For a couple of days last summer, smoke from the forest fires that were ravaging British Columbia swaddled the city of Vancouver. The truly devastating scenes were occurring around Pemberton where the fire was wreaking havoc, but the visible manifestation in the metropolitan area was unsettling. There was something apocalyptic about the normally yellow sun replaced by a glowing orange yolk sitting ominously in the sky, and the sandpaper scratch of the throat trying desperately to resist the air.
It was comforting when the sky returned to its normal hue a few days later and awareness of the fires diminished, even if they continued to rage unabated. When situations like this occur, there is always conversation and query around the devastation, but in the Internet age, there are so many methods of response that serve the purpose of reaction. Before the smoke had cleared away, some measure of the destruction and degree had already been catalogued online, a response that seemed to move more quickly than wildfire.
There are few things that sum up the need for quick reaction like the image macro. First appearing in 2007 on the website Something Awful, the image macro – more commonly known as the meme – superimposes a picture with text for ironic or comedic effect. In times that insist we acknowledge or respond to every aspect of pop culture, from ISIS to Game Of Thrones, the image macro has become a viral phenomenon.
Whether it’s LOLcats or Good Guy Greg, the idea of an image macro instantly garnering a laugh or share is understandable because they’re funny and ironic (and one never really tires of Grumpy Cat). It makes sense that this modern mechanism of response is there to embrace culture as well as lampoon it. But, while humour is often necessary, its quick application seems to supersede other more appropriate means of response. Unfortunately, with image macros and their like – from Tweets to YouTube rants – immediate reaction is necessary in order for them to have any cultural impact.
In the days after the smoke had dissipated from Vancouver, many images macros appeared on the Internet, joking about the apocalyptic look of the sky and the end times we seemed to be living through. In the thrall of devastation as the fires still burned without reprieve, the appearance of casual detachment – the near mockery of the destruction reaped – was alarming. What distance does there have to be between ourselves and the moment for it to be humorous? At what point does a joke about an unfunny thing become funny?
It is easy enough to type “9/11 memes” or “Japanese Tsunami memes ” or “ISIS memes” into Google and a host of images will come up that serve as a response to the occurrence of tragedy. However, the ability to make something that is heavy humorous is usually best done at some point a little while after the fact, when the hard kernel of truth has already been digested and feeling has been removed. While it is part of our coping mechanism to laugh at things that are not funny as a means of escaping the darkness, we formulate detachment so quickly, and the protective barrier is sealed off before any emotion can be realized.
Perhaps the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was onto something when he said, “I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffer so deeply that he had to invent laughter.”