Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’

Memes, Subcultures and Social Media

July 10, 2017

Education and the Internet — Part 3


Dawkins’ dodgy dogma
Digital deviation
‘Something Awful’, ‘4chan’ and ‘Encyclopedia Dramatica’
Rise of the alt-right
Social-media minefield
The joke’s gone too far


In Part 2 of this series on ‘Education and the Internet’ I focussed on some problems with Wikipedia, in particular how a combination of administrative protocols and web anonymity facilitates a preponderance of sectarian influences on certain articles. In the case in which I was personally involved, there was also the factor of trolling, a decidedly abhorrent feature of the Web 2.0 environment. In this part I have turned my attention to another Web 2.0 development, one with a broader relevance than Wikipedia, and which also incorporates a trolling component.

I am referring to the ubiquitous ‘internet meme’, which doesn’t attract the same sort of news headlines as other online problems: cyber war, cyber terrorism, ransomware attacks, election interference, news manipulation, cyber bullying, and so on. The latter are serious issues, and rightly subjects of concern, but their effects on most people are either indirect or infrequent. The internet meme, by contrast, is more likely to be a part of many people’s everyday experience, particularly if they use social media. Probably every Facebook user is familiar with the endlessly re-posted images, which are often humorous, cute or ‘motivational’. Why would anyone compare this seemingly innocuous practice with the sort of issues listed above? What harm could there be, right?

Some may be familiar with the origin of the word ‘meme’ in a 1976 publication. I’ll hazard a guess, however, that few would be aware of the connection between the internet-meme phenomenon and several online subcultures with dubious reputations. Furthermore, although some media organizations (e.g. The Guardian) have recently started to shine a spotlight on the controversial content to be found on social-media sites like Facebook, analysis of the links between the above-mentioned subcultures, memes, and social-networking groups attracts little, if any, publicity.

I first became alert to Facebook ‘meme groups’ early in 2016, and in April of that year I posted a message indicating my concern about some of the groups that were using the social-media site as a platform. I wondered at that time whether the parents among my Facebook contacts were even aware of the nature of some of these groups and their associated pages. For a while the topic was off my radar, but recently it became a topic of discussion in the school where I teach, and I decided to investigate further. My research resulted in a better understanding of the background to the Facebook meme-group culture, which I present below.

First, however, a point about terminology. The word ‘meme’ itself is neutral, just like the word ‘joke’. There’s nothing inherently offensive about a joke. Many jokes are simply funny; some make a point about something, perhaps a political one (e.g. satire); some might be a bit ‘edgy’; yet others would be generally considered in poor taste or, worse, downright offensive. As with jokes, so also with memes. It’s a spectrum, and the dividing lines between acceptable, edgy, in poor taste, and downright offensive, vary from person to person. I think it’s fair to say, however, that most people would recognize there is a spectrum, ranging from perfectly acceptable to downright objectionable. We might wonder at someone who collapses such distinctions and sees no difference between the two extremes.

Dawkins’ dodgy dogma

The word ‘meme’ pre-dates its internet incarnation by several decades. It was coined by Oxford evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Like its biological counterpart, the gene, a carrier of heritable traits between generations of an organism, Dawkins conceived of the meme as a carrier of cultural information, such as an idea, a symbol, or a practice. Such cultural units are transferred from mind to mind, and in this sense either survive or die out. Successful memes, therefore, have survival value. Like genes, they are ‘selfish’, using minds as ‘hosts’, just as a virus uses an organism as a host. Dawkins derived his coinage from the ancient Greek concept of mimesis, from which we get words like ‘mime’, ‘mimicry’ and ‘imitate’.

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. (The Selfish Gene)

Unsurprisingly, Dawkins’ theory of memes has been the subject of astute criticism, with one critic describing it as ‘pseudoscientific dogma’ (see ‘Memetics: A Dangerous Idea’). To me the concept of meme seems a crude version of ‘sign’, in the semiotic sense, a study of which was part of my postgraduate research in philosophy (see the section on ‘Semiotics’ in my earlier post: An Educational Autobiography). A useful summary of the development of the meme concept, including some inherent problems with it, is James Gleick’s ‘What Defines a Meme?’, which is an extract adapted from his 2011 book, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood.

My concern here, however, is not with meme theory as such, but rather the social phenomenon of internet memes, and in particular the online groups that employ them relentlessly. For this analysis, the coherence or otherwise of the theory is irrelevant, and it would make no difference if the word ‘meme’ had never been invented.

Digital deviation

In its transition to the Web, the term has undergone an evolutionary development of its own. The internet usage carries the more restricted sense of ‘an activity, concept, catchphrase or piece of media which spreads, often as mimicry or for comedic purposes, from person to person via the Internet’ (Wikipedia). Images, usually with some form of text, are probably the most common permutation (see image macro). Standard forms have developed, with associated protocols. Typical examples of internet-meme jokes are ‘Y U NO’ and ‘Condescending Wonka’.


‘Y U NO’ meme

One thing to note about these is that the link between the image and the text is usually tenuous: just about any text could be used, ranging from relatively benign (the examples given here) to strongly offensive.

Condescending Wonka

‘Condescending Wonka’ meme

Not all memes are jokes. Animals feature prominently, and, while sometimes amusing, they are more often ‘cute’ as in the following example (which also demonstrates the popular animated ‘gif’ format):


Bear cub playing with wolf cub: cute animals are common memes

Sticking with animals, we have the ‘pet shaming’ series:

Pet shaming

And it would be negligent not to include some reference to the most famous cat on the Internet, ‘Grumpy Cat’ (real name: Tardar Sauce), whose fame can be traced to a September 2012 Reddit post by her owner’s brother. The cat’s peculiar physiognomy, caused by feline dwarfism and an underbite, gives her a permanently scowling expression:

Grumpy Cat

‘Grumpy Cat’ meme

Yet other memes depend on incidental photographs, often amusing, whether staged or fortuitous:

So I turned into a toad last night

‘So I turned into a toad last night’

All that’s needed is a clever caption:

Instructions were unclear

‘Instructions were unclear’

One of the most famous photograph memes is indicative of a further development in this rapidly evolving social phenomenon. ‘Bad Luck Brian’ is a goofy photo from a 2005-2006 school yearbook. The picture is of Kyle Craven, a class clown and self-confessed prankster, who deliberately dressed and posed in order to create a joke image. The principal was unimpressed and forced Kyle to sit for the picture retakes, although he (Kyle) later persuaded someone on the yearbook staff to include both images. Kyle was forced to surrender the photo, but not before he and his friend, Ian Davies, had scanned and saved it. It was Davies who posted the image to Reddit in January 2012, naming it ‘Bad Luck Brian’ and including the caption ‘Takes driving test – gets first DUI’ (Driving Under the Influence). It was an instant hit, and ‘Bad Luck Brian’ became a magnet for every conceivable bad-luck caption.

