Dip Sengupta
Guest Article

The tyranny of the meme

Our guest author examines the recent Facebook-WhatsApp outage through a new lens.

I distinctly remember the moment when I discovered that Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp had gone down that night. I had just commenced a pre-dinner stocktaking of social media when I noticed that something was amiss.

Images were not loading. Text was playing truant. The world seemed to be slowing down. I did the next logical thing, a hack that generations of Indians handling temperamental electronic devices had perfected over the years – I switched off the router and then switched it on.

Minutes passed. All the lights in the router were blinking merrily. But Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook were still choked. Clearly this electrical Heimlich maneuver had not worked.

Not so Twitter, where I moved next – already abuzz with activity, that’s where I learned about tomorrow’s headlines of the epic Facebook outage.

In Christopher Marlowe’s 16th century play of the same name, Doctor Faustus, after seeing the legendary Helen of Troy, tells the devil Mephistopheles, “This is the face that launched a thousand ships.” It is a reference to the Trojan War. It can be said that Facebook’s stumble that night launched a thousand memes.

Dip Sengupta
Dip Sengupta

And so, it came to pass – as the digital big three went into paralysis, others went into overdrive. Brand creative and digital teams worked at breakneck speed on one-liners, in sassy and sardonic digital shorthand. They wanted to land sharp punches on the social media behemoths and earn some quick engagement for their brands in the bargain – digital spoils of war, so to speak.

Carpe diem – seize the day – the exhortation of a gentler time, was suddenly lensed into an incredibly frenzied timescale. This was a windfall disruption for moment marketing, and moments pass quickly. Under-pressure digital professionals scrambled to put out their messages before Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram resumed services, and the moment was lost.

This was the tyranny of the meme. Wars need foot soldiers and, that night, social media managers and digital marketers were deep in the trenches.

And not just brands – just about anybody with a smartphone, a sense of humour and basic aptitude in meme making, went to town, hoping to create a chuckle on the worldwide web.

It also brought to mind a common Bengali aphorism, “Hati jokhon kadaye pore, chamchikeo lathi mare” – when an elephant stumbles in the mud, even a bat comes and kicks it. Human behaviour too, at a fundamental, core level.

Perhaps, that is where the dynamics of digital brand interactions is taking us. Gladiatorial bouts in today’s cultural and information arena, seeking a moment’s mirth, witty highs, rude, perhaps, opportunistic, and in-your-face. A global echo-chamber of customised, audience-specific inside jokes.

"Mark Zuckerberg was advised an analgesic, thanked by a contraceptive brand, and offered an insect repellant as a debugging solution. "

Mark Zuckerberg was advised an analgesic, thanked by a contraceptive brand, and offered an insect repellant as a debugging solution. A teaching portal, better known for training IIT and UPSC aspirants, took a class roll call where (predictably) Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp were marked absent.

The only good boy was Twitter, who had showed up. A platform for buying and selling of goods offered to buy up Facebook’s problematic servers. A job site offered Facebook’s engineers employment options, in case they were sacked!

Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist who coined the term meme in his book `The Selfish Gene’, defined it as a unit of cultural transmission. For Dawkins, the meme, like the gene, exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behaviour and cultural evolution.

Replicate. Mutate. Evolve.

Meme after meme after meme.

And so, as waves of memes crashed relentlessly against Facebook’s shores, and the air crackled with droll, opportunistic humour under an overarching digital sky, the primordial soup of evolution was bubbling again.

(Dip Sengupta is chief growth officer and region head – North, Creativeland Advertising.)