Exploring the Dank and Dirty World of Robot Memes
Historically, where there is culture, there must also be counter-culture. Where there are trends and accepted norms, there are groups of people actively trying to subvert them. It was true with Dada in the 1910s, punk in the 1970s, and it’s happening now with memes on the Internet in a very real way.
I probably don’t have to explain to you what a meme is—pretty much anyone with Internet access gets the idea. But within meme culture itself, there are innumerable subtypes and layers of irony, the differences between which are subtle enough to be nearly imperceptible.
At the surface level, you have something like this. It’s humorous and gets shared because it’s relatable—people see it and go, “That’s so funny, I DO make that face when that happens!” These memes are popular because their humor is easy to grasp and relate to, and often don’t ruffle any feathers.
A layer beneath that, you get memes that are edgier, more sarcastic and biting in their humor. Often, these images can harbor some kind of agenda, and can sometimes be marginally offensive. Still, there is usually a joke to get.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you enter the realm of the nonsensical. Most of the images found on this level can’t even really be called “memes” in the traditional sense. They’re often referred to as shitposts, and can be found in the dark depths of pretty much any media-sharing website.
If you don’t get it, that’s because there’s nothing to get, and that’s the appeal.
And because it’s impossible to conceive that shitposting would exist without meme culture, it’s evident that it became popular as a reaction to the oversaturated, often embarrassing earnestness of mainstream memes. These images make fun of themselves and the network they’re a part of, and are perhaps in some way even a comment on the uselessness of sharing memes when there are much more important things that deserve our attention.
But now there exists an even deeper level, one that goes above and beyond the irony and self-mockery of the most useless shitposting—memes generated by robots, randomly and automatically. There are a number of bots currently churning out such images, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll consider one Facebook page in particular, ShitpostBot 5000.
The way it works is very simple. Visitors to the site can submit meme templates, or pictures they want to see matched up with a template. The bot then chooses a random template, and as many random pictures as the template calls for. The result is something utterly nonsensical, aesthetically hideous, and at its core devoid of all purpose.
An image created by ShitpostBot 5000 might closely resemble a human-created meme operating on multiple levels of irony, but there is a big difference. Any human-created meme, however nonsensical it may be, is still created with intention. The creator is conscious of its meaninglessness and uses it as a comedic device or social commentary. On the other hand, the bot that randomly creates a meme cannot comprehend that what it creates makes no sense, and so the meaninglessness is absolute.
Just as incredible as the images themselves, however, are the comments. Viewers, fully aware that the images are generated completely randomly, still try to ascribe some sort of rationalization to the image, and judge the bot’s “success” based on how much the meme makes sense.
Another thing worth noting about the comments section is how relatively peaceful it is.Whereas it’s likely for someone to find a human-created meme offensive on some level—especially one operating on two or three levels of irony, as they’re often created with the intention to shock or provoke—it’s impossible for a randomly-generated shitpost to ever incite such rage. They are created by an automaton, and it is impossible to accuse a bot of consciously attempting to offend.
At first, these images are funny in the same way a poem created by a robot is funny—it tries to do something but ultimately fails. But is ShitpostBot really failing to do anything? Or is it succeeding to do something that would be impossible for any human to do? Bot-generated memes, the apotheosis of social media shareables, hold up a mirror to our online society, and call into question our entire Internet existence in an unprecedented way.
Images via Facebook and Tumblr.
Stay tuned to Milk for more robot stuff.