Bad Luck Brian

Kyle Craven as ‘Bad Luck Brian’

Reddit fame was only the beginning:

Before long, Bad Luck Brian was an Internet sensation. His face appeared on Facebook, blogs and advertisements. T-shirts with his photo were sold at Wal-Mart and Hot Topic. Companies made Bad Luck Brian paperweights and Bad Luck Brian stuffed animals. He was flown to Internet conventions across the country. People like me, who barely knew him in high school, bragged about his photo’s popularity. (‘Anatomy of a meme: The real story of Bad Luck Brian, his viral class portrait and the fleeting nature of online fame’, National Post, 6 January 2015)

As the case of ‘Bad Luck Brian’ indicates, it didn’t take long for commercial interests to realize the marketing opportunities presented by internet memes. ‘Grumpy Cat’ garnered similar attention, not to mention being featured in mainstream media (see ‘Grumpy Cat’ on Wikipedia). There are now many websites offering advice on the use of memes for marketing purposes, e.g. ‘4 Things You Should Know Before You Start Using Memes on Social Media’.

Examples could be multiplied indefinitely, and many of them can be found on websites like ‘quickmeme’ and ‘knowyourmeme’. Those provided here demonstrate that there is nothing inherently objectionable about the content of internet memes. Other aspects of the practice, however, are legitimate topics for discussion: its potential for time wasting; an occasional tendency to misinformation (especially quotes attributed to celebrity geniuses like Einstein); and perhaps a general trivialization and dumbing-down of culture. These topics will re-emerge in future posts in this series.

Furthermore, I have chosen some particularly ‘tame’ examples, and there are definitely ‘edgier’ ones, depending on the viewer’s perspective. The phenomenon becomes problematic when it goes beyond what might be termed ‘common decency’. Here the internet meme seems to cross a line that only a minority are willing to traverse. Moreover, the memes themselves are only a part of the problem. At this point, the context in which they are being shared becomes just as salient.

‘Something Awful’, ‘4chan’ and ‘Encyclopedia Dramatica’

The story of the internet meme is inseparable from the online subcultures known as Something Awful, 4chan, and Encyclopedia Dramatica.

‘Something Awful’ (SA) was created by Richard ‘Lowtax’ Kyanka in 1999, and is the source for the Slender Man meme (regarding which, see the Waukesha stabbing and other incidents). Something Awful was described in a January 2008 Wired article as a collection of members-only message forums:

an online humor site dedicated to a brand of scorching irreverence and gross-out wit that, in its eight years of existence, has attracted a fanatical and almost all-male following. Strictly governed by its founder, Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, the site boasts more than 100,000 registered Goons (as members proudly call themselves) and has spawned a small diaspora of spinoff sites. Most noticeable is the anime fan community 4chan, with its notorious /b/ forum and communities of ‘/b/tards.’ Flowing from this vast ecosystem are some of the Web’s most infectious memes and catchphrases (‘all your base are belong to us’ was popularized by Something Awful, for example; 4chan gave us lolcats) and online gaming’s most exasperating wiseasses. (Julian Dibbell, ‘Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World’, Wired, 18 January 2008)

‘4chan’ is an ‘imageboard’ website that was launched in October 2003 by Christopher Poole, then a 15-year-old student from New York City, and a regular participant on the SA forums. Poole intended 4chan to be an American counterpart to the popular Japanese Futaba Channel (‘2chan’) imageboard, and a place to discuss Japanese ‘manga’ and ‘anime’. He encouraged users from the SA subforum, ‘Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse’, to discuss anime on his website. In its earliest days, 4chan had only two boards: ‘/a/ – Anime/General’ and ‘/b/ – Anime/Random’. The latter was the first board to be created, and is, according to Wikipedia, ‘by far 4chan’s most popular board, with 30% of site traffic’ (retrieved 4 July 2017). More boards were added over time, and /b/ was eventually renamed to ‘/b/ – Random’, or simply ‘random’. The ‘random’ board has minimal regulation and its notoriety is attested by numerous sources, including the Wired article cited above (for more, see the ‘/b/’ subsection of the Wikipedia ‘4chan’ article). A 2008 New York Times article (worth reading in its entirety) contains the following description of /b/:

Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand. (Mattathias Schwartz, ‘The Trolls Among Us’, New York Times, 3 August 2008)

According to Wikipedia, /b/ is the source of many internet memes, some of which are listed in the ‘Internet memes’ subsection.

‘Encyclopedia Dramatica’ (ED) was founded in 2004 by Sherrod DeGrippo. Wikipedia describes it as a ‘satirical website’ that ‘celebrates a subversive “trolling culture”, and documents Internet memes, culture, and events, such as mass organized pranks, trolling events, “raids”, large-scale failures of Internet security, and criticism of Internet communities which are accused of self-censorship in order to garner prestige or positive coverage from traditional and established media outlets’ (accessed 4 July 2017). Julian Dibbell, in a 2009 Wired article, situates EA in the context of ‘trolling’ (‘the most obnoxious innovation that architecture [i.e. the Internet] ever produced’): ‘Flamingly racist and misogynist content lurks throughout, all of it calculated to offend, along with links to eye-gougingly horrific images of mutilation, [and] sexual perversity’ (‘The Assclown Offensive: How to Enrage the Church of Scientology’, Wired, 21 September 2009).

As the Wired articles make clear, a paradoxical attitude pervades the subcultures of SA, 4chan and ED, which is a seriousness about not taking anything, including the Internet, seriously. Everything is for ‘the lulz’ (a corruption of ‘lols’, the plural form of ‘lol’ or ‘laugh out loud’). For those who haven’t come across the expression, ‘doing it for the lulz’ means doing something ‘for the laughs’, and the laughs are typically at someone else’s expense. This ambivalent stance appears to be the case whether the activity is online, or real-world events orchestrated by Anonymous, the actvist group spawned by 4chan, with strong links to ED.

The association of the internet meme with these subcultures helps explain the attitudes and ‘banter’ encountered in the meme groups on social-networking sites like Facebook.

Rise of the alt-right

This story would be incomplete without some reference to the so-called ‘alt-right’, an umbrella term for those who identify themselves in opposition to both neo-liberal and traditional conservative values. Emerging over the course of the last decade, the alt-right unashamedly promotes views that are white supremacist, racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, antifeminist, misogynistic, and homophobic. (See ‘Psychologists surveyed hundreds of alt-right supporters. The results are unsettling.’)

More significant for the thesis I am developing here, however, is that the roots of the alt-right lie in 4chan, from which it derives its penchant for expressing views in the form of extremist memes. In a Conversation article from 20 July, Jason Hannan points out that the American alt-right took their liberal adversaries by surprise, when the latter, particularly under the tech-savvy President Obama, had

arrogantly assumed that the future belonged to them — that social media was the terrain of a younger generation of liberal hipsters fluent in irony, memes and hashtags — all the while assuming that conservatives were a largely clueless generation of technologically challenged old people scarcely able to make sense of the exotic world of “the Facebooks,” “the Twitters” and “the Snap Chaps”. (‘Trolling ourselves to death in the age of Trump’)

Perhaps the ultimate indication of alt-right ascendancy was the election of Donald Trump, in Hannan’s words ‘a man whose irreverence toward liberal propriety and whose absolute lack of principle made him the perfect instrument against the enemy’. John Cassidy of The New Yorker suggests that the US now has at its helm ‘an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily’ (‘Donald Trump will go down in history as the Troll-in-Chief’).

