If I see one more pirated image overlaid with an insulting inaccurate misattributed misquote on my newsfeed, I am going to scream...
...Okay... that does it... AAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGG!!!!!!...
At first the memes were really really cool. Remember when you first started seeing them? They were like little greeting cards with clever and often hilariously truthful little quips that most people could easily relate to. And then they started to get more colorful and picturesque and Bible quotes started emerging (didn't Christians invent the nature scene meme?). But for me, it started getting really good when the philosophy and atheism memes were appearing. Being as my friends online are mostly non-theists, I didn't see much of the Bible verse memes - thank "God" - although the atheist memes just started pouring in all at once. It was a like a switch went on and in came an endless flood of words of wisdom from Aurelius and Socrates, biting truths from Hitchens and Dawkins and La Grasse and Hawkins, and clever observations from who-knows-who. Usually, the contemporary quotes would be accompanied by a photo of the author or in the case of scientists, the cosmos. Others included cats I'd love to meet and photos of extremely awkward moments.
Sometimes - and this is because I was a publisher "in a past life" and I am trained to see these kinds of red flags - I would pause and wonder if fair use covered what seemed to be a quite rampant use of copyrighted images. Only the greeting card-like memes actually had a logo that would identify the source. Chances are, their images were licensed. But most of the memes were made by ordinary people sharing ideas or trying to look clever in front of their friends. I am happy I haven't seen any crackdowns from copyright holders yet. I am more of an open source kinda guy myself. So I think the only way copyright holders could hope to have a case would be to demonstrate that the use of the words or images actually caused damages or had the potential to do so. But no one is selling the memes. They are distributed for free and extremely hard to trace back to the originator. And the images are useless for any further re-use as they are tagged with text that sometimes transposes the entire image.
So the memes come and go and they eventually start repeating themselves and many of the quotes become stale and over-used. This creates a demand for people to become more creative and so they start to write their own memes.
Remember back in Jr. High school when you used a word no one used and then it became popular? That word was a meme. You would beam with pride knowing you "started" that word. Of course, you didn't actually START start the word. You heard it from a kid at a different school and simply brought it to your school first. Other kids also "started" it at about the same time. But you somehow got credit and that made you cool.
Well, memes are becoming the online equivalent of this old tradition. But it's no longer about words, it's about clever quips.
So now the memes are more of a liability in terms of information integrity. Who fact-checks these things? I can see if some kid makes a meme and it gets out and is eventually found to be false and just dies a quick painless death as people catch on and ignore it and don't share it. This is the "organic" way of disposing of myths online. But what about the "meme factories?" Yes, there are facebook pages that serve only one purpose: giving an outlet for people to be cool by ripping off images and making up quotes based oft times upon a poorly informed opinion and distributed en masse to an "atheist" audience that thrives on epithets, insults, falsehoods, foul language (I know), and the use of viral marketing by affixing logos to the memes as an official "distributor." Who are these guys? What is their objective? And who is fact-checking these memes? Aren't they supposed to be informative?
I wanted to know the answer and so I joined one of their groups. I went in with an open mind. I figured, these people have the word "atheist" in their meme logo and so maybe they are using memes to build awareness of atheism and there is an underlying cause or impetus for all this activity. Or maybe a parent organization. I will suffice it to say that within less than an hour, I got the sad brutal truth: there is nothing behind it. The particular meme factory I visited was founded by a blogger who selected a crew of over-defensive admins to protect the "brand" from other atheistic endeavors who might try and use their membership base for reaching out to other atheists. They claim to love atheism and yet they effectively stifled my effort to share videos on atheism aimed at helping "beginner" atheists. I was threatened with being banned for posting links in response to "what do you do?" And the links were removed by me after being threatened. Then, the insults started to pour in. It was like being bullied on a school playground - a mob mentality and not quite what I had expected from fellow skeptics. I get skepticism and I get atheism. But this was more of an issue of protecting a clique from "the outside." Me being the outsider.
Atheism is in many respects, a movement. Just as theism is in many respects, a movement. Whenever you have momentum caused by people over an issue they believe in strongly, you get movement which is to say, people start focusing on moving toward a goal. Movements like atheism are leaderless. And this leaderless model attracts people who want to exploit the lack of leadership by assuming leadership positions. This is good if the people assuming leadership positions are taking the movement in the right direction. It is a detriment to a movement when the people assuming leadership positions create cliques, exclude others, and have no direction other than to rally around catch-phrases and loosely embrace ideas – such as atheism - but have no idea what to do with the idea other than make signs and picket. And many opportunists will guide these kinds of dead-end efforts. The clique becomes the "in group" and the self-appointed leaders build a wealth of social capital and the power to influence others. In activism, this is called co-optation if the purpose is to capitalize on the movement's momentum for political or commercial purposes. It is called detraction if it simply takes a portion of the momentum away from the movement or provides the movement's opposing forces with "ammunition." Detractors can and do kill movements. Just as co-optation does.
As atheists, we need to get our priorities straight and police our cause by being mindful of detraction. As for co-optation, we must be careful not to allow the politically motivated to capitalize on "atheism" as a way to push separate agendas. We should be working toward uniting atheists and not dividing them. By drawing a line between people who use atheism as a tool for political grandstanding or popularity and those who wish to bring meaningful discourse to the public, we can find ourselves in a serious uphill battle. But it might come to this. Just as the media used the worse behavior seen in the Occupy Wall Street effort to make it unpopular, so will they use the worst behavior among atheists to make atheism unpopular. The goal of atheists should be to BUILD bridges - not burn them. Many of us are working very hard to defend the moral position of atheists and if my recent experience is any indication of what we can expect from a very vocal group of cliquish and mistrusting people all rallying under the banner of atheism, our biggest challenges may not be to remove the stigma created by hundreds of years of vilification by theists. Our biggest challenges may be removing the stigma created by the very recent misguided efforts of disenfranchised people who self-identify as atheists in order to direct their angst towards theists at a personal level.
No, I don't really hate memes. I was only making a point of the current problem of mass-produced forced memes and their propensity for factual error and ad hominem. I understand that the meme makers and distributors have essentially become the “picketers” of the atheism movement. And this is an essential part of any movement. But I WILL become very concerned over atheist memes if we cannot find a way for atheists to police themselves better and to resist the urge to take an otherwise very powerful form of communications and reduce it to a pissing contest of who can come up with the most crass or cleverly-worded opinion for their “picket signs” with no effort to ensure that the very foundation of atheism - seeking truth - is not violated.
We cannot tell these people what to do. This is free speech. They can say what they damn well please. And that's important and I support and respect their rights. I think the way we can solve this is by building more brands. Currently, the more problematic memes are being produced by the most active meme factories. In a quest to gain more popularity, they are turning out mass quantities of memes at a rate impossible to fact-check. It's quantity over quality. Other organizations should start producing quality memes and affix their logo and soon people will come to know which sources can be trusted. And a word of advice for those doing so: check the images and the quotes and be sure you are not opening yourself up to copyright infringement. I have a strange feeling that we will be seeing a big crackdown on this once the image owners get wind of what is happening. In fact, the abuse of copyrighted material by atheists alone could inadvertently build a stronger case for SOPA. Not good. This could be the end of fair use as we know it.
Be careful atheists. Aren't we claiming to be the “more informed” people? There's no better time than now to start showing it.