Whether you see memes as a vibrant form of visual expression or a pop cultural trend that has long overstayed its welcome, memes are an unavoidable part of our online experience. The term “meme” owes its origins to the work of evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, who coined the term to describe a self-replicating unit of cultural information. In the present context of internet memes, the term refers to the alteration of an image or idea by a web-user which gives it a new context or meaning. Memes usually take the form of the image of a person or animal with bold text superimposed on top that sets up a joke and delivers a punch-line. They are often reproduced in the comment sections of social media as a way of amplifying the reactions or moods of users, and typically owe their origins the cesspools of a Reddit sub-forum.
While memes can be amusing or useful in communicating ideas, they are in fact images of real people who may not approve of the ideas which have been projected on their image. These people typically have no power over what text is applied to their image and the anonymity of the internet can help shield those who reproduced it from accountability. The effects of having an image appropriated into a meme can either jump-start a career in entertainment industry or cause someone to become subject to ostracization and ridicule. It can get especially strange and nightmarish when web-users project their own angry or bigotry on to these images.
The image in the Scumbag Steve meme, that of a young man wearing a sideways baseball cap, usually paired with text referencing some unethical behavior, was lifted from the cover of first rap ep of the man depicted in the image. The proliferation of this image became unstoppable once it was posed to a Reddit forum and it ultimately destroyed the young man’s music career. The image of a little boy raising his fist and pursing his lips which became Success Kid and picture of the young wide eyed women from the Attached Girlfriend memes have fared better (the boy’s mother has mostly managed to shelter her son from the impact of the meme, and Attached Girlfriend has turn the success of her meme into a successful youtube channel), but their stories still raise the same questions. How do you deal with the sudden influx of attention that can result from the appreciation of your image?
The answer is not an easy one. The law in particular is ill adapted to deal with these types of scenarios. Most of the time the appropriation and transformation of an image is permissible under the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause and defendable on Fair Use grounds. The anonymity of the internet poses another issues. If you don’t know who to sue the court will be unable to provide you with a remedy. It’s much easier to hold others accountable for the manipulating and distributing your image if you were not the person who initially made the images available online. The infamous Star Wars Kid suits are exemplary of this fact, as the boy’s parents were able to force a settlement out of the parents of the children who uploaded a video of their son pretending to fight with a light saber to the internet without his knowledge, causing him to be subject to ridicule. In almost all other scenarios, the other party is either anonymous or it protected by free speech rights.
The European Union has instituted a novel solution to this problem with its Right to be Forgotten policy. The rule allows users to ask search engines to de-index images and websites they believe are irrelevant or portray them in a false light. The EU is working with Google to implement this rule globally. But even this is not a complete solution. Just because it is more difficult to find an image of you on the internet, does not mean the image has disappeared. More importantly, it doesn’t stop people from projecting their own issues and biases on top of your image. As a Brooklyn performance artist, whose was the target of harassment by cultural conservatives after a video of one of her provocative performance went viral, lamented to Vice Media, “anonymity is powerful.” This is true for both the person in the image, as well as those who might manipulate it and distribute it against their will.
By Michael Reed