Hannan claims that one result of this has been the normalization of trolling:

The problem is that trolling has gone mainstream. It is no longer confined to the darker corners of the internet. The president of the United States is a troll. It is not a wild exaggeration to say that American public discourse is being recreated before our eyes in the light of Twitter.

We are witnessing the birth of a new political game, in which one of the primary moves is the act of trolling. Politicians now routinely troll each other online. Citizens troll politicians and politicians troll them back. The common denominator in all this white noise is the logic of the insult: whoever insults hardest wins.

He also makes an interesting theoretical point, an extension of the thesis proposed by Neil Postman in his pre-internet Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985):

Taking his cue from the media theorist Marshall McLuhan [of ‘the medium is the message’ fame], Postman argued that public discourse had been recreated in the image of television. American democracy had become a form of entertainment — equal parts sitcom, soap opera, and tabloid TV — in which the trivial and the superficial had come to hold greater persuasive power than the logical and the factual.

Television, Postman claimed, offered nothing less than a ‘philosophy of rhetoric,’ a theory of persuasion according to which truth is decided by entertainment value. The more entertaining a public figure, the more persuasive the message. Postman, of course, wrote in a more innocent time, the age of Ronald Reagan. Would that he had written in the age of Donald Trump.

We can extend Postman’s argument about television to social media. If television turned politics into entertainment, then social media might be said to have turned it into a giant high school, replete with cool kids, losers and bullies.

He concludes his article with the observation: ‘If Postman were alive today, he might be concerned that we are not so much amusing, as trolling ourselves to death.’

Social-media minefield

Like many others, my earliest encounters with internet memes were of the generally innocuous variety described in the ‘Digital deviation’ section above. These appeared in my Facebook newsfeed, posted by people within my own circle of contacts. They were frequently amusing and I habitually re-posted them, thereby facilitating their viral spread. Facebook procedures make sharing easy, and the default setting is to share with one’s entire circle, which for many individuals amounts to hundreds of people (some younger users number their contacts in the thousands). The process preserves a link to the originating poster, though for memes it’s unnecessary to follow that link since the typical composite of image and text is visible in its entirety.

Early in 2016, one of my contacts shared a meme that caught my attention for some reason. I followed the link to the source and encountered something unexpected. Here was a publicly visible Facebook page with posts that were frequently objectionable for one reason or another. This led to another discovery: there are thousands of such user pages on Facebook. A lot of them have ‘meme’ in their titles, such as ‘Dank Memeology’ and ‘Meme Extreme’, while others, like ‘Filthy Frank’, although dispensing with the defining noun, leave no doubt about the owner’s posting preferences. Postings on these pages range from the merely puerile to the explicitly racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic, pornographic, and ‘disturbing’. My contact was following about five hundred of them.

Later I discovered that, in addition to the openly-visible ‘pages’, which require only a button-click to follow and whose historical postings are visible to anyone, there are also member-only groups based on meme sharing. Membership in these is by request. Entry prerequisites may vary, but the bar is likely to be low. Age requirements can easily be circumvented anyway, since Facebook doesn’t verify user age at the time of initial account set-up. In addition to the ‘closed’ groups that still show up in Facebook searches, there are also invisible groups that no one can see, membership in which is by invitation only.

Another common adjective, applied to ‘pages’ and ‘groups’ alike is ‘banter’. A search for this key term on Facebook reveals pages and groups devoted to almost every imaginable topic. These pages and groups also tend to favour the meme-type post.

Apart from ‘pages’ and ‘groups’, there is another Facebook feature that has been adopted by the meme-based group, and that is ‘chat’. Chat uses Facebook’s instant-messaging service, simply called ‘Messenger’, which comes built-in with the browser version, but is also available as a separate app for mobile devices. Chat groups can have the same sort of titles as pages and groups (e.g. ‘Edgy Memes’), but this doesn’t mean that membership in the chat group is the same as the general group with that title. Individuals are ‘added’ to a chat group by an admin who selects them from his or her own list of contacts. Chat is more ephemeral than pages and groups. Chats don’t show up in Facebook searches, and you can’t tell from your own Facebook account whether any of your contacts is in a group chat, unless you are also in that chat of course (although identities can be disguised in chat through the use of ‘nicknames’).

What is true of Facebook is doubtless true of other social media sites, although Facebook is one of the largest, with about two billion monthly active users. Many of the meme-based groups, including ‘Filthy Frank’, have their own YouTube channels.

It is important to remember that there is nothing inherently objectionable about ‘meme’ or ‘banter’ pages and groups. Many are devoted to completely innocent interests. My extended family has a Facebook group, and it’s a great way to share photos and generally keep in touch. Some pages and groups are devoted to political causes; others are based on national, ethnic, or religious identity; yet others are concerned with special interests, such as sport, art, or philosophy; and the list goes on.

That notwithstanding, it remains troubling that there is so much objectionable content distributed across social-media pages and groups. What exactly is the nature of this content, and how does it relate to the well-known memes pictured above? In terms of process, there is no difference: the most extreme and objectionable memes are made in exactly the same way as the examples provided, generally involving the association of an image or short video with some text. Just how objectionable some of them are will become clear in what follows.

The offending categories listed above (racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic, pornographic, and ‘disturbing’) refer to ‘generic’ posts, i.e. not targeting any particular individual. It doesn’t stop there, however, as specific individuals are also liable to be victimized. If your photo is available online, then you are a potential target. Both generic and specific types can be extremely objectionable, as several years of investigative journalism have demonstrated.

As early as 2011, The Guardian newspaper reported that Facebook was refusing to remove pages containing rape jokes, on the grounds that a rude joke wouldn’t ‘get you thrown out of your local pub’ (Lizzy Davies, ‘Facebook refuses to take down rape joke pages’, The Guardian, 1 October 2011). This was followed three days later by another piece questioning the analogy with pub humour:

By refusing to take these pages down, and by resorting to such a ridiculous and quite frankly offensive ‘rude joke’ analogy to justify their decision, Facebook executives have made absolutely clear where they stand on the issue of gender hate crime. It’s fine to post hateful or threatening content on their site, just as it’s fine to post content that incites violence. Well, as long as it’s primarily aimed at women, that is. (Cath Elliott, ‘Facebook is fine with hate speech, as long as it’s directed at women’, The Guardian, 4 October 2011)

The campaign against content endorsing rape and domestic violence continued, and in May 2013 The Huffington Post reported that high-profile companies were being urged to boycott advertising on the social media site, in the face of its continued refusal to remove objectionable content. According to the article, the Women Action Media (WAM) group, one of the organizations calling for a boycott, was maintaining a cache of offensive material, including:

a photograph of singer Rihanna’s bloodied and beaten face, captioned with ‘Chris Brown’s Greatest Hits’. It also features an image of a woman lying in a pool of blood, with the words ‘I like her for her brains’ emblazoned across it … Further examples include a picture of a bruised and battered woman entitled ‘WHOREMOUTH – shut it when men are talking’ and one of a man holding a rag over a woman’s mouth, captioned ‘Does this smell like chloroform to you?’. (Sara C Nelson, ‘#FBrape: Will Facebook Heed Open Letter Protesting ‘Endorsement Of Rape & Domestic Violence’?’, The Huffington Post, 28 May 2013)

The WAM cache is maintained here (contains graphic content).

