An Instagram feed shows an alert about coronavirus, followed by a post that reads "we will feel alive again"

Memeing under Covid-19: On the phatic internet and collectivity

16 minutes to read
Lucie Chateau

Life as we know it under Covid-19 has migrated to the digital. As more and more people work from home and inevitably use platforms to communicate, organise, and socialise, we are seeing a rise in the production and consumption of online content. Tweets, memes, viral challenges and forwarded message chains are taking over the internet like never before. You might have seen popular challenges like #betweenartandquarantine. Initially launched by the Getty museum in LA, but now truly global, the challenge is perpetuated by museums all over the world on their Instagram accounts, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and consists in recreating works of art from home. Through the hashtag and certain accounts like tussenkunstenquarantaine, fellow quarantiners share their work, and, gratefully, we consume it as a distraction from the mundanity of our everyday life under social isolation.  

Scrolling through #tussenkunstenquarantaine


The production of content has become an act of public service as much as consuming it has. To produce content is to indicate that we are fulfilling our civic duty of being at home. To be sure, this is also an act of leisure, showing our privilege in having jobs that grant us the opportunity of working online during the crisis. As the economic ravages of the Covid-19 crisis begin to be felt, the tone of this content might shift into a whole other repertoire.

For now, to consume content is to indicate that we are all in this together, and the space that we are all coexisting in is digital. Working from home, the cohabitation of work with “leisure” or forms of play, as defined by Huizinga (1949), is heightened in these times. Online, we see in the social relationships we begin to form with others through internet content that, as Huizinga conceived, "we play for the sake of the lived quality that attaches itself to the act of playing” (Rodriguez, 2006). The engagement with content is not meaningful in itself, but becomes meaningful as part of our routine.

To consume content is to indicate that we are all in this together.

When we seek digital forms of play under Covid-19, we engage with those forms that reaffirm our collective situation. Internet content has emerged as our tether to each other. More than ever we feel the need to signal that we are there, on the other side of the screen. Naturally, with this sharp increase in production, we are seeing a decrease in the valuation of content. On Twitter, most tweets mentioning the crisis amass phenomenal value in likes and retweets. Tweets, many voicing negative emotions, are racking up likes in the hundreds of thousands, figures less often achieved before Covid-19. As the content all starts to blend together, a user’s like simplify signals that they are there. Liking is not much more than a symbol of presence, if it was ever anything else. Liking a tweet means we are inscribing ourselves into a community of like-minded individuals. Of course, in this context, we are all single-minded, all part of the same audience loosely bound by our common quarantine. Indeed, the content is not particularly innovative. It’s difficult to have a new take in this age of permanent groundhog day—the overwhelming message of these tweets is: I’m here, I’m home, I’m quarantined.  

Tweets addressing Covid-19 with over 100k likes


The phatic internet and ambient awareness

This is not a new phenomenon. Vincent Miller coined the term “phatic internet” in 2008 to denominate a culture where the structure of exchange, rather than engagement with content, is what defines the “social”. This is a cultural landscape where “content is not king, but ‘keeping in touch’” (Miller, 2008: 293). The notion of the phatic internet draws on anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s understanding of phatic communion, a form of communication that serves as a social function. Phatic communion serves to initiate and maintain social relationships "between people brought together by the mere need of companionship" (Malinowski 1923 [1936]: 316). In phatic communication, bonding is done not through information or ideas, but communicative clues that have a social-pragmatic function. Writing in the early days of social networks, Miller notes that the shift from blogging cultures to one of networking

"brings along with it the shift from the creation of substantive text along with networking, to social networking profiles which emphasize networking over substantive text" (Miller, 2008: 295).

Under social isolation, we are dependent on others' digital presence to occupy the role of the background participants to our lives.

