December 8, 2021

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From GameStop To Karen, How Our Memes Reflect Social Inequality

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On January 5th, in a Forbes prediction piece for 2021, I forecasted the fall of Robinhood and the rise of Reddit. Right on.

However, little did I realize how quickly these foresights would manifest, and secondly, how they’d be so intertwined.

The GameStop r/WallStreetBets headlines took the world by storm due to the unexpectedness and speed of the development. In just days, a group of Redditors challenged coveted hedge funds and the historic stock market. The establishment was less fortified than we thought.

But the story was in the works for years.

Beneath our fast-headline veneer of pop culture, a tectonic plate has been shifting. The pandemic, inflaming this shift, has made today’s headlines and sentiment all the more volcanic. But after the last couple years of eruptions, the source is clear.

Everywhere we look in culture rampant, institutional injustice and inequality is catalyzing action.

COVID-19 spotlit our exacerbating inequality, the driver of every social movement of the last 700 days and the fuel for each one moving forward.

On both a global and national level, densely populated and poor areas were hit hardest by the pandemic, while low-wage workers were disproportionately affected by subsequent layoffs. It’s also been revealed that nationally, cases and deaths of COVID-19 for Black, Hispanic and Native American populations occurred at higher rates. As you could guess, inequality also applies to our vaccine rollout.

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Meanwhile, billionaires’ wealth rose to $10.2 trillion and 45 of the 50 largest U.S. companies turned a profit since March 2020. Further, millions of high income employees continue to work comfortably at home, spending more time with family. Commute times shrunk, while savings soared, and Peloton, the luxury home-fitness company, can’t keep up with demand.

When we discuss mixed reality, we conjure VR devices or our media echo chambers constructing competing truths. But mixed reality is most accurate when we consider our truly conflicting livelihoods and outlooks of the world. Our everyday reality is not the same as others’ at the top.

Reflecting and connecting the dots around this divide, inequality is consistently at the center of our largest stories.

GameStop

Many labeled the GameStop buyers as gamblers. After all, Robinhood is just the white-collar brother of DraftKings. But for many, holding GameStop was another flavor of activism in 2021.

Whether due to watching their parents get robbed of the American Dream in the 2008 Great Recession, or getting sold an over-priced higher-education only amounting to un-escapable debt, there’s acute and unresolved financial resentment. This animosity is aimed at neither parents nor professors, but at the system which set up this game. The Man.

James McCombs, a member of r/WallStreetBets shared that he was not motivated by the profits of the GameStop stock, but by the ability to punch up, back at the firms which led us to the global financial crisis. “Now we have an opportunity to take it back,” says McCombs. It’s beyond dollars and cents. It’s about power. Media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff writes, “[It’s] simply to make the billionaires pay.”

We’re mistaken to think that Wall Street is the only target or manifestation of The Man.

BLM Protests

When George Floyd was killed in May, a summer of protests were lit by not the actions of four murderers, but again by a system. This time a system of perpetual racism, abuse and brutality. It’s the system which led to those eight minutes and forty-six seconds. To this idea, the shared rallying cry #ACAB was not aimed at just those directly involved, but at all. A collective. The structure.

As Victoria Gagliardo-Silver for The Independent put it, “Social media is the enemy of American police.”

But substitute any institution with “police” and the quote still holds up.

Zoom out, and we see a pattern emerge. Where there’s an injustice of inequality, there’s social media. Equipped with the tools of creation, organization and amplification, when community forms, mountains are moved. The old guard is seemingly powerless against a subreddit, hashtag or even meme.

Karens

Amy Cooper of Central Park and Jennifer Schulte AKA Barbecue Becky are both Karens, obnoxious, angry, entitled, and often racist middle-aged white women” — a top 2020 trend for Dictionary.com.

Hurled as a slur by Millennials and Gen Z, “Karen” jabs at the unprogressive and sheltered. More precisely, it’s an acknowledgement of the too frequent abuse of privilege.

Apryl Williams, a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, sees ideologies from the slave days underlie the practices of Karens. Carolyn Schmitt of the Berkman Klein Center adds, “By turning Karen recordings into memes, internet creators are drawing attention to these common acts of aggression that may otherwise be overlooked — and holding the women accountable for their actions.”

The scorn is not fueled by soccer moms with harsh blond highlights, but rather by the ideologies which they perpetuate.

Karenism is the rejection of conservatism.

