the meme culture

Written by Noor-Ul-Haya 12:22 pm Articles, Current Affairs, Published Content

The Dark Side of the Meme Culture

Noor-Ul-Haya looks into the ethical considerations of consent and privacy w.r.t. the creation of memes on social media. Through examples, she highlights the long-lasting impacts of such a ‘casual’ phenomenon, and a few clear solutions to deal with it.
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Ms Noor-Ul-Haya has a degree in Anthropology and Sociology with a minor in Comparative and Classical Literature from LUMS.


The term ‘meme’ was first introduced in 1976 to explain the concept of birth and the transformation of ideas. However, since the internet gave birth to communicative and social media sites, ‘internet meme’ has become a universal buzzword. The meme culture comprises pictures, audio or videos either in their original form or in repurposed shape to chiefly spread humor mostly through the internet.

According to Patrick Davison, “an internet meme is a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission,”. Dennett deciphers the wide spread of memes in the following words, “replicate at rates that make even fruit flies and yeast cells look glacial in comparison”.

It has been broadly researched and discussed that some internet memes target gender, race, as well as political and religious beliefs. The information on social media is not safe and perhaps cannot remain secure because it is the ‘shared’ media and the question of who gets to share what is very complex to answer. However, efforts are being made to improve it.

“As outlined by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) there are four areas of concern within social media, namely: private versus public posts; gaining informed consent; ensuring anonymity and reducing the risk of harm.”

Memes are built around what people might be doing very casually in their everyday lives. Memes can start circulating around someone’s eccentric manner of sleeping or the reflexive expressions of happiness or frustration while watching a cricket match. In Pakistan, ‘aanday vala burger’ (egg-filled burger) is perhaps one of the most common meme phrases which originated from a television reporter who was being disturbed by a mob while reporting live.

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A senior anchor was observed in rage while preparing for her morning show and ‘bright krien’ (brighten it) was the most common meme phrase. The breach of privacy can impact “solitude (the right to be left alone), intimacy (the right to be monitored), and anonymity (the right to have no public personal identity and by extension physical privacy impacted.”

The following three examples look into the details of the events leading to the creation of memes and the issues people have to face especially mental and social. The first example is the famous ‘Star Wars Kid’. The kid, whose real name is Ghyslain Raza, was casually fighting his made-up enemies and having fun. Regrettably, one of his colleagues discovered the video and shared it on social media. It went viral very quickly, as deciphered in these words, “reaching around 900 million views. It was labeled as the most viral video in 2006.”

The kid had to suffer a lot; both socially and mentally. He was bullied at school and people made fun of his appearance and weight. His family sued the kid who leaked the video and the matter was taken to court but he suffered backlash due to this as well since his family was being labeled ‘greedy’. He had to drop out of school and seek medical assistance since he was diagnosed with extreme depression because of this debacle.

Years after this incident he appeared on television and talked about how that unwanted attention reduced his number of friends and while discussing his mental health he stated, “No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I could not help but feel worthless, like my life was not worth living.” This statement however questions the ethics of people in many ways, particularly on how we love humiliating those who are already under stress.

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The second case from Pakistan which could perhaps be labeled as the most meme-producing content in the last few years is of an elderly woman. Very famously known as ‘aunty gormint’ (Aunty Government), her real name is Qamar Begum and she is from Karachi. She was seen on television a few years back. According to a report, it was a time of excessive load shedding when she was interviewed by a private news channel.

In her interview, she was seen in a very aggressive mood. She was using a harsh tone and cursed the government for how they have failed to fulfill their promises and supply power to residents. This short video clip of Qamar Begum started taking rounds on social media and grew like a fire in bushes. The video and memes went viral in Pakistan and across the border. Her son pointed out that it was inappropriate for television channels to telecast it.

He also further said that he wasn’t able to find suitable matches for his sisters and that their relatives were not accepting them wholeheartedly. In his words, “Our extended family has socially boycotted us. Everyone makes fun of my mother. We have stopped attending family events because people, instead of enjoying the family functions, shift their focus on my mother. As a result, no one comes to our house anymore.” (Samma TV, 2017 News).


This unsatisfactory commotion of creating memes from casual activities of people without them knowing has long-lasting impacts including the erosion of cultural values and permanent development of an indifferent approach towards others. As initially defined by Davison, a meme is representative of the culture primarily because memes depict certain shared ideas and concepts.

As mentioned in a piece of writing, “memes have shaped culture through decades of  rapid technological advancements including the internet and  internet culture, which has sharply changed how memes are shared and digital culture is shaped.” Every other meme created depicts someone’s culture, political or religious beliefs. Therefore, each meme would either add something to the culture or take away something of value.

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People are becoming habitual of laughing, mocking, and ridiculing others. The whole social media shares a cackle at the expense of someone else’s happiness and peace of mind. It will not only remain confined to social media but will dominate our routine outside this screen world. Social media has given overnight fame to many people who are recognized as celebrities today alongside providing a platform for raising voices. It has helped millions of people to stay engaged and connected.

Memes that have recognizable individuals and their words or actions, without the actual person knowing, are highly unethical. This brings in concern about privacy and consent along with the social and mental pressure such people face. Surely, this goes unnoticed by many people they are making fun of someone who is sitting miles away.


As it is quoted, “Currently, ethical guidelines for a networked anthropology do not exist, and will need to be formulated on the basis of a new way of sharing and communicating in a Web 2.0 age.” (Lichtenstien, 2017). Everybody sitting in front of a screen has feelings that should be respected by others, especially on the internet. The core of ethics demands taking care of these little deeds.

As stated in the article ‘The Complex Ethics of Online Memes’: The internet is not an ethics-free zone. Responsible online participation requires thinking about the experiences and feelings of others and watching where, when, and how you step. And most importantly, before you amplify a message, always remember: There But For The Grace Of The Internet Go You.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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