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3_TRENDS_Vol.16: Rachel Greenspan: Fake Authenticity, Meme Fatigue + Reply Guys
3_TRENDS is an interview series with the world's leading cultural researchers and thinkers, sharing their favorite overlooked trends.
Rachel’s first 3_TRENDS volume can be found here.
Rachel Greenspan (RG) is a social strategist at VMLY&R and previously a reporter and editor on Insider’s Digital Culture desk, where her coverage of QAnon won an award from NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. You can find her writing at Rach Ruminates and follow her at @rach_greenspan.
MK: Rachel, what’s on your mind?
RG: The (latest) buzzy app BeReal sends daily push notifications prompting a snapshot of your life at that moment, capturing both a front- and back-facing image to share with friends. The result is an off-kilter, supposedly “unfiltered” look into your reality.
One of my recent Instagram carousel posts featured a bottle of nasal spray.
But the paradoxical truth is that there’s nothing casual about intentionally telegraphing casualness for the sake of looking cool.
I only shared the nasal spray, originally taken to tell my best friend what to get for her cold, because I knew it would telegraph that I understand what’s now cool.
But there’s nothing “real” about that.
MK: Just because we’ve removed a filter, doesn’t mean effort still doesn’t exist. It’s easy to conflate the two (Filters x Effort), but they’re different.
When Instagram came onto the scene, mindless novelty preceded overthinking captions and the number of times we could post in a week. Now, we photo dump... but still meticulously. You can strip the filters, but you can’t purge the posturing.
It’s been a moment since Lorenz’s Atlantic piece “The Instagram Aesthetic Is Over” declared the demise of the filter.
Nearly three years to the day, I helped contribute:
“We all know the jig is up. We’ve all participated in those staged photos. We all know the stress and anxiety it takes. And we can see through it. Culture is a pendulum, and the pendulum is swaying.”
We’ve replaced pink wall backdrops with pics of Pepto Bismol and LinkedIn posts unpacking addictions, divorces, and firings. The pendulum has evidently swung back in the other direction. Nothing is filtered and the intimate is on stage for all to see. But. Keyword: stage. And because this is a new extreme, many of these stories are fabricated. So much is still overthought.
We’re at the moment where brutal transparency is becoming cliché, and a new aesthetic to cut through the noise is required.
For this brief moment, for the majority, effort is still perceived as lame. This isn’t a bad thing. How do we embrace this carelessness and double down?
RG: It's been nearly two months since the 2022 Oscars, and I'm still thinking about one thing: that the meme cycle began the instant Will Smith’s palm met Chris Rock’s face.
A viral tweet sharing footage, which was partially censored during the U.S. broadcast, was posted at 10:32 p.m. ET on March 27. The meme database Know Your Meme cataloged “Will Smith Slapping Chris Rock” just over an hour later.
Google Search Trends data shows “Will Smith Meme” search interest peaking within the next 24 hours.
But the meme died as soon as it began.
72 hours after the event, search interest had already fallen 70%. One full week after the Oscars, interest was nearly dead.
Let’s compare this with one of 2021’s top memes: Bernie Mittens. This one interestingly, didn’t peak until three full days after the photo’s capture at President Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. One week after the event, search interest had only fallen by 86%. It sustained.
While, yes, search volume isn’t everything, and these events happened in far different contexts, further data suggests the lifecycle of mainstream internet memes are shortening over the last year.
Perhaps we’re tired from clamoring for ways to weigh in, to feel relevant, to engage, or just to find joy online.
I know I am.
MK: As I wrote in a previous Zine piece on the slap:
The Will Smith event is representative of many of our cultural narratives today: the continued downfall of the unhinged elite, free speech and accountability, and the evolving (or devolving) norms of masculinity. The slap is also a story about our lack of opportunities to get back on the same page. The yearn to sync up.
I’m mindful of over-analysis and how far out we are at this point, but the event is so chock-full of implications about our zeitgeist that it’s hard not to squeeze everything out of it.
It’s critical to call out that within mere seconds, some of the first viral jokes about the slap were:
“Ugh! Already tired of this week’s think pieces.”
The first memes about this event were nodding to our pending onslaught of memes. We were reacting to reactions. We were clenched, bracing. And they came swiftly as expected, but they also died quickly.
It’s clear there’s an unspoken, collective exhaustion around all things internet meme-culture. The cycle is utterly draining, illustrative of both our gnat-like attention spans and the lack of depth beneath today’s fads.
Plant Beasts. Igloo Vibes. Candelabra-core. Ever hear of them? Just made them up. But nonetheless, you can’t keep up. Rightfully so, internet culture reporting is now a full-time beat and job.
There’s a rampant fetishisization of aesthetics and moods. We’re cool-hunting emotions ad infinitum. Ironically, young adults are commodifying trends the same way marketers always have. The twist is that the marketers are now the ones behind.
I guess that’s what we get when we replace physical AFK (away-from-keyboard) cultural collisions with cultural outputs instantaneously generated from character-capped broadcasts and time-restricted videos. It’s all bite-sized and live.
Everything is now. And nothing is substantial.
Or Grant McCracken put it,
”If you are under 25, popular culture is on perpetual spin cycle. Everything is in motion. Except you.”
Memes by definition are idea viruses. And it feels like our cultural immune system is able to move on quicker and quicker. Perhaps built in remixing features on platforms have helped the viruses spread, but has diminished their potency.
I wonder how many of these memes and headlines are actually getting internalized. Are they even altering us? Any effect here? Eyes are glazed over.
I can’t tell if this is a strength or weakness.
So-called “Reply Guys” never bothered me that much. As a single woman, it can be fun to have an old acquaintance compliment your highlights or a random lawyer in Washington say you’re an icon.
A study from University of Florida & Korea University in 2016 identified four key motivations for posting selfies on social media: attention seeking, communication, archiving, and entertainment. This suggests that we sometimes post to receive positive engagement.
I’ve been thinking about Reply Guys a lot lately, since I now have a boyfriend for the first time in a while (See: our first 3_TRENDS discussion re: dating apps, wherein I posited that it's easier to form a romantic connection with someone you've met through DM-sliding on social media. My boyfriend and I met on Hinge, though. Go figure).
The evolution of my own relationship status has introduced a new personal online boundary for me. Receiving such replies no longer feels appropriate. (Furthermore, Reply Guys appear to be crossing those lines in their own lives — many are married or in long-term committed relationships). Now, my social media is not serving an additional purpose as a dating app at all.
I don’t wish to stop posting photos of myself online. But I don’t know how to remove myself from the Reply Guy Industrial Complex. If only there were a way to label photos of myself:
“This is for me,” I’d write. “It’s not for you.”
MK: This is an experience I fortunately can’t relate to, however I empathize wholeheartedly.
In unpacking the Future of Constructive Conversations for Zine, Brendan Shaughnessy and I call out some missing and needed features... Shared “Opt-In’s” was the first.
This concept ties back to our previous trend, Fake Authenticity, which questions who our “content” is for: oneself or others? No right answer, but we’re faced with the same quandary here.
We’ve developed a bizarre reflex, perceiving everything as an opportunity to contribute. Calling it a “habit” is too mild. Photos are opportunities to harass, CDC statements are opportunities to question, and wars are opportunities to strategize around.
Everything awaits a reaction.
Another constructive conversation feature we proposed were Breathers and Speed Bumps, manufactured friction to slow down and reflect: What am I about to contribute, and is it needed?
More often than not, no.
But breaking this collective reflex may prove to be impossible.