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PEOPLE OF THE MEMES

What happens after memes go viral? And is there any going back for the people featured in them?
Updated 20 Dec, 2020 04:02pm

From the excited principal celebrating her students’ ‘grape’ patriotism, to the disappointed cricket fan looking at a losing match with disgust, most subjects of memes could never have expected that they would one day become internet sensations. What happens after they go viral? And is there any going back?



meme

/mi:m/

noun

1. an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.

2. an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations.



If you had never used the internet before September this year, you’d be left wondering why people from all over the world were suddenly so eager to sacrifice their lives for Pakistan. Was our diplomacy that successful? Had the United Nations subtly put in a good word? Did we lower our tariffs on touring martyrs?

After the initial bafflement settled down, you would scratch your chin for another 30 minutes when you found out it was all because of a meme, or a series of them, cropped from a single video posted online.

The stage is unlikely — it’s a school for Pakistani expatriate children in Jeddah, a special assembly, presided over by a woman who would later go on to become a senator in Islamabad. The children are tumbling through the stage in quick succession like really loud dominoes, shouting out pledges they would take for their country of origin.

After some nascent politicking over improving education and ending poverty, one teenaged girl walks in and drops the mic on everyone else’s patriotism. She delivers what is now an internet proverb. “I will sacrifice, my own life, for Pakistan.” It’s not what she says, but how she says it. There’s a passion, a gusto and dramatic delivery accentuated with pauses that make you think, ‘You know what? I’m ready to do the same now’.

The videos themselves are from 10 years ago but became viral just now. Popular not just here, not just across the border in India where our content has a natural kinship, but in America, Canada, Jamaica; the first time people west of the Bahamas have considered the ultimate oblation in service to our land. Celebrities, TikTokers, Twitter and Instagram influencers from every corner of the globe were reaping this memetic harvest. Because it was in English, perhaps. Because it was intense, certainly.

That girl’s clip was just one of a legion to go viral. The senator in question, Sehar Kamran, was standing with a queue of students asking them what they’d like to do when they grow up. A boy came up and let off a machine gun salvo in support of Pakistan’s military, and against India. To which Senator Kamran can be heard saying “strong army, wow” and what sounds like ‘grape’, instead of ‘great’. Her prolonged enunciation is now a mantra too. A month ago I saw a picture of someone’s birthday cake with a frosting of Senator Kamran with the lettering, “24? That’s grape!” The grapes emoji on social media has replaced any need for typing the text.

The memes have entered our cultural lexicon.

***

When I talk to Senator Kamran over the phone, all the questions I have in my head are a roundabout way of asking the same thing: what was it like being a meme? Her answers range from discomfort to risibility. The first thing she says is, “I think someone uploading that video without our consent was unconscionable.”

She considers it unfair to the children who had no idea they’d be unwitting celebrities a decade later. “It was the school’s internal event.” The three-hour-long video on YouTube would have quickly faded into anonymity too, if some of the pledges hadn’t caught the ears of social media users looking for viral content. After that, it was bedlam.

Senator Kamran’s reservations were present, in a minority, in the early social media reactions to the memes as well. I was sharing them myself even as I was simultaneously reading those reservations, unsure of where to stand on the public consumption of private lives. Rejoinders to these unhappy ethics of memes mostly said: ‘they must be adults now, I’m sure they can look back at this and laugh like the rest of us’. Which is not entirely wrong, they do. Eventually. But as Senator Kamran explains, the immediate response was consternation.

“At first when the kids started contacting me, we were all very confused about what was going on. Some of the students got in touch with the person who uploaded [the video] on to YouTube originally. It was taken down once, but many smaller clips made it to TikTok.”

When the memes started making the rounds, they got back to the various people in them through their friends and family. Someone’s sister told them, someone’s roommate told them; some of the messages said, ‘hey you’re famous’; some said, ‘you might want to go into hiding for a while’. A few did, deactivating their social media profiles. Senator Kamran was — after having been told of the memes by her children — also messaged by a friend from her own time in school saying, ‘my daughter has been watching your videos’.

It was a surreal experience. Which some of the kids handled better than others. “Most of them are well settled in their lives, many have become the things they had pledged to become.” Like the aspiring doctors, the pilot (not pirate, which is what the internet heard). Those kids were more comfortable with the jokes. “Others felt they were being bullied.”