Boomers

“Ok Boomer” is just another flavor of Karenism and activism. Again, inequality and social media remain at the center of the movement. It’s a jab at not just archaic ideologies, but senile ones. It’s viral generational shaming and blaming fueled by crises.

Shannon O’Connor, maker of the now iconic “Ok Boomer” hoodie shares, “The older generations grew up with a certain mind-set, and we have a different perspective. A lot of them don’t believe in climate change or don’t believe people can get jobs with dyed hair, and a lot of them are stubborn in that view. Teenagers just respond, ‘Ok, boomer.’ It’s like, we’ll prove you wrong, we’re still going to be successful because the world is changing.”

When COVID-19 was quickly coined “The Boomer Remover”, the meme became more than a pejorative, but a clear manifestation of the grudge against The Man — those who led us to this point and continue to make the wrong decisions.

“F*ck these people who created this environmental, financial, and oppressive mess. The one which I’ll be forced to live in and clean up for the rest of my life. What worked for them does not work for me. Okay, Boomer.”

Hollywood

Celebrity doesn’t grant immunity. They’re just another target.

When Kim Kardashian hosted a surprise island getaway mid-pandemic, her advertised privilege was rightfully met with envy and fury. #sponsored

“I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time.”

Kim K’s normal is the 99%’s abnormal. That Kim doesn’t comprehend this is just more fuel for the fire. But the truth of the matter is her post didn’t change much. Celebs sealed their fate with their March 18th rendition of “Imagine” by John Lennon. We’re certainly not #InThisTogether.

Weeks later Ellen made matters worse when she cried in her mansion, “It’s like being in jail.”

Radical, QAnon’s fixation upon celebs is just another illustrative point in our global disdain towards the powerful. Winfrey, Gates and Hanks. Notoriety is correlated with conspiracy.

Celebrity is another out of touch institution, just sparkly.

Comedian Bill Burr joked, “[GameStop] was essentially the #MeToo movement of the stock market.”

Whether it’s Weinstein or bankers, the people are rising up to hold vile power accountable. Enough.

It used to be, whatever celebs touch turned to gold. Now, what they touch rusts. The Super BowlOscars and Grammys’ ratings have been in free fall for years as the masses question why we’ve been worshipping false idols. Younger demographics are not just tired of award shows and mediums like cable, but specifically the ruthless inauthenticity injected into them.

For younger demographics, exciting social media driven alternatives look like Patreon, OnlyFans, Substack and YouTube, which now hosts over 30M “channels” uploading 500 hours of content every minute. When we’re each a creator, there’s then something for each of us. Organic, bottom-up content resonates. We’re the director.

In author Ben Mezrich’s words, “Waging war against Big Finance by becoming a day trader is like waging war against the casino industry by becoming a gambling addict. Even if you’re winning, you’re still participating in a broader casino economy — buying drinks, eating dinner, throwing chips to dealers, filling out tables — that, over time, guarantees that the house keeps winning.”

At the House Financial Services Committee’s five-hour hearing, chairwoman, Maxine Waters, (D-CA) amplified this sentiment, “Many Americans feel that the system is stacked against them, and no matter what, Wall Street always wins.”

When Robinhood, the tool to democratize power, is the one to sell its customer’s data and curb the movement — no matter its reasoning — we must question who’s really working for us. 

We’re right to doubt who’s on our team. It’s as if the dehumanizing, authoritarian elite are omnipresent.

In 1971, Townshend of The Who warned us of these moments:

Take a bow for the new revolution, Smile and grin at the change all around

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray, We don’t get fooled again

Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss

We can listen to The Who, or we can author the future we want.

Think it’s impossible to get a truly new boss? Trump.

In The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Martin Gurri writes:

“From start to finish, the 2016 presidential race can best be understood as the political assertion of an unhappy and highly mobilized public. In the end, Trump was chosen precisely because of, not despite, his apparent shortcomings. He is the visible effect, not the cause, of the public’s surly and mutinous mood. Trump has been for this public what the objet trouvé was for the modern artist: a found instrument, a club near to hand with which to smash at the established order.”

We’re getting closer. There’s a trend. We just overshot it with Trump.

We’re evidently in control of our existing systems, and also in complete control new ones waiting to be built — ones which could absolutely work on our behalf.

We’re more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. And we naturally keep getting the same boss if we permit it.

Power to the players only becomes true when the power is finally taken back. It’s waiting.

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