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Fri, Oct. 18

Piacenza: See you on the internet

When I was a kid in New York City and rode the subway, there was one thing I could count on no matter which station I got on or off. Several oversized advertisements would be displayed on the tile walls and any that featured a woman was sure to be “augmented” by a passing artist with a felt-tip pen. Invariably, the woman would have grown a mustache and usually a goatee as well. One of her front teeth would be blacked out and the “piece de resistance:” devil horns sprouting from the top of her head. Though male images probably met the same fate, it was the irreverence of the bearded ladies that always caught my eye.

I suspect this kind of behavior has always been around – I can imagine cheeky cave-kids adding some fangs to a cave drawing of their tribal leader. From those modest beginnings, mockery has risen to new heights thanks to the internet. Clever folks know how to take an image from a website or social media platform and alter it. They add text to an image or bit of video to make fun of its subject then post it with the hope of it “going viral” (seen by hundreds of thousands if not millions of internet users). The felt-tip pen has been replaced by Photoshop and juvenile defacement has become the internet phenomena known as “memes.”

The word “meme” (pronounced “meem”) derives from the Greek word, mimeme, which means something imitated. It was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins back in 1976. Said Dawkins:

“We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation . . . I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’”

Dawkins equated the replication/spread of popular ideas to the passing on of genetic traits, implying memes are as basic a component of social life as genes are to biological life. Indeed, we find historic examples of memes ranging from the early Christian fish symbol to the World War II era meme, “Kilroy was here.” The advent of the internet has only supercharged the process of creating and spreading memes.

The internet is a remarkable tool that gives every user access to the finest literature, cutting-edge science, the history of civilization, not to mention news and entertainment. It’s a high-speed, invisible train carrying us wherever our fancy would like to take us. But like the subway station, it’s also plastered with virtual graffiti, contrived images that can not only be mean-spirited, but often disseminate equally contrived “facts” about their target. In our revved up technological era, positive and destructive cultural attitudes spread with equal ease, and faster than ever. It’s up to each user to sort the significant ideas from the bearded ladies.

Back in the “Kilroy was here” era, there was another popular saying, “See you in the funny papers.” The expression pointed to the good-humored mockery of the comics as a well-known social touchpoint. These days, a multitude of messages ping pong across computer screens vying for widespread adoption by the culture. Not all are as benign or humorous as they might appear. Still, in this era, it’s where we now find so many of our shared touchpoints. Armed with cautious optimism and a reasonably critical eye, we can say with confidence, “See you on the internet.”

Alexandra Piacenza is a 10-year resident of Prescott, retired from a career in technical writing and strategic planning. Your comments are welcome at

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