And herself?

“If someone sends me two memes, I send them four back.” She isn’t kidding. During our exchange of messages over WhatsApp she forwards me 67 memes featuring herself that she’s received since September. I counted. She finds many of them funny. “I’m used to being the subject of jokes, I was a school principal after all. Personally, I don’t care if they say great or grape,” she laughs.

Asif Raza got married in May of this year and there were foreigners congratulating him on his Facebook wall, hoping he stays home and stays safe. He captioned the photos with “Friendship ended with single life”.

The accidental fame wasn’t entirely without benefit. “Suddenly everyone in the world knew who I was! My Instagram following jumped from 25 people to 45,000 [at the time].” It helps her with networking. She gets comments on her page from all over the world (she was interviewed on Instagram by a teenaged boy from Montenegro, who put up her party’s PPP flag to pay his respects) — most asking if this is her real account, because there have been many overnight imitations. “There are thousands of fake profiles out there, sometimes I can’t find myself among all the other Sehar Kamrans.”

The ethical questions weren’t all about consent either. They have come back to her as well; people asked how it was okay for kids to be talking about martyrdom and war fresh out of kindergarten.

“Some people said, ‘Oh, what are they teaching in schools?’ We weren’t teaching this. These children came to these ideas on their own, from their homes, some of their fathers were in the army. These were expatriate kids at a very tender age, this was a way to connect with their country of origin. My job as principal was to listen to what they had to say, make them feel heard.”

But while the fallout from memes can be divisive, they continue undeterred. They’re the unstoppable force that is yet to meet an immovable object.

***

The word meme is attributed to the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, short for the Greek ‘mimeme’, which roughly translates to imitation. Dawkins was interested in how cultural ideas spread through populations via words and images that are copied and shared to gain social acceptance. Long before the internet, things like hieroglyphs, murals and graffiti were doing exactly that.

I remember growing up in the 90s, where every cornershop, every utility store, even my school photocopier, had posters on the window saying, “Kashmir ki azaadi tak udhaar band hai [No loans until Kashmir is free].” A less confrontational, more humorous way of just saying no. Then digital media came around, and its reach and access blew everything else out of the water.

I confess I was a little late to the party. I’d seen the cat memes, the sports memes, the ‘time it takes for an internet debate to bring up Nazis’ memes, but the first truly viral meme I remember from Pakistan wasn’t until five years ago. When Muhammad Asif Raza Rana signed into his Facebook account and uploaded an image that said, “Friendship ended with Mudasir, now Salman is my best friend”.

He accused Mudasir of being “too proudy”, showing too much attitude; it was the greatest betrayal in South Asian friendships since Omkara. An intensely relatable statement, it was widely quoted, used and re-used in a million different contexts for a million disillusionments.

“I respect those who respect me and forget those who forget me. Simple as that,” his Facebook profile still states. “Today is a great day because it’s my birthday,” says another of his posts. A well-wishing Indian man, Akshay, reached out to him and sent him a bracelet with a message about true friendship traversing international boundaries. “The quarrels and wars are always between countries, not between people.” The engraving on the bracelet said Asif And Akshay.

Asif Raza Rana from Gujranwala was being seen and read globally.

Courtesy: Muhammad Asif Raza (Official)
Courtesy: Muhammad Asif Raza (Official)

His original post received 10,000 shares, Vice conducted an interview with him. Buoyed by his fame, he made an online reddit thread to talk to his fans and received over 700 comments. One of them was expressing sorrow for the loss of his pet goat — people had been following his Facebook profile with great attention — and true to form, his reply was, “Every human being must leave this world one day.”

His memes have been reproduced with various public figures, fictional characters and even inanimate objects. There was one where Donald Trump is saying, ‘Friendship ended with Vladimir, now Kim is my best friend’. One that goes, ‘Friendship ended with GPA, now crippling depression is my best friend’. This year, there was a conspiracy theory page that made a post saying, ‘Friendship ended with WW3, now coronavirus is my best friend’.

Following his fame, Asif Raza did a commercial for a Gujranwala beauty parlour, appeared in a short film made by a friend of his — not Mudasir — and started doing Facebook Live sessions every month. He tells me he has received “several” payments from foreign television channels to use his Facebook details and the accompanying meme. In his private life, away from the internet, he works at a session court in Gujranwala. His life outside of the memes is normal. He enjoys classical music, visiting up north and advocating kindness to animals.

