Internet Memes and Parental Lessons
A rapidly moving internet meme in the past week and a half has brought the world’s attention to an 11 year old Florida girl who uses the on screen identity of “Jessi Slaughter”. As the events unfolded and her parents became involved, the Internet’s cruelest and often anonymous posters took over the story, turning it viral. Here’s the timeline:
July 10, 2010 – local tweens in Florida post rumors online about Jessi. As is typical whenever someone wishes to insult a girl, rude claims are made about her sexual activities. In this case, the rumor is that she was involved with a singer from a local band.
July 12, 2010 – Jessi posted a response on the same Stickam website to refute the rumors.
Jessi also posted images, videos on sites ranging from YouTube and 4chan’s /b/ chat area, renowned for Anonymous posts and photos of highly crude and rude nature (including pornographic). (Note: 4chan’s /b/ chat are is definitely not a safe for work or safe for home site!) Remember, Jessi is 11 years old, visiting websites that contain offensive and adult material.
The posts to 4chan seem to have picked up notice from the most cruel of the Internet’s participants. At this point the back and forth postings and rude and hate-filled comments picked up the steam that creates an internet meme.
What is a meme? The definition (from Wikipedia) is a concept that spreads rapidly via the Internet. Examples of previous popular memes would be the Star Wars Kid, Lolcats (Icanhascheezburger?) and Rickrolling (sending people links to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” music video. Some are just silly fun, and others have a dark underside of cruelty or schadenfreude.
July 15, 2010 - As the furor built, people began playing pranks on Jessi, and causing her parents to become aware of the problem. They received phone calls, which were recorded and posted to the Internet as well. Although it seems the parents reported the problem to the local police, they also attempted to take matters into their own hands by filming a video response and posting it to the Internet via YouTube.
July 16, 2010 - The father’s own emotional comments became fodder for additional internet cruelty. Search terms for some of his phrases (“backtraced”, “cyberpolice”, “you don goofed”, etc) or the name of the daughter hit “volcanic” levels on Google’s trending page by July 16th.
By this point the spoof videos, fake photos and cruel “merchandise” celebrating the meme had anointed the family as the latest inadvertent victims of the anonymous bashing found on the relatively dark, perhaps only slightly shady corners of the internet. The hot search terms and vague charges of child cruelty results in SFGate to pick up the story on July 17th.
Here are some possible discussion points for other parents to help their families understand this avalanche of cruelty:
- Share the story with your tween and teen-aged children and ask their opinion of the events.
- How much of a factor was Jessi’s internet and webcam setup in her bedroom?
- Ask what options the child and her parents had at each stage of the story. Could they have made other choices and what would those choices have been?
- Would Jessi’s online behavior have been different if she knew she was being monitored in some way? Or would she have just found other methods of doing the same things?
- The school year is about to begin. What advice would you give to Jessi or any child whose internet activities might be a source of gossip in the school hallways?
The concept of the internet meme is also one getting academic attention. A recent conference held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on internet memes and the question “What is Awesome on the Internet?” The official name of the conference is the ROFLCon II. (ROFL stands for “rolling on the floor laughing” as I’m sure you already knew.) The New York Times covered the conference in an article that ran in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine. The story gives the average person a more nuanced understanding of the cultural phenomenon of viral Internet humor and the participants. Despite the rapid churn of news items in a dark “alley” like 4chan, those anonymous posts seem to be the starting point for many of the Internet’s humorous rest stops. Many of us who work all day in cubicles find these brief work “timeouts”, sent to us by Facebook links and Twitter feeds, a necessary respite, akin to a previous generations’ cigarette breaks. I just wish in this case, we all weren’t finding humor in the pain of a child’s mistakes, writ as large as is possible in today’s hyper-connected world.