issues get equal billing. Translation:
Source (love you, Parks and Rec!)
And then there are the true skeptics who are certain that NOTHING feminism works towards is worthwhile in comparison with other, more important issues. Don’t you know that kids are starving to death overseas, that our government is spying on us everyday, that global warming is going to kill us all??!!? The implication is that 1) feminists are nothing but silly women selfishly burying their heads in the sand and obsessing over minutiae while everyone else discusses issues of real import (aka: issues of gender inequality are unimportant) and 2) feminists are incapable of thinking and caring about more than one thing at a time (aka: our tiny woman brains can’t handle multitasking and we need men to direct our attention).
So have fun discussing #TheDress. Don’t let the trolls get you down. See their scoffing for what it really is: a bit of posturing that is masking a fear that Internet culture is becoming interested in lots of new things, that new voices might end up leading the conversation for a while.