Meme culture is the vernacular of the internet, and harnessing it has great (and hilarious!) pay-off, but it’s important to be aware of some of the issues this mode of discourse also comes with.
Accessibility. Memes and animated gifs don’t play well with screen readers, and some folks with processing concerns will reduce images in their internet browsing, so make sure you provide accurate and detailed descriptive captions and alt-text to accommodate the majority of users. When you use memes and gifs in class, that captioning (“alt-text”) should be part of the classroom workflow and expectations.
Propaganda. Memes are easy to make, quick to mobilize, and infinitely sharable, so it was probably only a matter of time before they became weaponized. Memes are particularly favoured by far-right political groups as well as other radical actors, so you should be aware of the kinds of content students may encounter when searching for and engaging with meme culture.
Digital blackface. Many of the most popular reaction gifs and memes feature Black celebrities, and scholars and cultural critics have raised questions about what it means to appropriate someone’s identity in a digital context as a stand-in for your own reaction or commentary. Given that we exist within racist social structures, it’s critical to be mindful of the assumptions underlying our gif selections.
Similarly, the contextless nature of most internet communication is both the digital minstrel’s real crime and his most sympathetic line of defence. Blackness has long had a certain cachet for non-black people, yet the anonymity of the internet makes slipping in and out of alternative identities all the more of a temptation.
Relying on Real Housewives of Atlanta gifs for your online expression can seem like the frivolous, fun end of the spectrum, especially when compared with those “alt-right” trolls using digital blackface as a tool to sow dissent and derail democracy – and indeed it often is. The point, however, is that all these instances of digital blackface exist within the same cultural context: a racist one.