The following day, The Guardian reported that Facebook had been forced to take action against ‘hate speech’ on its pages, as a result of the campaign against ‘supposedly humorous content endorsing rape and domestic violence’:

The company said on Tuesday it would update its policies on hate speech, increase accountability of content creators and train staff to be more responsive to complaints, marking a victory for women’s rights activists. ‘We need to do better – and we will,’ it said in a statement. (Rory Carroll, ‘Facebook gives way to campaign against hate speech on its pages’, The Guardian, 29 May 2013).

Fast forward to March 2017, when The Guardian reported that the British government was calling on social media companies ‘to do more to expunge extremist material from the internet’. The main target was ‘the easy availability of material promoting violent extremism online’, with Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, claiming that ‘extremist material online was “corrupting and polluting” many people’ (Andrew Sparrow and Alex Hern, ‘Internet firms must do more to tackle online extremism, says No 10’, The Guardian, 25 March 2017).

Also in March, the tabloid press exposed some of the more shocking examples of meme-based trolling, where victims of terrorist attacks and their families were mocked. The exposé by The Sun Online refers to the members of so-called ‘ghost’ (i.e. invisible) groups:

Jokes are made about Madeleine McCann, terror victims and disabilities – with no topic out of bounds. Groups are moderated by ‘admins’, who can remove sick content – but instead act as ringleaders. An admin of ‘Pure Banter 18+’ last week shared a sick joke about PC Keith Palmer, who lost his life in the Westminster terror attack … Jokes about slavery and racist slurs are also common, with users requesting memes about dark topics. In the ‘Banter18+’ group this week, one member asked for ‘all your best rape memes’ and received scores of sickening posts. Other topics have included Robin Williams’ death, 9/11 and child abuse. (Ellie Flynn, ‘Antisocial Network’, The Sun, 29 March 2017)

On 30 March, the same source reported that groups that had been removed as a result of the previous day’s article had been set up again within ten minutes, with members mocking The Sun (see Ellie Flynn, ‘Who Can Stop Them?’, The Sun, 30 March 2017). On 31 March, the Daily Mail carried a similar story.

On 2 May, The Sun reported on ‘The Bathroom’ banter group (180,490 members), in which cash was being offered for the ‘most f****d up memes and videos’, including ones mocking Harvey Price, the disabled son of Katie Price. (Ellie Flynn, ‘Sick Facebook troll groups are offering MONEY to the nastiest bullies who taunt disabled kids including Harvey Price’). Later that month, ‘Pure Banter’ was reported to be still in action, with some users making jokes about the bombing at the Manchester Arena. The report added that other members of the group refused to endorse the activities of the trolls. Apparently this was going too far for some. (Ellie Flynn and John Shammas, ‘Vile Facebook “banter” groups have been mocking the Manchester bombing victims since last week’s atrocity’, The Sun, 31 May 2017).

Recognizing the scale of the problem, in May The Guardian announced The Facebook Files, a series drawing together the burgeoning investigation into the social-media giant. One focus is the burden experienced by Facebook’s ‘moderators’, who simply cannot cope with the volume of material being uploaded. Another concerns the company’s dilemma in trying to reconcile free speech with social responsibility.

These files raise legitimate questions about the content Facebook does not tolerate, and the speed with which it deals with it. But just as importantly they raise questions about the material it does allow – which some people may consider cruel, insulting, offensive, sexist and racist. (Nick Hopkins and Julia Carrie Wong, ‘Has Facebook become a forum for misogyny and racism?’, The Guardian, 22 May 2017)

One of the articles included in ‘The Files’ goes into some detail about ‘Facebook’s secret rules and guidelines for deciding what its 2 billion users can post on the site’:

They illustrate difficulties faced by executives scrabbling to react to new challenges such as ‘revenge porn’ – and the challenges for moderators, who say they are overwhelmed by the volume of work, which means they often have ‘just 10 seconds’ to make a decision. (Nick Hopkins, ‘Revealed: Facebook’s internal rulebook on sex, terrorism and violence’, The Guardian, 22 May 2017)

Given such restrictions, it is hardly surprising that the focus is often on ‘credible violence’. Several of ‘The Files’ deal with the ‘mission impossible’ faced by moderators, as well as the specific threat posed by online extremists.

Before proceeding, there is a final point to make about language in the meme-based Facebook groups. Terms like ‘banter’ disguise the real nature of the discourse that predominates in many of these groups, and especially in chat. There is nothing playful or friendly in the interactions between people who, more often than not, have never even met. Nor will you find the sort of inspirational quotes that do the rounds on Facebook newsfeeds, whether accurately attributed or not. The language in meme chat-groups tends to be denigratory. An indication of this is evident from the abbreviations that are frequently employed, for example ‘kys’ (kill yourself), ‘smd’ (suck my d**k), ‘gfy’ (go f**k yourself) and ‘stfu’ (shut the f**k up) – see Net Lingo. Such discourse is more akin to the trolling mentality, which is facilitated by internet anonymity.

A revealing indication of the extent to which the dark side of meme culture has pervaded society was reported by The Washington Post a little over a month ago (see Samantha Schmidt, ‘Harvard withdraws 10 acceptances for “offensive” memes in private group chat’). It concerned a group of students who had been offered places at Harvard, and for whom an official Facebook group had been set up (The Harvard College Class of 2021), allowing admitted students ‘to meet classmates, ask questions and prepare for their first semester’. About a hundred of the incoming freshman class used the official group to create ‘a messaging group where students could share memes about popular culture — a growing trend on the Internet among students at elite colleges’.

But then, the exchanges took a dark turn, according to an article published in the Harvard Crimson … Some of the group’s members decided to form an offshoot group in which students could share obscene, ‘R-rated’ memes, a student told the Crimson. The founders of the messaging group demanded that students post provocative memes in the main group chat to gain admittance to the smaller group.

The students in the spinoff group exchanged memes and images ‘mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children,’ sometimes directing jokes at specific ethnic or racial groups, the Crimson reported. One message ‘called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time”‘ while other messages quipped that ‘abusing children was sexually arousing,’ according to images of the chat described by the Crimson.

University officials got wind of the R-rated sub-group, and, following an investigation, the institution revoked its offers to ten of the offending students, on the basis that ‘the university reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission if the admitted student “engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character,” among other conditions’. The decision provoked mixed reactions, divided along free-speech-versus-social-responsibility lines. The newspaper pointedly observed:

The university’s decision to rescind the students’ acceptance to Harvard underscores the dangers of social media posts — public or private — among prospective college students. According to Kaplan Test Prep, which surveyed more than 350 college admissions officers, 35 percent of admissions officers said they check social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn more about applicants. About 42 percent of those officials said what they found had a negative impact on prospective students.