Though the principle of phatic communication entails that the content passed on in the communicative act is of low informational value, it is far from meaningless. The effects the content generates “in terms of emotions and feelings of connection, sociability, group membership, friend’s acknowledgement and mutual awareness etc are utterly relevant” (Yus, 2019: 162). As I will later come back to, Varis and Blommaert (2015:, 43) note that phatic acts create a "structural level of conviviality". Online, phatic communication weaves a web of social ties, which altogether gestures towards a much fuller picture than content taken individually might. Through our digital global interconnectedness, our phatic technological habituation (Wang et al., 2012) has led us to what Clive Thompson writes in The New York Times we might call “ambient awareness”:

"Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting."

Such as in this #tussenkunstenquarataine participant’s recreation of Un Dimanche Après-Midi à L'Île de la Grand Jatte, under social isolation, we are dependent on others' digital presence to occupy the role of the background participants to our lives. 

@bexsamson, Instagram

Unable to lounge by a river on a Sunday afternoon anymore, sharing our presence with others, this particular reimagining depicts our physical landscape under Covid-19. Social isolation is a material constraint, we simply cannot see each other anymore. But we are still there, gazing longingly and expectantly at a space we expect to be filled with the presence of others. Instead, we must turn to the digital landscape where the background hum of the chatter of internet users is constant.

Memeing under Covid-19

The phatic landscape is therefore in constant demand of content to fill it. Under Covid-19, this continuous, 24/7 content production, is unending. Like 24/7 capitalism, it ensures a non-stop production and non-stop consumption, unhindered by time zones and, now, regular patterns of work. In these times, the production and consumption of internet content has become a sort of civic duty, a means to occupy and motivate the troops, where memes have taken their place front and center in the great battle against a monotony that threatens to err on the side of melancholy. Memes are crucial texts in this battle as they are able to “distil psychological stimulation and emotional arousal into a consumable experience” (Gilroy-Ware, 2017: 49).

New additions to the meme economy in the form of all those workers from home are creating a demand for new forms of content.

Meme culture has always been indebted to phatic communication. Wanting to communicate that affect with others means that we use memes as a “phatic nod”. Phatic nods

"signal that we are listening, even before we form an opinion about the conversation. Through this gesture, participants … negotiate their affiliation to meme culture" (Katz and Shifman, 2017: 837).

"Getting", liking, retweeting, sharing a meme are ways of mediating our relationship to a group. Here, the social act done speaks to Malinoski's sense of communion. These are "identity statements expressing, pragmatically and metapragmatically, membership of some group" (Varis & Blommaert, 2015: 35). These groups are based not on deeply shared values, but in coming together through shared interests. Varis and Blommaert theorise that online communities' use of memes as phatic acts create a structural level of conviviality. When sharing a "meaningful interaction by means of a joint feature",  individuals are joined together "into a focused collective" (43). Under Covid-19, this joint feature has been made common to all.

Irony, play, as well as subcultural affiliation and subversion, complicate a critical understanding of memes as texts. However, as we witness a digital diaspora, the influx of non-digital natives has come to reshape the dynamics of meme culture. Previously a domain best understood by those well versed in the meme-producing subcultures or simply frequent visitors of platforms like Reddit, Instagram, 4chan or Tumblr, now new additions to the meme economy in the form of all those workers from home are creating a demand for new forms of content.

Covid-19 memes

Covid-19 Memes

To understand the different attitudes towards memeing under Covid-19, we must come at it from different approaches. The memes above play on pillars of meme cultures, such as the wojack/doomer character on the right and the “if a dog wore pants how would he wear them” meme from late 2015 on the left. They depend on pre-existing knowledge of meme culture and their humour relies on their innovation of the form and application of the new semiotic register of Covid-19 to their format. In this way they illustrate a process of re-semiotisation;

"every ‘repetition’ of a sign involves an entirely new set of contextualization conditions and thus results in an entirely ‘new’ semiotic process, allowing new semiotic modes and resources to be involved in the repetition process" (Varis & Blommaert, 2015: 36)

The agility to call back old enough formats that their return in itself is ironic requires an understanding of this semiotic repetition process. What is being used to re-semiotise however, is now a register that we all have in common. During this time, the success of the revival of a meme such as "if coronavirus wore jeans'' gestures towards our global acknowledgement of living in unprecedented times. Now, everyone has the cultual landscape of Covid-19, and the wish to come together, in common. The global situation resets the cultural landscape of meme-making by levelling out the playing field, dismissing pre-existing structures of irony and subversion.

