Flashbulb Memery

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The word of the year, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is “gif” — not GIF the image format exactly, but gif the verb: the process of compressing an event or video into a short looping image. But the importance of giffing (as it is apparently called, reader, by people more swag than you or I) is not, of course, the ability to make a pithy, dithered, easily shared file.

There is a kind of memory called a “flashbulb memory,” which is particularly vivid, and forms when something surprising or particularly affecting occurs. Back when psychologists were studying baby boomers, the assassination of JFK was the go-to moment for flashbulb memories. Now, of course, it would be 9/11.

What we call memes (gifs included) are the flashbulb memories of the Internet, and they have emerged because there is a missing piece in the way we share and experience the Internet-based phenomena that are so important to us now.

Think about it this way. When you are talking with friends, the conversation turns and twists because of associations in stories, ideas and other stories you are reminded of, and people or objects that come and go. How many times have you had your train of thought interrupted, or resumed, by a server dropping off some food, or a passing truck, by a friendly dog? How many times has some random occurrence caused you to say “Remember when…”?

This is because communication takes place in the world; it’s rich, it’s improvised, it’s distracted. Not so on the internet. Most conversation is in text — inflexible, sterile text. What a stifling restriction for anything other than the most basic communications! It’s no surprise that constellations of impenetrable argot have arisen to circumvent these restrictions. The humble emoticon is an invaluable tool for shading a statement one way or another, and a further natural outgrowth of that is things like rage faces and celebrity gifs.

Humans have found a way to enrich their conversations online, but something yet missing is the subtlety and immediacy of acts as simple as pointing, or making a face, or imitating a voice, or saying “like when we were at the park before” — essentially being able to evoke a shared memory and all its associations without actually laboriously recounting it. We do this constantly in daily conversation with our friends, with whom we have many shared memories, so it’s always been frustrating to be unable to do so online, where we share so much even with people we’ve never met.

But it’s hard! The Internet (indeed all experience, but even more so online) is a palimpsest; every day we write over our previous news feeds and front pages and readers with new events and media. Furthermore, you can’t always be sure that people saw the same articles, watched the same videos.

Certainly that’s the case in real life, too, but there are some things you can rely on. It would be hard, for instance, to find someone over 10 in 1964 who was not aware of Kennedy’s assassination, and indeed where they were, who they were with, and how they felt when they heard about it.

That’s the flashbulb effect. And now, instead of a collective recollection surrounding an event or experience, we have organic virality promoting whatever image, phrase, gif, sound bite, or whatever that best encapsulates it. It’s no accident that for many people, even extended or important events and occurrences are crystalized into a single moment, both online and in normal life.

Hub and spokes

You remember a week-long camping trip not from the first moment to the last, like a film strip, but like spokes growing from a hub, revolving and blurring in your memory: first by the one night it was clear and everyone was around the fire laughing about someone incinerating their marshmallow, and only afterwards the drive, starting the fire, the smell of the forest.

Similarly, you remember the 2012 Olympics not as some huge extended event layer overlaid on your life in that period, but in McKayla Maroney’s skeptical face or the swimmers clinging together like otters (choose your own iconic moment). From there, again, the rest of the event — medals, injuries, ignominies, ceremonies — fades into prominence.

And so it is those things — those crystalized experiences, online and off, internally and externally, that we use to remind each other and refer to things from the past, from the trivial or obscure to the complicated or painful. And we do it in a rich, playful, improvisational way when we, say, put “deal with it” glasses on Obama, even though one may think of that as rather trite and unoriginal. It is precisely because it is unoriginal that it is powerful! It is precisely because it is shared by many that it is both an important capsule memory and a cliche.

Note that it is not always tasteful or funny — after all, we don’t tell certain stories all the time, and plenty of references and jokes fall flat in regular conversation. But it’s the same tools that make both successful and unsuccessful rich sharing possible, whether it’s telling a story at a bar or photoshopping Maroney’s face onto Paul Ryan’s soup kitchen photo op (or the Mona Lisa).

What does it matter? I think that it’s important to always investigate the true value of a thing, and whether it is more or less than how it is commonly perceived. Memes, these disposable images we open for a single second perhaps, are undervalued as cultural documentation.

That’s not to say that every rage comic or advice animal or captioned gif is important for the purposes of posterity — no more than every anecdote and casual conversation is. But the meme, at once personal and shared by millions, is a vector of almost unlimited value (as it has been by other names for millennia, as any scholar will tell you), and they are being created and internalized at an incredible rate. To write off such a rich and powerful medium, so closely attuned to the zeitgeist, would be wrong and unfortunate.