His face is blank. He is tall and thin, and wears a black suit.
He has the ability to stretch and shorten his arms at will, and has tentacle-like appendages protruding from his back…
Most people understand he is a mythical creature, created by a man called Eric Knudsen for a “paranormal pictures” Photoshop contest in 2009. But, sometimes, the younger generation gets it confused…
The Slender Man (or Slenderman) is a popular meme derived from an online forum called Something Awful, and has appeared in amateur horror fan fiction, drawings, video games and YouTube videos. The Slender Man “urban legend” took on such precedence in online forums that it gained a large following of knowledge-hungry young fans. In 2014, two 12-year-old girls allegedly stabbed a friend 19 times and left her to die in the woods, with the reasoning that she was a “sacrifice to Slenderman.” Later that same year, a 13-year-old girl stabbed her mother with a knife, and it was later discovered she had been journaling about Slenderman and playing the popular video game Minecraft, which allegedly makes reference to the character in the form of “Enderman.”
The incidents brought about interesting considerations: What the heck are memes (aren’t they supposed to be funny?)? How easily are teens influenced by popular online cultural trends? Do memes kill people? The Verge writer Adrianne Jeffries wrote, “The [Slenderman] crime has become a warning to parents to take a closer look at what their children are doing online.”
A Meme of Change
Like the changing seasons, well-developed and shared internet memes are often altered over time as they are passed along.
According to About Tech, a meme is a “virally-transmitted cultural symbol or social idea.” Linda Borzsei, author of “Makes a Meme Instead,” describes memes as a piece of content spreading online from user to user and changing along the way, and which is not only amassed on humor sites, but is a way of communication and genre. And, according to Know Your Meme, a platform that conducts crowd-sourced research into memes, a meme is not a meme until it has “spread beyond its original subculture, exhibited signs of mutation and is an Internet culture-related phenomenon.”
Memes are often innocent enough, and can take the form of minor jokes, or human and animal oddities. But, sometimes, memes are art and music curiosities, political ideas or even messages that pass judgement. Take for example this popular 2014 meme discussed on About Tech – while the imagery seems innocent enough, the message is passing sarcastic judgement on someone. Olga Goriunova, author of “The Force of Digital Aesthetics,” who believes youth are the main creators and sharers of digital memes, writes that as soon as the opinion of people producing memes is considered, memes can often be seen as loaded forms – small, creative acts that work as an exercise in power.
Remember Grumpy Cat? Perhaps one of the most iconic memes of the 21st Century, thousands of captioned meme photos have been created and shared in reference to the feline, who is actually not “grumpy” at all but suffers from a form of feline dwarfism that gives her an under bite. Memes can also take the shape of videos, songs, websites, Web personalities or inside jokes that spread rapidly.
Though the idea of memes has been around since the mid-1970s, they’ve only really just begun to break into digital culture and gain traction mainstream because of the proliferation of message boards, forums and social networks. You are probably familiar with one of the very first Internet memes – the “emoticon.” The first one, a sideways smiley face, was created in 1982. Emoticons have rapidly evolved, assuming many shapes and characteristics over the years.
What If I Told You, Creating Memes Isn’t Hard…
Today’s teens have never known a life without technology. Much of the information and learning they are gaining, and interactions with others are taking place in the virtual space. Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center writes in “Teens & Technology: Understanding the Digital Landscape,” that 93 percent of teens have a computer or have access to one today, and 74 percent of teens ages 12-17 are “mobile internet users” who say they access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices on occasion.
In 2011, a study conducted by comScore and NDP found that 69 percent of parents with children ages 10 to 17 were concerned with several different dangers associated with social network use, including contact from strangers, publicly displaying geo-location data, defamatory public messages and cyberbullying. However, only 32 percent of those parents actually monitor their child’s social networking activities every day, while another 28 percent admitted they only occasionally, rarely or never monitor activity. Gustavo S. Mesch, author of “The Internet and Youth Culture,” calls this lack of monitoring of teen internet use and devices a “bedroom culture.”
“Acting in a media-rich environment and a bedroom culture, the Net-generation, or digital natives, express different values, attitudes, and behaviors than previous generations. These youth create and use digital spaces for social interactions, identity expression, and media production and consumption.” – Gustavo Mesch
It’s true that teens are using online spaces to express themselves more fully to their peers. Memes have become a popular trend for doing this, whether used to showcase a teen’s creativity or to garner attention. Take for example, Georgia teen Kane Zipperman who used memes to dump his cheating girlfriend in mid-2014. Zipperman released a flurry of celebrity memes that related to the situation on Twitter. The activity gained him more than 25,000 followers, and the tweet of the total takedown of his ex has been retweeted almost 100,000 times. Yet, many on Twitter questioned Zipperman’s intentions because he had been in the social media limelight before.
Another example was the “Alex from Target” phenomenon in late 2014. A girl at a Target took a photograph of a cute cashier bagging her items and posted the image on Twitter. The teen Twitter-sphere went crazy. By that night, the image had amassed enough retweets, favorites and general teen chatter that Alex himself (whom the teens had digitally tracked down) had reached over 300,000 Twitter followers, and, by Monday morning, he had made it on to CNN. Hundreds of memes were spawned from the “Alex from Target” event, resulting in articles like this one from Buzzfeed that showcases 17 memes that prove teens are the best people on the internet.
Indeed, websites (like Meme Generator) and other software today make it easy for anyone to create a meme. But not all teen memes are light-hearted and humorous; some take a slightly darker twist. In 2012, a new form of cyber-bullying began to emerge in the form of hurtful memes, created by teens and directed at other teens. According to a New York Daily News article, a Facebook page called “Hey, girl did you know…” was formed and began posting “slut-shaming” memes that teens created to mock or shame their peers. And, in 2013, some Utah teens faced embarrassing cyberbullying in the form of memes when their Facebook pictures were stolen, captioned with vulgar language and shared. The issue caused one cyberbullied teen to change schools three times and seek counseling.
Mesch writes that being online not only detaches individuals from the constraints imposed by location, but also frees them from the constraints associated with their offline personalities and social roles. This may be the case with darker teen internet memes – you could say that the lawlessness of online culture and the ease of sharing thoughts has emboldened teen users and creators of memes. Or, you could just say that teens have been bullying teens for centuries, and the Internet has just given them new options.
Borzsei of “Makes a Meme Instead,” believes memes, despite their potential for misuse, can offer users a new way of engaging with the news, politics and what is happening in the world.
In conclusion, the Slenderman meme was only one rare occasion where two teens confused fiction with reality, not because they were totally influenced by a meme but perhaps because those psychotic, unempathetic tendencies were already present in their personalities. As Jeffries writes, “If you need a role model, you will find one… memes don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Can you think of any popular memes that have been created to encourage something good?