I called attention before to the inflation of likes in the case of tweets, and wondered about the over-valuation of content in times of overproduction. To say that the meme market has saturated is not completely true, because not only has the demand for memes substantially increased, but the demographics of its producers, consumers and sharers has diversified. Memes of all kinds and demanding varying levels of digital literacy are co-existing at the same time. This has almost always been the case, but it is now an unparalleled demand for companionship that is intensifiying both the rates of production and consumption within various audiences. I observe two manifestations of these overlaying forms of content production. These are as the revival of text chains and message forwarding prevalent in the early 2000s, often done on e-mail servers at the time, and the soaring popularity of de-ironified and widely-appealing content that I liken to Boomer Images. Though distinct, these two phenomena have a lot to do with each other, which I will now turn to. 

Text chains and challenges 

Text chains and challenges circulating on social media

The return of text chains, challenges and viral messages as in the days of the early internet (Basu & Hao, 2020) has been a phenomenon both marred in irony and represented as earnest attempts to (re)connect. Above and on the left, the image parodies awkward design in its format and internetspeak through the use of lettering in the title, along with “cringe” in its content. The connection made through the reproduction and sharing of this meme is in the irony created in remembering this type of content that defined many digitally native’s first interactions online. Bringing this type of text chain back, one that may well have been taken seriously over a decade ago, is a sign of a digital culture taking the time to reflect on its roots and revisit its origin, though ironically. The principles of remixing and layering meaning are present here.

On the right, however, the same type of “challenge” and call to action is enacted, but ironic revisiting is very much absent. Being revived for platforms like Instagram, the challenge is more suited to the platform’s culture of identity-based interaction and ego(account)centric sharing. This identity-based form of challenge reminds us of interacting on Facebook in the early day of the platform, where connection, rather than consumption, was still its operational ethos. 

This type of behaviour is more influenced by the success of TikTok, a platform that has originated many digital trends and memes since its rise to fame (Lorenz, 2020). Memetically, it embodies the principle of re-semiotisation, of infusing new meaning into each repetition, to reach virality. The way it structures interaction fundamentally privileges the social over the content, or the networking over the text, according to Miller. On Instagram, the platform audience is predominantly young, but also unavoidably public and undefined. However, within the intimacies of WhatsApp groups and closed ecosystems, communication has also been revisited and reinvigorated by the digital migration and change in demographic brought about by Covid-19.  

Boomer Images on WhatsApp

On Whatsapp, texts that are conducive to going viral or being widely shared through private channels are both limited and defined by the social structures making up the groups that are sharing them. These groups, often intergenerational, composed of both digital natives and newer additions to the digital landscape, rely on texts that are not based on subcultural knowledge or forms of irony to be understood.

This type of content refers to daily activities and moods catalysed by social isolation, and to the wider political and social situation at large. Here, I propose to associate this type of content with a phenomenon previously labelled “Boomer Images” in popular meme discussion. 

For many, a WhatsApp group chat, familial, friend-based or other, is a digital cultural unit that has prospered as a social support network during the Covid-19 crisis.