The joke’s gone too far

According to Dawkins’ original conception, memes ‘selfishly’ use human brains to replicate themselves. In other words, we are not the actors in this evolutionary drama, but rather the passive victims of the meme imperative to survive and reproduce. Ultimately, therefore, we are not responsible for these cultural packages of meaning (symbols, theories, practices, and so on). Their existence is independent of individual human beings, since we are merely temporary ‘hosts’.

The analogy with the ‘selfish gene’ is ultimately dissatisfying, however, and leads to self-contradiction. Dawkins’ theory evinces a modern variation of the ancient paradox of philosophical relativism, since its universal application undermines its own objectivity. In other words, Dawkins’ theory of memes, if true, is itself a meme; but if it is a meme, selfishly using our brains to replicate itself, then how could we ever know that it is true, that it corresponds to some objective state of affairs?

Like all paradoxes, this one points to an important philosophical question: to what extent do we control our ideas, and to what extent are we controlled by them? Dawkins was perhaps aware of the contradiction at the heart of his theory, since he appears to allow us some measure of control over the mental parasites. He concluded the original Selfish Gene with the following: ‘We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on Earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’.

In this connection, it is instructive to examine the writings of another scientist, with credentials at least as impeccable as Dawkins’. I refer to neuropsychologist, neurobiologist and Nobel laureate, Roger Sperry (1913-1994). Sperry opposed the prevailing materialist reductionism of twentieth-century science, and propounded instead a ‘mentalist’ theory in which mind plays a causal role in brain processes, taking its place in a hierarchy extending from the subatomic, through intermediary levels, to the cultural. Causes necessarily vary from level to level and, therefore, an explanation appropriate at one level will not be appropriate at another.

In 1965, over ten years before Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, Sperry authored a paper entitled ‘Mind, Brain, and Humanist Values’ (later included in his 1983 book, Science and Moral Priority). In keeping with his mentalist outlook, Sperry argues for the potency of ‘ideas’ in the brain:

Near the apex of this command system in the brain – to return to more humanistic concerns – we find ideas. Man over the chimpanzee has ideas and ideals. In the brain model proposed here, the causal potency of an idea, or an ideal, becomes just as real as that of a molecule, a cell, or a nerve impulse. Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell. (Science and Moral Priority,

At first glance, this almost seems like a proto-meme theory, with ‘ideas’ playing the same role as ‘memes’ in Dawkins’ later scheme. The comparison is superficial, however, because Sperry incorporates the exercise of individual agency in the process. Ideas are only part of the psychic furniture of the brain, along with other ‘mental forces’. In his opposition to a thoroughgoing physical determinism, Sperry does allow for a moderate psychic determinism: cerebral operations are not without antecedent causes, but those causes are not compelling. Potentially included among the causes are memories of previous episodes in an individual’s life, and also the repository of collective experience that is civilization. Such causes can perhaps be better described as ‘influences’. (See op cit, p.39-41)

To my mind, Sperry’s theory more accurately reflects our ordinary human experience than does Dawkins’ dodgy dogma, and this has important implications for how we conceive of memes in general, and internet memes in particular. The mentalist approach implies a measure of responsibility for the memes we generate and disseminate, and this burden cannot be shirked.

In a 2013 Washington Post article (‘Have Internet memes lost their meaning?’), Dominic Basulto takes stock of Dawkins’ ‘extraordinarily clever idea’ as it has adapted to the Internet. Reflecting on things like ‘lolcat’, he makes no reference to the dark side of internet memes, and merely speculates that memes ‘no longer transmit intelligent ideas – they only transmit banality’.

I would venture further and say that the internet meme represents a dumbing-down of culture. After all, if you fill your mind (and your time) with banality, then there is simply no room for the great ideas that form our cultural inheritance. By this I don’t mean that we should ‘consume’ culture for its own sake. By exposing ourselves to the great cultural creations of the past, including literature, the visual arts and music, we rise above our biological nature and, ultimately, develop character.

Banality may be a problem in itself, but it is hardly the most pressing one. When we consider the darker side of internet memes, as outlined above, we are confronting a more serious issue. As I said at the beginning, when it comes to humour there may be varying degrees of acceptability, but most of us would agree that at some point a line is crossed and we have left ‘acceptable’ behind and entered ‘objectionable’ territory. Why does this matter? I would say that it is because the darkest memes pander to the lowest parts of our nature, where sensuality and aggression are to be found. These primitive impulses have always been with us, to different degrees, but the countervailing forces of civilization have served, as a minimum, to keep them in check, and ideally to transform them. Left unchecked, such tendencies can become magnified into gross sensuality, cruelty and sadism.

The propagation of such destructive tendencies via social media, in the guise of humour, is a cause for genuine concern. The whimsical nature of many familiar internet memes can downplay the toxicity of others. It is a process of trivialization. This toxicity then spreads virally through the entire medium, with an accompanying risk of normalization and desensitization, especially when the consumers are young and still forming an identity. The internet troll represents the nadir of this social phenomenon, and while most of us would not identify with such sociopathic traits, to vary degrees the discourse and practices of trolling have pervaded the culture of internet memes.

When I recently discussed the issue of ‘dark’ memes with Grade-11 Philosophy students at a boys’ school, there seemed to be a general dismissal of the problem, summed up by one boy when he said that ‘no one takes those things seriously, even the people who post them’. In other words, it’s all ‘for the lulz’. Another boy responded to the first by saying that you can’t excuse any offensive content simply by labelling it as a ‘meme’. I added to this objection, by referring to a point made by Umberto Eco (1932-2016) in his 1967 article, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’ (published in the 1986 collection Faith in Fakes, later republished as Travels in Hyperreality). Eco pointed out that messages are interpreted at the destination, not at the source. This means that, regardless of someone’s intentions in sending a message, its interpretation will have more to do with the frame of reference of the person receiving it. This means that the interpretation of dark memes is beyond the control of the poster, and ultimately is unpredictable. Doing it ‘for the lulz’ amounts to a form of social irresponsibility, and those who provide a platform for the activity have a share in the accountability.

One suspects that those who post objectionable material ‘for the lulz’ would not be at all happy if the ‘lulz’ were at their expense – if, for instance, a mocking meme incorporating their photo was shared across the Internet, and hence visible to their peers; or if their family received phone calls from anonymous trolls making fun of a personal tragedy. Whether sociopaths have an abundance or a scarcity of empathy, its nature is perverted in their case, and yet an appropriate quality of feeling is required for a functional moral life. One role of civilization is to cultivate this, and I suspect that the aggressive, mocking nature of the internet troll undermines it. The internet meme, so easily generated and disseminated, is a major vehicle for this undesirable tendency.

In his 2008 article, ‘The Trolls Among Us’ (cited above), Mattathias Schwartz suggested: ‘It may not be a bad thing that the least-mature users have built remote ghettos of anonymity where the malice is usually intramural.’ This may once have been true of the college frat-society, but the Internet doesn’t work like that, a situation fuelled by technology and faulty age- and identity-checks. The malice is not contained within the virtual walls of an internet ghetto. It is all too clear that it spills over into real-life actions and harm, as attested by many of the examples given in the newspaper articles above.

