Photo by Casey Gomez

As a culture, we have become fixated on memes. Between Facebook, Imgur and Instagram, I have to imagine that at least 90 percent of all web traffic is dedicated to viewing hastily-created yet culturally relevant memes, in whatever form they may appear.

We have, after two centuries of cultural development, reached a point in which the zeitgeist of our society can be captured in 140 characters or a “tag your
friends” post.

When I was young, the term “tag” referred to an activity in which my friends and I chased each other around the playground until I was made “it,” my lack of athleticism compromising the game’s competitive integrity. For my younger brother, tag is played by typing “@weedlordbonerhitler” underneath a particularly spicy meme. This is not meant to wax nostalgic about a pre-meme world in which kids “went outside” and “got exercise.” Instead, it is intended to highlight the ways that social media can be exploited to create a less substantial and more financially-focused experience.

Those with sharp vision may have noticed very faint animated paper airplanes superimposed on certain Facebook images. While the images themselves are static, the moving planes (or, more recently, blooming flowers) tell Facebook to treat the pictures as videos, allowing the post to appear higher up on users’ timelines.

For most people, the effect is not even noticable, and many people who do notice think nothing of it. I did not give it much thought either, until I was tagged in a video featuring a strangely familiar voice.

A video I had made went viral, popping up on meme pages in a matter of days with the caption “tag your friends!”

I was ecstatic; my video was getting hundreds of thousands of views, my name was getting dropped in the hottest of online meme circles and girls probably finally thought I was cool and
interesting.

Then, the licensors came knocking.

An email arrived a few days into my newfound online stardom, informing me that companies and pages are willing to pay dumb amounts of money to “content creators” so that they can use their videos. This came with a check for $100 and a royalties clause that ultimately led to another $100.

By definition, I had moved from the amateur league to
the pros.

All set to drop out of Tech and begin my new life in LA, I was struck with a harrowing realization: the pages that had been sharing my video did not pay a dime for it.

I now knew that there was a healthy and thriving economy behind 15-second drunkenly-conceived online videos; every single view my video got on these pages was another $0.0002 cents I did not have. No longer could I get excited about being tagged in a LAD Bible or Lilyon Memes post, as they had proven active conspirators in a scheme to take my hardly-earned cash.

This made their “paper planes” tactic seem less like a clever exploit of the system and more like an underhanded attempt to foist stolen garbage on people that just want to hear their grandma’s views on politics or see their ex’s engagement photos.

Dumb, substanceless images and videos like mine had spread through social media like a virus, driven by bizarre gimmicks like “tag your friends” and superimposed paper planes.

Arguing about something as pointless as online memes may seem dumb, and it probably is. As more and more focus gets put on digital advertising and the power of viral media, however, companies will begin exploiting social media users in increasingly covert ways. We can expect services like Facebook to move from social site to commercial tool as a result.