Lately I’ve been noticing a trend in the way people communicate, at least in the way they communicate online. The only way I can describe it is “communication by meme”. The more time people spend online and the more their online activity becomes a part of their lives, the more they build up shared context, the meaning of which can only be derived from exposure to similar online activities.
There are languages where communication shortcuts are available and encouraged, all based on shared context. For example, in Japanese, if two people have already established that they are talking about “the soup”, that object can then be omitted from virtually all other sentences in that conversation, unless I need to explicitly differentiate a person from the soup (Am I delicious, or is the soup?)
What I have found fascinating is that the Internet is allowing for the buildup of a tremendous amount of shared context, of backstory that can be left out of conversations and replaced with nothing more than a meme image.
There is an entire subculture of shared context built up among people who frequent Internet forums, comments on videos and Facebook, etc. Memes appear out of nowhere and within days it seems as though all of your friends are communicating in a completely foreign language … until you figure out the source of the meme, and then suddenly it all makes sense.
This reminds me of one of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes: Darmok. In this episode, Picard meets an alien who communicates in metaphor. Everything that is communicated is a reference to the meaning or feeling experienced in some prior event.
That’s how you communicate, isn’t it? By citing example… by metaphor!
I can’t help but draw connections between the way this alien species communicates and some of what’s happening online. We communicate by meme, by sharing a reference to something that once was funny or once had meaning online. Because we all shared the experience by seeing that same YouTube video or watching that one cartoon that went viral, we all know what it means when a still picture from that video appears as the only information contained in a comment. We know what it means when someone drops an animated GIF of someone eating popcorn in a comment thread, or a picture of a troll hiding under a bridge.
It has even become commonplace in office communications. A picture of Ned Stark (Winter is coming!) is often placed in an e-mail that warns of bad news on the horizon. The e-mail never says anything like “prepare yourselves for bad news” … It’s just a picture of Ned Stark. Everyone (well, almost) knows that when they see that picture, they are to brace themselves. Why? Shared context, communication by meme.
The real question I have is what does this mean for the future of communication between people. Are we headed for a future where we do nothing but exchange images of memes to convey meaning intermingled with emojis and icons, and nobody actually exchanges words or complete sentences ? Is the use of memes and shared context for communication contributing to the “dumbing down” of average people?
More importantly, what impact will this have on books? You already see more and more contemporary references to things that might be funny to readers of the time appearing in books (which will, of course, mean nothing 5 years from now). Will books of the future be nothing more than a bunch of meme images pasted together like an old ransom note?