In one of the Guardian articles from May (‘Revealed: Facebook’s internal rulebook on sex, terrorism and violence’), Nick Hopkins drew attention to the following astute observation by Sarah T Roberts, an expert on content moderation:

It’s one thing when you’re a small online community with a group of people who share principles and values, but when you have a large percentage of the world’s population and say ‘share yourself’, you are going to be in quite a muddle. Then when you monetise that practice you are entering a disaster situation.

The same point was made by Geoff White, the reporter on a recent episode of BBC Radio’s File on 4 programme (‘Online Grooming’, originally broadcast on 13 June), albeit in a different context:

Shouldn’t the social-media companies themselves be doing more to protect children? After all, Facebook alone has almost two billion users worldwide; many of them are young people, valuable targets for the advertisers who fill the tech company’s coffers. Social-media sites are happy to capitalize on youngsters’ likes, shares, and messages, but are they getting the message when it comes to online grooming? (2:35)

Although primarily concerned with the worrying problem of online grooming, it is perhaps worth noting one complaint made by young people that is mentioned in the programme: the use of personal content by third parties, in a manner unwanted by the original poster of the content. This was reported by Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield:

My starting point is that the Internet is a force for good, but it wasn’t built for children. And a third of the users of the Internet are children, so we need to make special accommodation, if you like, for them. Now what they told me was that they often found themselves coming across content that they didn’t expect and they thought was nasty or distasteful; they sometimes found their own postings being used in ways that they weren’t happy with … There were children who found photos of themselves that had been used in other ways, children who had found content that they found very disturbing, and they felt, in the main, nothing was done about it. (5:48)

The allegation that social-media companies have difficulty policing the content on their sites occurred in several of the journalistic sources cited above. It was also made in the File on 4 programme. The source of the problem is twofold: burgeoning subscriber numbers, on the one hand, and the exceptional legal circumstances applying to social-media companies, on the other. Jenny Wiltshire, a criminal defence solicitor from law firm Hickman and Rose, described the situation as follows:

Social networks come within the regime of hosting companies, which are covered by an EC directive, which gives them a lot of protection. The directive essentially says that if the social network doesn’t have actual knowledge of unlawful activity, then they can’t be liable either criminally or in civil damages. It’s only once they are made aware and they are provided information to say that unlawful activity has happened that they are under an obligation to act expeditiously to remove that material or disable the access to that information. So that’s resulted in social networks acting reactively rather than proactively to the problem. (34:32)

If that is the case with ‘unlawful’ activity, then we can only suppose that companies like Facebook will be even less proactive when it comes to the grey area of questionable content that we have been discussing in this post.



The law offers a certain level of protection against some extremes of behaviour on social-media sites. In addition, social-media companies have guidelines that discourage certain behaviour, although the bar may be set quite low, and in any case their ability to enforce the guidelines is in question. Beyond such formal provisions, it remains within the power of individuals to decide what is acceptable. No one is compelled to visit websites containing objectionable content. No one is compelled to join adult banter groups. And no one is compelled to pass on ‘edgy’ or ‘dark’ memes. In the case of children and teenagers, the responsibility lies with their guardians to become aware of their online activity and make decisions about what is acceptable.

The issues can seem complex. First, there is privacy, by which I mean the ability of an individual to control what is made public. This is a difficult one for celebrities, whose lives are often subject to media scrutiny. But everyone has a right to some degree of control over their information, including images. Some private individuals find themselves in the media spotlight through no choice of their own, such as when they are victims of tragedy. They are rightly enraged when that exposure is exploited by anonymous individuals with sociopathic tendencies. We should also be enraged on their behalf.

Then there is free speech, which is always counterbalanced by social responsibility. Getting the balance right is a perennial political, and legal, problem. There is a role for legitimate protest, for criticism, and for satire. But ‘hate speech’ and harassment infringe other liberties and should not be tolerated, and they cannot be excused on the grounds that they are ‘for the lulz’.

If there is any truth in the old adage that ‘you are what you eat’, then perhaps it is also true that ‘you are what you attend to’. If it is possible to become ill through an unhealthy diet, then might it also be possible to malnourish the mind by feeding it junk? I suggest an affirmative answer, and that the darker side of internet memes are creating a toxic environment from which we may need to protect ourselves and those for whom we care.

Just when I thought I had finished this post, I was listening to a podcast of an episode from ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra programme (‘Democracy and trust’). Presenter Geraldine Doogue raised the topic of ‘civility’ with Bill Emmott (8:00), former editor of The Economist and author of The fate of the West: the battle to save the world’s most successful political idea. It occurred to me that the concepts of ‘civility’ and ‘civil discourse’ are very relevant to the point I have been trying to make here. As the Wikipedia article makes clear, there is much more to civility than ‘politeness’ or ‘good manners’:

Community, choices, conscience, character are all elements directly related to civility. Civility is more than just having manners, because it involves developing a civil attitude and civil responsibility. Civility often forms more meaningful friendships and relationships, with an underlying tone of civic duty to help more than the sum of its whole. (Wikipedia, ‘Civility’, accessed 22 July 2017)

This is reflected in the etymology of the word, from the Latin civilis, ‘relating to citizens’: ‘In early use, the term denoted the state of being a citizen and hence good citizenship or orderly behavior. The sense “politeness” arose in the mid-16th century’ (Wikipedia, ‘Civility’, accessed 22 July 2017). The same word is, of course, at the root of ‘civilization’.

The article on civil discourse reminds us that it ‘neither diminishes the other’s moral worth, nor questions their good judgment; it avoids hostility, direct antagonism, or excessive persuasion; it requires modesty and an appreciation for the other participant’s experiences’ (Wikipedia, ‘Civil discourse’, accessed 22 July 2017).

The opposite of civility is incivility, and the following paragraph from Wikipedia could have been written for this blog post:

Incivility is the polar opposite of civility, or in other words a lack or completely without civility. Verbal or physical attacks on others, cyberbullying, rudeness, religious intolerance, lack of respect, discrimination, and vandalism are just some of the acts that are generally considered acts of incivility. Incivility is a negative part of society that has impacted many people in the United States, but as the world is becoming increasingly more transparent in social interactions, it has become more increasingly apparent that incivility has become an issue on the global stage. Social media and the web have given people the ability around the globe to freely exchange ideas, but it has not come without its consequences. (Wikipedia, ‘Civility’, accessed 22 July 2017)

It is noteworthy that the article goes on to highlight the prevalence of incivility in politics, pointing out that Donald Trump, during his presidential campaign, ‘regularly called his rivals “stupid, incompetent and losers”‘ (the quote is from a US News article by Kenneth T. Walsh, ‘Bush Appeals for Civility in GOP Race’).

It may be that the Internet, while not the sole cause of a decline in civility, is playing a significant part in an ongoing process of decline. One reason why this matters is that a good society requires civility, so a society lacking civility will not be good. To use Aristotelian terminology, a good society encourages individual flourishing, or ‘living well’. By contrast, a bad society makes it more difficult to be a good person, and to flourish.

Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude this post with a meme:

Condescending Wonka - Lulz


Facebook and Privacy

May 31, 2010

On Quit Facebook Day, LifeMatters presenter Richard Aedy interviews Mark Pesce (author and honorary associate in digital cultures at the University of Sydney) and Laurel Papworth (social network strategist and blogger), on the pros and cons of the best-known social-networking site when it comes to privacy. The podcast is available here.