Asif Raza got married in May of this year and there were foreigners congratulating him on his Facebook wall, hoping he stays home and stays safe. He captioned the photos with “Friendship ended with single life”.

***

If the universality of thoughts and ideas is what memes seek to embed through images, there can be no greater transmission of ennui than a Pakistani cricket fan standing in a packed stadium with his hands on his hips, looking absolutely disgusted with life, the universe, everything.

It was just over a year ago, at the Cricket World Cup, that Sarim Akhtar found himself in the crowd at the County Ground in Somerset when the ball was smashed towards third man, and one of our fielders made a mess catching it. To be fair, he did try, but with all the poise and vigour of someone ambling to a work meeting two days after it had ended. The ball went on to cross the boundary and the rest is visual history.

The expression on Sarim’s face channelled the feelings of 200 million people in Pakistan, then millions more elsewhere. Everyone can relate to soul crushing disappointment. Which is why despair is a mood that meme culture has frequently offered tithe to. For instance, the designer Maria B holding her head like the character from Edvard Munch’s The Scream. A meme that’s been used for when relatives catch you out on a date, or what teachers look like 15 minutes into their online class.

Despite having no words for context, no explanation, these looks of dejection are being used everywhere. Like Sarim’s disappointment showing up for government responses to monsoon devastation in Karachi, for the attempted lockdown measures in Italy, for America’s decision to retain troops in Iraq, for the Arab world’s decision to normalise ties with Israel. I saw a Star Wars fan group reacting to plot developments in The Rise of Skywalker with his picture. These are people who don’t even know what cricket is, yet the scope of what his face can encapsulate seems infinite.

That is what meme culture does, it crosses boundaries. By definition it diffuses. Memes are not something that can be contained. They’re like the smoke from a cigarette, you can keep clawing at the plumes without ever having a hope of holding on.

That unfiltered anguish distills memes down to their essence. As templates for when you want to express a feeling and find something, or someone, to express it in the best way possible.

Following his fame, Sarim, who works as an IT auditor in London — and that was definitely the dissatisfaction of an auditor — was featured in a Coca-Cola advertisement. He has made digital media appearances in cricketing countries, yes, but also in Italy, Serbia and Malaysia. An Australian fan sent him a picture of a coffee mug with his meme on it. He gets fan art in his inbox. People have had t-shirts printed with his famous pose on it.

“I get immediately recognised in Pakistan and get requested for selfies.” Sarim’s family is generally full of groans when they get recognised in public, but for him it’s been a strange transition to celebrity status without any of the usual trappings of fame. His Instagram account now has 37,000 followers.

Sarim wasn’t the only celebrity meme from that World Cup either. A fan outside the stadium after Pakistan’s defeat to India gave a post-match interview in which he flagellated himself on camera. “Maaro, mujhe maaro [Beat me, beat me],” Momin Saqib kept repeating while making hand gestures that spoke of a man who was close to giving up on life.

A King’s College London graduate, his trajectory of meme stardom is even sharper than the rest. He was reportedly offered a film — which was shelved due to the ongoing pandemic — and has started shooting a television serial. He was recently in all the PSL ad breaks as the face of a telecom company. His Instagram following now stands at 260,000. I keep bringing up the numbers because you can fill a small town with that amount of people and, in the digital world, numbers are everything.

Or sometimes, the lack of them.

Last year there was a picture of a 9th grader in Sahiwal called Humza holding a gigantic silver trophy that was as tall as the boy himself, displayed next to a certificate which showed him failing his matriculation with less than the 33% required to pass. It was an exercise in irony by his friends, but the internet absolutely loved it. Just like the memes about kids who kept getting 20+ As in the more elite Cambridge board examinations — in derision, disbelief and perhaps jealousy, leaving people wondering if the kids just ate the text books they were meant to be reading. But meme culture recognises excellence at both ends of the spectrum. Failure is, after all, another kind of success. The wrong kind.

To convey the counter-cultural value of memes, I recall an image where rishta party guests are about to be poured tea in cups that have the following inscription on the insides: “I hope you choke”. Meanwhile, in mainstream popular culture, Bollywood star Arjun Kapoor used one of the memes featuring Ahmad Shah — a small child in big glasses who became famous for adorably pointing fingers and scolding his school teacher over the sanctity of private property, his bag — and his ‘Peechhe tau dekho [look behind you]’ dialogue, to describe what it felt like to be chased by paparazzi.

