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Could Technology Tame the Internet Meme?

Jonathan Zittrain calls for a technological solution to the ethical questions raised by Internet culture.
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Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain was the keynote speaker on the first day of ROFLCon, an annual conference and celebration of Internet culture taking place on MIT’s campus.

Zittrain’s message: Internet meme creators and remixers can be a force for good, in that they “look for a pathos in the world and try to capture it,” thereby exposing absurd aspects of commercialization and mass media; but it is increasingly important that those who love memes understand and deal with “the ethical dimensions that can come from our happy generation of lulz” (the made-up word that refers to the type of ironic humor many such memes embody).

The basis of the most popular memes, Zittrain pointed out, is often an unguarded, authentic moment—for example when the girl in this photo was photographed. “This is just a wonderful moment, right? She is not superimposed. She is actually standing in front of that house.” The bizarre nature of the photograph caused it to go viral once it was discovered online, and meme remixers had a field day with it.

But this type of authenticity often means that a real person is implicated when a concept goes viral. In this case, the little girl, named Zoe, embraced her role as fodder for a popular idea. But sometimes the reaction is quite the opposite. When schoolmates of a Canadian high school student posted a video he had made of himself emulating the light saber moves of Star Wars villain Darth Maul, the clip became in Internet sensation. The video’s subject, who will forever be known as “Star Wars Kid,” did not appreciate being meme-ified. His family even sued the families of the schoolmates who published the video, citing the harassment he faced once it went viral.

When it came time to describe the event on Wikipedia, noted Zittrain, there was “a wonderful, earnest, non-ironic back and forth” in the discussion page over whether or not it was right to include the boy’s real name, since he had never asked for the fame and had been upset by it. The ultimate decision was that the name would not be included. Even those who had been arguing in favor of including the name then honored the decision, he said. “That was really cool. And I think there are ways in which we can build an infrastructure of meme propagation,” that allows for the same type of respect.

“I would love to see the technologists among us build an infrastructure native to the web that lets you, as the subject or creator of an object, a data object—a meme maybe—be able to tag it, and declare something about your relationship to it,” for those who may want to turn it into a meme. “And then people would have a choice,” he said, both to express their intention not to be made into a meme, or, from the meme-creator’s perspective, whether to propagate or not propagate.

Addressing this type of ethical consideration could be important for reasons beyond the hurt feelings of unwitting meme subjects. It’s also so that those who are not part of this culture, and who may not pick up on the intentional irony of its memes, don’t draw the wrong conclusions. 

Zittrain cited the hacker group Anonymous, which has been involved in major corporate data breaches and an FBI investigation, as one example of how Internet culture can overstep the line. “This is an example where you think it’s contained. But at some point where it starts to hit the real world, the real world bites back, and thinking about what to do is a good question,” he said.

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