See also Quit Facebook Day looms as worldwide flop and Putting Online Privacy in Perspective

Reflections on Blogging in Education

May 29, 2010

I created this blog at the end of last year, since I intended to enter the blogging world before it became a course requirement! I hadn’t got around to using it, however, and the assessment imperative was just the incentive I needed to get going. Having made a start, I really took to the medium. Perhaps it’s the ‘blarney’ factor in my background – I certainly seem to have a lot to say. I think Meredith hits the nail on the head in her recent post, when she says that she ‘would have found it more valuable to have had direct experiences to blog about and used literature and research to inform these reflections’. There has to be some motive, and it has to be a creative one, whether one’s blog is serious and academic, or lighthearted and humorous, or artistic, and so on.

I have found blogging a very useful practice for a number of reasons. The blog is a place to:

  • formulate thoughts and reflect on texts of all kinds (i.e. develop a ‘voice’)
  • receive feedback from others
  • store resources for future reference
  • present a public face to the world (including development of a professional portfolio)
  • It is very gratifying to see that I have had so many visitors to the blog – over 800 since March, at the time of writing. And the diverse geographical distribution of the visitors is intriguing. Doubtless some of these are accidental, and the total number of visitors has been inflated by compulsory visits from classmates! But even so …

    I also like the fact that blog posts can be augmented and refined through ongoing editing. In this way, the writing can be polished and perhaps even evolve into publishable material one day. Ideas here are in the public domain, open to comment by others, and can be reworked in the light of such feedback. Jenkins puts the point well, in Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education (Part One):

    In a networked society, literacy is a social skill not simply an individual competency. Understanding how information circulates becomes as important as knowing how to put your ideas into words, sounds, or images. Creation is iterative: we reshape what we’ve created in response to critical feedback from others in an ongoing process of innovation and refinement.

    I haven’t found it difficult to establish a public voice online. I feel that I am just being myself, and not trying to present a face that doesn’t come naturally. To some extent this voice emerges from the subject matter of my blog, which tends towards the academic. I reserve my more lighthearted comments for Facebook!

    Neither has there been any problem with the technology. Being a semi-nerd probably helped! But the thoroughbred boffins have done an excellent job of making the technology very intuitive. As the constructivists would point out, it is usually a case of relating the new and unfamiliar to that which is already known. As long as one is operating within one’s Zone of Proximal Development, there is no great obstacle.

    The relationship between my blog and the course is an interesting one. As the blog took off, I realised that I wanted it to be a genuine project, rather than simply an onerous task for assessment purposes. It is also clear to me that this goes right to the heart of something fundamental to my beliefs about education – the best way to learn is to engage in real-world activities in which one has a vested interest. This is the social-constructivist position, and it is a point that has been made repeatedly by thinkers whose ideas I have referred to in several recent posts – people like Sir Ken Robinson and John Taylor Gatto. It could perhaps be summed up in the motto: if one doesn’t love it, one shouldn’t do it. The best learning happens when one is inspired by the subject, and can relate it to one’s previous experience (the constructivist position again).

    I’ve noticed that I have tended to move away from simply reflecting on course content, in favour of looking at some ‘big ideas’ in education. Often, of course, the two have overlapped, or intertwined, which is all the better. But I would rather post something that I am passionate about, that seems important, than post on every item of course content just for the sake of it, even if it costs me in assessment terms! There was much of genuine interest in the course, and it has been a great complement to my personal teaching philosophy. I have learnt many new things, and refined others with which I was already familiar. The e-language wiki is a great resource, and one that I’m certain to mine for years. But I haven’t felt the need to comment on every item here in this forum. I think it’s fair to say that my blog has been true to the spirit of the course, if not always the letter.

    Similarly with engaging with my peers in their blogs. While I can understand the need for knowledge to be demonstrated in the context of a university course, once this has been achieved there is a risk in commenting just for the sake of it. The latter is onerous and empty, and usually obvious to the reader. I think my intuitive distaste for this is behind my sometimes subversive humour! Genuine feedback, by contrast, is always welcome. This is the ideal of the Socratic dialogue.

    As is obvious from the foregoing, I have found the blogging experience to be overwhelmingly positive. Conceived in the heady days of the summer holiday, its birth was induced by course requirements, and it has finally emerged as an organic extension of my own philosophical and pedagogical tendencies, able to stand on its own two feet. I’ve no intention of neglecting it. The conclusion of the course is irrelevant to the ongoing existence of the blog – truly the baby has outgrown the incubator! That is surely the greatest compliment to the course co-ordinator, since it is the goal of the genuine teacher to make his students independent of him. I sincerely hope that I will be able to pass on this enthusiasm to students in the primary-school classes of my future. When it comes to applying the technology in the school context, I will bear in mind my own experiences as a blogger, as well as my educational philosophy, and encourage my students to blog about the things that inspire them. I think that probably has the greatest chance of success.

    Weapons of Mass Instruction

    May 29, 2010

    I can’t claim any credit for the catchy title of this post. It is taken from the 2009 book of the same name by John Taylor Gatto. The subtitle is ‘A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling’. I referred to Gatto in my earlier Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy, since he is associated with the latter term. Having got my hands on a copy of the book, I would now like to return to this topic.

    This post also links with another thread in the blog. In my last post, I embedded a talk by Sir Ken Robinson, in which he spoke of the need to move away from an industrial model of education to a more organic one: education must be customised and personalised to the people who are being taught. This sentiment is very much in keeping with Gatto.

    Gatto contends that the roots of compulsory schooling lie in a model of social engineering developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rather than in the professed ideals of universal education. By contrast with earlier eras (even the immediately preceding one of independent school authorities), modern compulsory schooling is concerned with uniformity, with grouping by ‘class’, and all with the force of the law. Consider the following extract:

    contemporary school planners treat children as categories: black, white, Hispanic, other; gifted and talented, special progress, mainstream, special education; rich, middle-class, poor, and with multiple subdivisions of each imaginable category, rather than as specific individuals with specific intellectual, social, psychological and physical needs.

    The rhetoric of collectivization leads quickly to treating groups and sub-groups as averages. This makes managerial labor much easier, but guarantees bad results no matter how many resources are devoted to improving the lot of the group … The logic of collectivization seeks to disconnect each child from his or her own unique constellation, particular circumstances, traditions, aspirations, past experiences, families, and to treat each as the representative of a type. (129)

    Compulsory schooling as a form of social engineering is inseparable from an economy based on consumption and, by implication, the avoidance of over-production. By removing children from their family and community contexts, and forcing them to remain in a classroom as part of a group of age-peers, school induces passivity and what Gatto calls the ‘artificial extension of childhood’:

    The same young people we confine to classrooms these days once cleared this continent when it was a wilderness, built roads, canals, cities; whipped the greatest military power of earth not once but twice, sold ice to faraway India before refrigeration, and produced so many miracles — from the six-shooter to the steamboat to manned flight — that America spread glimmerings of what open-source creativity could do all around the planet.

