Tuesday August 16, 2022

The meme also rises

September 27, 2021

Who would have thought that a quirky post that announced the breakup of two friends would be worth over Rs8 million someday? In 2015, the ‘Friendship ended with Mudassir’ meme wasn’t originally uploaded as a meme, but a Facebook post announcing a ‘life event’ – at a time when the app hadn’t redesigned its Life Events feature. So, what exactly happened during the last five years that somehow made the post valuable? Pakistanis happened.

Social media users from Pakistan would often turn to the now-meme template while talking about a politician’s exit from a party, divide within a party, or disagreements between officials, etc. The newly turned meme has now been sold for $51,000 via NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

And if we haven’t recovered from the abovementioned jaw-drop moment, here’s another surprise in store for us Pakistanis: The ‘Disappointed’ Pakistani fan has made it to Hong Kong’s first ‘meme museum’.

It can now be said (and proudly so) that one of the major exports of Pakistan is memes. On TikTok, the hashtag ‘wowgrape’ has more than three million views (the app is currently banned in the country, so it is not possible to mention the actual number). On the Tanmay Bhat YouTube channel, a review video on Pakistani memes, which was posted six months ago, has close to four million views. The five-part ‘Pakistanis are savage’ videos (a compilation of witty replies and tweets by Pakistanis) have a total of 26 million views (the first part of the video was posted four months ago.)

Pakistani social media users do use memes to talk about almost everything. The Nach Punjaban viral video with the [at]goharhayat watermark is perhaps the most-used meme template when it comes to political and social commentaries on Twitter. Each video has at least 12 captions that brilliantly mention the latest news update. Pakistan’s very own Aunty Gormint touched the heights of popularity when late Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan did a phenomenal imitation of the viral meme. Before that, someone on the internet photoshopped the aunty into the iconic Che Guevara poster, turning her into a pop culture icon.

The annual Aurat March – that is often met with ridiculous criticism – uses funny slogans to reflect what being a woman in an ultra-conservative society like Pakistan’s means. Even though marchers may not have taken the help of popular memes yet, the unique slogans that they use to send the message across are a league of their own. Images of the following slogans 'Mujhe kya pata tumhara moza kahan hai’ [How would I know where your sock is] and ‘Lo beth gaye sahi say’ [I have sat down properly] are still being shared across social media. The latter is the perfect commentary on how Pakistani women are policed.

Using pop culture as a political tool is a centuries-old tactic that has been widely used to reach out to a vast audience. In 2016, Obama’s mic drop moment was instantly turned into a GIF. In Pakistan, too, the official Instagram account of Prime Minister Imran Khan posted, and then quickly deleted, an Indian movie clip to imply that the opposition was conspiring against the sitting government. Before the 2018 general elections, social media sites used to be flooded with the stills from an Indian movie ‘Nayak’ which showed that corrupt opposition leaders had joined hands to make the tenure of the newly elected journalist-turned-prime minister torturous.

Tongue-in-cheek quotes and witty slogans have always been a defining element of protests around the world. However, the entry of memes in the political arena sounded (and still does) risky. So why are young and tech-savvy protesters willing to risk scorn? The answer is: brevity, shareability, and virality.

The internet moves very fast. Short-lived hashtags and viral posts are the only way to reach out to more than a billion people online. Memes have proven to be the most effective way to describe complex ideas and on-ground scenarios in the simplest words possible (brevity), in the shortest time possible (virality), and on relatively censor-free platforms (shareability).

This fast-paced life hardly gives anyone the luxury and privilege to take a break and read what’s happening around the world. Newspapers and magazines are rapidly getting thinner and digital sites are coming up with listicles to catch people’s attention. Reading long-form articles and opeds to understand the political scenario of a country far away is a thankless task, and many people will not be thrilled at the idea of doing all the hard work. However, they are likely to stop scrolling to have a look at a meme.

Before the entry of memes in the political sphere, there was a time when people would use SMS poetry (shayari) to joke about the then PPP-led government’s policies and complete disregard to people’s will. The then interior minister Rehman Malik announced that anyone who joked about the then-president Asif Ali Zardari by email or text message would be given a prison sentence. This decision showed how the authorities politicised funny poetry and posts.

Today, the PTI government’s insistence to impose a ban on TikTok is not only similar to that of the PPP's but also shows that the ruling party is a bit wary of allowing people to use a platform to voice their opposition.

Millennials and Gen Zers use Exploitables – object labelling, 4-panel movie scenes, and webcomics – to generate unique memes to discuss ongoing conflicts and political events. These templates spare people from the ordeal of defining the context and the horrors of getting stuck in the writing-deleting-rewriting with the help of euphemism-deleting cycle when expressing their opinion.

For example, instead of writing a 900-word Oped on the PTI’s constant applauses for overseas Pakistanis, one can use the distracted boyfriend meme template to show how the ruling party (the distracted boyfriend) is constantly looking at overseas Pakistanis (the other girl) and, in the process, ignoring resident Pakistanis (the girlfriend) who helplessly, and in utter confusion, wait for the ruling party to notice them.

Or, instead of writing lengthy Facebook posts on how the elite and those in charge of governance enjoy perks and privileges (as announced in the budget), the Christmas sweater meme with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as elites and poker-faced Ryan Reynolds as Pakistanis will do the work.

Before the 2018 elections, many political parties, especially the PTI, made the most of the available social media tools. Many Facebook pages cropped up to form a narrative against the existing political parties. The seemingly non-partisan pages would routinely post memes on how the party of the youth – the party that promised to bring change – was not only the saviour we all needed but also the ‘coolest’ option, somehow influencing people to support a party for what the internet calls ‘swag’.

Memes are a universal language. In 2019, students and activists in India protested the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). They used the ‘Ok, Boomer’, ‘Baby Yoda’, ‘Gordan Ramsay Idiot Sandwich’, ‘Marie Kondo ‘Does it Spark Joy’’ meme templates to make strong statements against the government, creating their own definition of a non-violent protest.

At the 2017 Women’s March, a man held the ‘This is Fine’ sign – an image of a dog who sits on a dining chair in a burning room, and it is widely used to criticise ‘denialists’. The ‘This is Fine’ sign had the image of a burning White House. Outside the White House stood former US president Donald Trump with a cup of coffee in his hand. The speech bubble said, ‘This is Fine’. Through the reference to the internet meme, the protester conveyed, without spelling it out, that the then president had no interest in tackling the country’s crises.

The recent Myanmar protests, too, saw protesters using memes as a tool to fight against the military coup – one of the first viral content from the coup was an unaware aerobics instructor who kept doing her exercise routine while the military vans passed by.

In today’s highly digitised world, people are often criticised for their ‘lazy activism’ and for being ‘keyboard warriors’. But they know how to connect with a wider audience and make their voices heard. Gen Zers may have sent the wrong message when they attempted the Tide Pod challenge. But, now, they are gearing up for unforgettable political movements. They will pave the way for political change. And, years later, world history will mention Exploitables to remember their contributions.


Twitter: manie_sid

The writer is an assistant editor at The News.