Boomer Images” are a type of content created and injected within meme culture without the digital savviness or grasp on irony that other meme producers are able to infuse into their texts. These digital un-intuitive texts are often attributed to baby boomers by the more agile Generation Z as part of a long-running intergenerational antagonism emblematised by the Ok Boomer meme (Lorenz, 2019). Making fun of Boomer Images is easily done by mocking their lack of digital assemblage skills, thereby ridiculing their claims, as done on the popular twitter account “Cropped Boomer Images in a meme genre known as “Cursed Boomer Images”. Though the intention behind Cursed Boomer Images is often to ridicule the misguided politics or lack of digital intuition of baby boomers, the gist of the “boomer image” motif is that it is a text not steeped in irony as in meme culture, but straight-forward in its intentionality, although often accidentally thereby putting its foot in its mouth. Therefore, boomer images, not as in the meme, but the original denotation of the content itself, are resurging in a time where a lack of irony and wide appeal are the only conditions for virality. When the internet economy is starved for content, anything will do to signal to each other that we are all on the other side of a screen. 

A WhatsApp Group Chat

For many, a WhatsApp group chat, familial, friend-based or other, is a digital cultural unit that has prospered as a social support network during the Covid-19 crisis. Above, examples of the type of content that is forwarded around on WhatsApp indicate the sort of innocuous content that is being used to socialise and entertain users on the messaging platform. The straight-forwardness of these images is clear, and their message is much the same as that of other tweets, challenges and memes quoted previously. This content differs from those we've seen above, it is less steeped in irony or dependent on digital or cultural knowledge to be understood, and contains no call to action such as sharing or participating. However, it contains the same message. Once again, we’re all in this together, on the other side of the screen.

The internet content as unit of entertainment to alleviate the routine of the everyday is probably a most familiar unit to most junior members of these group chats, but the intergenerationality of these types of spaces gives rise to new dynamics of content sharing. The content being passed on, for the purpose of entertaining all, must be legible to all members, and emotionally affective enough to warrant a response, forward or reaction. In this way, it is emblematically phatic.

It is worthwhile to note that Whatsapp’s forward history is contested, having come under fire many times as a fecund site for the spread of fake news, notably in India. Forwarded messages as seen above were easily passed on to 256 contacts through a click, an affordance allowing the mass propagation of dubious content. Under Covid-19, this functionality of WhatsApp has been called out, and, as of last week: “you can forward what the company calls a “highly forwarded message” — one that it is at least five forwards away from its point of origin — to just a single person” (Newton, 2020). Nevertheless, users can easily find ways to overcome this structural constraint, such as by saving the image to their phone and sharing it again.

Whereas loose bonds and weak ties connect the followers of mass, public meme accounts on Instagram or Twitter, strong, often familial or chosen bonds unite these WhatsApp groups or text chains that choose to punctuate their everyday, authentic interactions with these images as symbols of their presence. The structure of sharing of content, where the entertainment unit itself is of low information value, and the meaning is created in the sharing of its content, is of phatic nature regardless of the platform. However, the supposed audience when forwarding to a WhatsApp group chat is known, and based on private, existing relationships, rather than coming together based on the structured conviviality of meme-sharing groups. The purpose of sharing on WhatsApp is then to maintain that social relationship and create digital companionship when a physical one is impossible.

Making the internet nice again

As Tanyn Basu and Karen Hao (2020) write, “One might not have expected, though, that in an era of bitter partisanship and trolling, bringing everyone online has somehow made the internet nice again”. Indeed, the type of content being produced and consumed online today serves little purpose other than to produce and consume it together. This is not to say that the communication isn't meaningful, its social effect and affect is completely relevant. The structures of interaction and the positive affects that the types of texts being circulated in private conduits privilege speaks to the emotional state of those sharing them. However, on public platforms like Twitter, we see more negative affects being rewarded with likes. We could potentially theorise that users enjoy their anonymity and weak bonds to allow themselves to express their discontent and connect through negative emotions on wider, more public platforms, but use the intimacy of more private messaging conduits as a social support system. However, in both cases, internet content mediates the digital relationships we maintain with others during the ongoing crisis. As we all struggle through the unknown, this is not a time for the avant-garde but for genuine connection, and for being together. 



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