In an entirely different stream of culture — I’ve never been able to tell if it’s main — stands Amir Liaquat Hussain on his own. One outrageous viral moment after another, from ‘Kaisa diya [How was it?]’ to ‘Aam khayega? [Will you eat a mango?]’ and the montages of him saying ‘Wah, wah, wah’ from one corner of the screen to the other, a meme so passive aggressive it could start a war one day. On the subject of which, a bizarre photoshoot of him wearing military fatigues that involved one pose where he’s lying on the ground with a bullet wound in his chest, was used as a meme response to Indian media’s October assertion that civil unrest and conflict between the Sindh Police and Rangers had erupted in Karachi. Saying yes, it has, and this is the first victim.

***

When women are the subjects of memes the rules can be slightly different however. Aunty Gormint, as she came to be known, became the voice of a disgruntled nation because her interview — with the infamous quote ‘Yeh bik gayi hai gormint! [This government has sold out!]’ — was glorious in its virality. She started with expletives and ended with expletives. In the middle, there wasn’t an academic meditation on politics, it was more expletives. It was what everyone feels about governance in this country but doesn’t say on camera.

For good reason, the blowback was severe. The problems Senator Kamran expressed with meme culture regarding consent, ownership and reprisal immediately followed. There was public censure for a woman who was swearing with this much abandon. She told journalists about being vilified by her neighbours and community members. It’s not that women don’t swear, the problem was that it was deemed too public, too free-flowing, crossing too many boundaries of propriety.

That is what meme culture does, it crosses boundaries. By definition it diffuses. Memes are not something that can be contained. They’re like the smoke from a cigarette, you can keep clawing at the plumes without ever having a hope of holding on. Once a meme is out there it spirals, it transmutes, in medium and meaning. Aunty Gormint would never have imagined that the late Indian actor Irrfan Khan would end up reenacting her political outburst one day. Maybe she didn’t even want to.

But while memes transgress, some transgressions are easier accepted than others. A more insidious side of digital effusion is the memes that target women journalists, where political queries and dissent are intentionally conflated with moral character and scrutiny over their dress, their lifestyle and general invasion of their privacy.

There was a recent viral story featuring three characters called Mano, Julie and Danyal. The origins of it were doubtlessly voyeuristic, graphic, and involved Julie locking herself in the toilet to give the other two the privacy of the bedroom — something the memes then divorced from their original context.

People who’ve had experience being the third-wheel identified enormously with Julie’s predicament. People wondered if the other two even remembered she was in there? Did she ever get out, ever get back home? We’ve all been stuck in some spiritual substitute for that lavatory at times. In the memes, Julie was suddenly the kid struggling to stay afloat in a pool while the parents were busy gushing over a sibling, Julie was Rahul Gandhi waiting for the next elections, Julie was Vidya Balan in Ishqiya. Julie was also Sarim Akhtar’s look of dejection in that match (just standing dejected in a bathroom this time). A meme within a meme. Memeception.

This reapproriation of taboos about sexuality had followed the Uncle Majboor memes from another audio clip where a man — while having phone sex — kept telling his partner that he couldn’t come over in person because he was ‘majboor [constrained]’. A phrase that has been applied to Pervez Musharraf refusing to come back from Dubai and Nawaz Sharif refusing to come back from London.

Other than gender, class and status can also be the distinction between mockery and malice. The recently concluded big fat Jalal Sons and Master Tiles wedding was open season for viral content. The memes were out before the Valima had concluded. Obscene money, lavish elites, a castle on the stage, a big fountain, some fire dancers and, in the middle of it all, Maulana Tariq Jameel with his piously elevated shalwar. I imagined someone in the business of making memes looked at all that and almost died from the sheer excitement, the possibilities.

Was this collective judgment, collective catharsis in the face of big business and capitalism? Or was it just an easy target? Or both?

As someone active in meme culture — I have only made a few but disseminated a multitude — I consider it a participatory art form. If the purists are unhappy at it being likened to art, it’s still a democratic creative process. Compared to conventional creative processes, where the producers and consumers are distinct and the modes of production are set in stone, memes are practically anarchic.