    In those days Americans weren’t burdened by a concept of the phony stage of life called ‘adolescence,’ or any other artificial extension of childhood. About the age of seven you added value to the world around you, or you were a parasite. Like all sane people, so-called kids wanted to grow up as soon as possible — that’s why old photos show boys and girls looking like men and women. All that takes is carrying your share of the load, and a few open-source adventures and presto! You are grown up. (39-40)

    The book gives many examples of individuals who, one way or another, escaped the tyranny of compulsory schooling and forged lives of independence and success. From George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Warren Buffet and Richard Branson, to name some of the more celebrated cases. Chapter 2 contains many others and I am grateful to New Society Publishers for permission to copy this chapter and link it to this post (see below).

    Prior to his resignation, Gatto was a multi-award-winning high-school teacher of thirty-years experience, and his views carry the weight of that experience. There are many anecdotes from his career, including several humbling ones where he acknowledges the lessons that particular students taught him. Although he resigned out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the schooling system, he does provide some positive suggestions intended to minimise the harm done by compulsory schooling.

    Chapter 6, for example, begins with a critique of television and computer entertainment as factors that help to maintain children in a state of passivity and consumption. Gatto realised that merely exhorting children to avoid such devices would have no effect. In order to combat the tendency, he developed what he calls his Guerrilla Curriculum. The principle was that by keeping children actively involved in real-world experiences, they would come to see their erstwhile spectator roles as less interesting. It should be understood that this was no attempt to create ‘engaging’ lessons in the conventional sense:

    Plunging kids into the nerve-wracking, but exhilarating waters of real life — sending them on expeditions across the state, opening the court systems to their lawsuits, and the economy to their businesses, filling public forums with their speeches and political action — made them realize, without lectures, how much of their time was customarily wasted sitting in the dark. And as that realization took hold, their dependence on the electronic doll houses diminished. (93)

    From Gatto’s description, what we have here is more of an induction into the adult world of action than the schooling to which we have grown accustomed. And it worked!

    The biggest surprise for me was how easy this was to accomplish, it took neither talent nor money; anyone could duplicate my results, I won’t deny its hard work to try to pull off the trick with 130 kids a year, but a lot of effort is wasted in finding ways to circumvent the dead hand of school administration. In a system more congenial to learning (and less to social control) the thrill of doing the labor would more than outweigh the effort required. And, of course, if everyone in the society were on the same page about the necessity of developing intellect and character in the young (not weighting them down with chains), the work would be … child’s play.

    Over the years my students launched so many useful projects and earned so many plaudits and prizes that I found myself showered with awards from the school establishment which had no idea how I got such results. When I tried to explain to the awards committees how little I had to do with the achievements, I suspect it was discounted as obligatory modesty, but these days when I have nothing more to prove to myself about who I am, I sincerely hope you’ll believe me. Take your boot off the downtrodden necks of your children, study their needs not your own, don’t be intimidated by experts, re-connect your kids to primary experience, give off the game of winners and losers for a while, and you’ll get the same results I did. Maybe better. (96)

    Gatto tells us that he ‘stumbled upon a formula to change the destiny of students, one at a time’ (101). The first step was to build a personal profile for each student, relying not on school records but on data from ‘parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and enemies — anyone who could provide intimate information to the emerging personal narrative’ (101-2).

    Once a profile was created, the second step was to add a personalized Wishes and Weaknesses component. I asked each student to list three things each wanted to be knowledgeable about by the end of the year — that was the wishes part — and three weaknesses he or she wished to overcome, deficiencies which led to humiliation (I get beat up all the time) or failures of opportunity (I want to do modeling work but only the rich kids know how to present themselves to get that) — that was the weaknesses part. I exercised virtually no censorship and whatever the individual kid’s priorities were became mine. I didn’t consult with a single school administrator to put this program in place, nor with any other teacher — only with parents from whom I extracted promises of silence.

    I know this sounds like a hideous amount of effort, and politically impossible in a large urban school, but it was neither: it required only will, imagination, resourcefulness, and a determination to scrap any rules which stood in the way … Acting in my favor was the fact that with this new curriculum each kid was motivated, worked much harder than I legally could have asked him or her to do, and recruited outside assistance with resources no classroom teacher could match. And now for the first time each had a personal reason to work hard, one that was self-grading. (Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, 102)

    Finally, Gatto (in an echo of Ivan Illich — see Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy) sees some hope in the emerging social phenomenon of online interconnectivity:

    Thanks to a 24-year-old college dropout named Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook, and others like him who founded YouTube, MySpace and other social networks still unmonitored by political authorities or academics, thanks to the World Wide Web and the Internet as platforms for individually generated connections, the power of school as a great dis-connector has been weakened.

    These vehicles enable people without any particular status, to hook up with one another; they even allow mixtures of nobodies and somebodies to exchange ideas and plans; they provide a fountain of information which replenishes itself constantly; they encourage creativity among masses consigned by schooling to become reliable consumers. Even though this new force is still in early childhood, already it has caused governments to surrender a great deal of power over their own currencies. It has emboldened accumulations of capital to move at the speed of light from one country to another, destabilizing conventional markets, making national loyalties conditional and patriotism questionable. Thanks to the vast new ball of connections, official truth in every conceivable area is subject to verification by a promiscuous collection of uncertified critics armed with the tools to back up their contrarian critiques.

    Thanks to the Internet, the concept of mass schooling by experts is nearly exhausted. (113)

    Weapons of Mass Instruction is distributed in Australia by Footprint Books. I purchased my copy from The Book Depository.

    Chapter 2 can be viewed, printed or downloaded from here:

    Weapons of Mass Instruction – Gatto (Chapter 2)

    The Socially Networked Classroom

    March 25, 2010

    Just had email notification of this Classroom 2.0 event:

    ‘Web sites like Facebook and Twitter have transformed the way young people interact and communicate. With appropriate guidelines, students’ social networking skills can be harnessed to develop new literacies and deepen teaching and learning in the 21st century.

    ‘The Socially Networked Classroom demonstrates how pioneering teachers have successfully integrated screen-based literacies into their instruction. This book includes:

  • Real-world activities and lesson examples with assignment sheets, assessments, and rubrics
  • Ideas on fostering collaborative learning using blogs, wikis, nings, and other interactive media
  • Tips on Internet safety, blogging etiquette, protected blogging sites, and more
  • Blog entries from classroom teachers
  • ‘With this accessible guide for Grades 5–12, teachers of all levels of technological expertise can help students develop the new literacies necessary to succeed in a digital world.

    ‘William Kist is an associate professor at Kent State University, where he teaches literacy methods courses for pre-service teachers in the area of English Education in the Adolescence to Young Adult Education Program. He also teaches graduate students in the Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program and in Curriculum & Instruction.

    ‘He has been a middle school and high school language arts teacher for the Akron Public Schools (teaching at, among other schools, his alma mater, Firestone High School); a language arts and social studies curriculum coordinator for the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center and theHudson City Schools; and a consultant and trainer for school districts across the United States, both independently and as a consultant for the National Council of Teachers of English.’

    Here’s the book:

    The Socially Networked Classroom: Teaching in the New Media Age