Don't dismiss Millennials and our Internet memes

The Internet meme is my generation's protest sign, our letter to the editor, our political cartoon. Our digital commentary and social media campaigns represent an informed engagement that older generations shouldn't dismiss. And our online activities help push offline change.

Photo: Glenn Greenwald & Laura Poitras/The Guardian/AP
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is pictured here June 9 in Hong Kong. Images of Mr. Snowden have been made into a popular meme with the caption “Team Edward" – a reference to the phrase used by fans of the character Edward Cullen from the popular Twilight book and films series.

Articles like Joel Stein's recent Time magazine cover story on "The Me Me Me Generation," as well as books like Mark Bauerlein’s "The Dumbest Generation," are hallmarks of what has become quite a trend: legitimized "Millennial bashing."

They say we're lazy, narcissistic, and overly dependent on our electronics. That we're freeloaders who live at home for far too long.

Yes, some criticisms of those born between 1980 and 2000 are merited. But we Millennials are certainly more informed and engaged in civic discourse than our detractors realize. Our engagement just looks different than that of our boomer parents.

We're not just using social media to take "selfies." We are commenting on news, issues, public figures. My Facebook feed is populated by my peers posting articles and discussing topics both light-hearted and serious.

Perhaps the greatest testament to our generation's Internet commentary skills is our essential invention and popularization of the digital "meme" (rhymes with "cream").

The term was conceived by British behavioral scientist Richard Dawkins in 1976, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it in general terms as "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture." On the Internet in the 21st century, there are many kinds of memes – catchphrases, animations known as GIFs – but the most common type is an image overlaid with text. They're found on meme-specific websites and often go viral on social media.

Many memes are solely comical. Take the Business Cat meme, with lines like: "We need to focus on the fourth quarter. I batted the first three under the couch."

But memes are also used to make social observations and critiques. A meme that was recently popular on the social news website Reddit is Old Economy Steven. Tacked onto a photo of a boomer male in his 20s are lines like "Bought a house in his 20s with a 9-to-5 job that didn't require a bachelor's degree … says kids have it easy these days."

Memes have become an important forum for airing views – and inspiring discussion – on current events. BuzzFeed has put together a list of some of the best memes reacting to President Obama's announcement that he plans to strike Syria in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime.

In the wake of the National Security Agency surveillance scandal, several popular memes made the rounds on the Internet. One features the National Security Agency's logo with a scathing caption: "The NSA, the only part of the government that actually listens." Probably the most popular features a morphed photo of Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush, with the caption "George W. Obama." It first appeared on the homepage of the Huffington Post and quickly went viral.

Political memes – and all memes, actually – are becoming more culturally significant. Increasingly, they have the potential to sway public opinion, which in turn, can move policy.

Joel Penney, an assistant professor at Montclair State University's School of Communication and Media, studies social media activism and memes. He blogged recently about two meme-like phenomena on social media and their connection to offline action. Surrounding the Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage this spring, many changed their social media profile picture to a red equal sign – a symbol of support for marriage equality.

Following George Zimmerman's acquittal in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, many people changed their profile avatars to a silhouette of a figure in a hoodie or with the phrase "Justice for Trayvon." Mr. Penney suggests the viral nature of the meme helped to foment protests and public outcry ­­– outcry that made its way into remarks from the president himself.

Penney wrote this on his blog recently: "As an observer of social media and politics, I'm struck by how these campaigns confirm the popularity of the profile picture as a primary space for political expression and engagement in the online world."

The question is whether our memes move beyond wit, from commentary to commitment. We Millennials have been derided as "slacktivists" content with liking a social cause on Facebook or signing a petition – all from the comfort of home, thinking we've done enough.

The fuller picture, though, is that we are making a difference. Our online activities have potential to bring about real change. It's not just that we're web-savvy or confident. Studies show Millennials are civic-minded, tolerant, altruistic, open to change, and optimistic about the future – all ingredients for helping society move forward.

Millennials' memes are the new protest sign. The new letter to the editor. The new political cartoon. But in keeping with our generation, memes are free, communal, user-generated, and meritocratic. They reflect an informed engagement that older generations shouldn't be so quick to dismiss.

Colby Bermel is a sophomore at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. He was an intern with the Monitor's commentary desk this summer.

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