An individual has no power here, only the image does. Once it’s out there, there’s no redacting it, no going back. It exists independent of initial context, just as a means for self-expression. A postmodernist dream.

***

The people who make memes are the people you hang out with in college and at work. They don’t have publishing contracts, only ideas. They don’t have names either, only handles. Memes can come from anyone, from any moment of insight, a eureka moment, but there are people dedicated to kindling these digital fires too. People running pages and groups that specialise in the production of digital templates, of making things go viral.

There’s a riotously popular one called ‘Waseem Badami in Unusual Places’. Unusual places like someone else’s wedding photos, fashion shoots and press conferences. There are pages such as ‘Burger Posting 2.0’ concerning themselves with things ‘burgers’ say or do; the rich, the perceived clueless and disconnected from their immediate reality.

The punchlines come right in the beginning, mostly by name-dropping Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums). Cultural aggrievements follow; Emma from the US has never celebrated Eid but Shabana from Lums is wishing everyone a happy Halloween. Or, Haider from Lums is trying to speak Punjabi but it sounds like he’s having a heat stroke. There’s also the aptly titled ‘Mark ZingerBurger’ on Facebook, which tells me they started as a bunch of people looking for an outlet for their comedic ambitions.

Then there’s ‘Moom Batti’, a page that is followed by 360,000 people and managed by four university students. They started it to make inside jokes on campus, featuring subtle digs at university policies and classroom injustices, but it soon morphed into cultural commentary and took off when they dubbed Imran Khan’s videos with Shahid Kapoor’s sweary, drunken, self-aggrandising Kabir Singh character from the 2019 eponymous film. They also made dubbings of Donald Trump speaking Punjabi.

“90% of memers [we know of] are college and university students,” says the person running their Instagram account. University life is no longer complete without memeing, a culture that is for, and by, the youth. The average age of this country is a meme in itself, and goes to explain why we have so much viral content.

I ask him if there are unspoken rules meme makers adhere to, to ensure outreach and avoid controversy. He says they try not to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments, or jokes on sexual violence or minority struggles. Rules, he says, that are generally followed. Generally.

“Our main goal is to make dejected and depressed people laugh. To let them breathe out all the sadness they are holding in. Obviously that’s only possible if we make content that is easily digestable for all our viewers.”

Yet it’s not always possible to avoid polarisation. Memes channel discontent, flip social narratives on their heads, hence almost everyone does it anonymously; that same fear of reprisal.

A similar page of viral content is ‘Saltafa’, with 130,000 followers and its own merchandise that is sold off the Instagram page. The person behind the content is 19 years old.

He recalls a time when he didn’t have as many followers and was considering shutting the page down, focusing back on his college life. But those scant followers persuaded him not to, and told him the funny memes help them cope with anxiety about their present and uncertainty about their futures. When the outside world gets a bit much, memes provide a place to de-stress.

“In the start it was just me wanting to rant about my exams, but it soon became more of a community.” One he interacts with frequently, and considers not just an audience for the consumption of his memes, but a sort of digital family, which he supports by giving shout-outs to student groups, charities and smaller content producers. “I won’t always have my platform or relevance, so I just try and use it the best I can.”

‘Saltafa’ is one of the pages that shared the initial memes about the Jeddah school. He was made aware of the ethical contentions almost immediately. One of the subjects of those memes contacted ‘Saltafa’ saying the original video was uploaded on to YouTube without their consent. “I removed most of the videos that showed their faces and re-uploaded them with the faces blurred.”

Meme-making doesn’t come with an instruction manual and creators learn on the job. Sometimes they have to check their egos, and their jokes, in the interest of other people, he says. Sometimes memes can be tone deaf. But sometimes, he adds, people can be oversensitive too. “It’s a thin line, that I try my best to be wary of.”

All the meme-makers I talked to, avoid religious content. Politics however, remains fertile ground. The more disgruntlement is attached to a subject, the funnier the memes, the better the catharsis.

The guy running ‘Moom Batti’ explains his motivations in a more surprising way. “I see my fellow students watching and praising our memes without knowing that I was involved in making this.” Memes about unsavoury people in positions of power, and their unsavoury behaviours. They praise him without knowing his real name. “It kind of gives you a superhero feeling, I feel like Peter Parker.”


The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @haseebasif

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 20th, 2020