A Philosophical Problem of Memes

THERE’S A PROBLEM in philosophy.

Not that problem. No, not that problem, either.

There’s a problem greater than any problem philosophy has ever faced before.

It’s not the Trolley Problem.

It’s not the Problem of Induction.

It’s not the Problem of Evil.

The problem, my friends, is stolen memes.

Specifically, uncredited stolen memes.

This problem may destroy philosophy.

Like Fight Club, the internet has rules.

and the first rule of internet memes is give credit to the creator. Giving thanks to the creative geniuses who find new and interesting ways to caption Salt Bae memes isn’t just being courteous — it’s the law.

Unfortunately, like Fight Club, the cardinal rule of internet memes is consistently broken.

I admit I don’t always give credit.

Anyone with a social media account and an interest in philosophy would observe that philosophy, like everything else ruined by the internet, is dominated by memes (after all, who actually wants to read Hegel?).

This unfortunate reality means the problem of meme attribution is now a philosophy thing — welcome to the ethics of philosophy memes.

Back in the early days of the internet, the notion of the internet as a digital commons wasn’t a far fetched idea. The internet, some were stupid enough to believed, could and should serve the common good. Ideas would be freely and openly exchanged across the fiber optic superhighway — everyone would have access to everything — the internet would be the ultimate egalitarian paradise.

And in a lot of ways it is.

Memes are freely and openly disseminated through social networks, and meme generating sites give any user the opportunity to use uploaded images, adding their own (presumably funny, but not always funny) caption.

Wait a minute. Do I have to explain what a meme is?

Just in case there are still folks out there who have no clue what a meme is, memes are:

a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users. (Google)

If we wanted to think of memes somewhat philosophically, we could argue that memes serve a utilitarian purpose. Memes inform, persuade, entertain, and (sometimes) convey complex ideas, in easily understood images.

We all know Schopenhauer detested Hegel.

What’s easier to understand, this — an actual quote from Schopenhauer about Hegel:

May Hegel’s philosophy of absolute nonsense – three-fourths cash and one-fourth crazy fancies – continue to pass for unfathomable wisdom without anyone suggesting as an appropriate motto for his writings Shakespeare’s words: “Such stuff as madmen tongue and brain not,” or, as an emblematical vignette, the cuttle-fish with its ink-bag, creating a cloud of darkness around it to prevent people from seeing what it is, with the device: mea caligine tutus. – May each day bring us, as hitherto, new systems adapted for University purposes, entirely made up of words and phrases and in a learned jargon besides, which allows people to talk whole days without saying anything; and may these delights never be disturbed by the Arabian proverb: “I hear the clappering of the mill, but I see no flour.” – For all this is in accordance with the age and must have its course.

Or this meme?

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It’s the meme, right?

*You may have noticed I did not give credit to the creator of that meme.

And that’s the problem.

The problem.

We’ve come to think of the internet as the place where everything belongs to everyone, however, online content  — every meme, blog post, or vlog — is the product of someone’s imagination.

That funny Hegel meme you just posted might seem like it has been floating around Facebook forever, but rest assured, someone created it. And if someone created it —

that somebody thinks it’s theirs.

Now, there used to be a time when (if) you used something that belongs to someone else, you’d say the words “thank” and “you”.

Giving credit to the creator of a meme is just that.

It’s saying “thank you”.

Giving thanks isn’t just a courtesy, it’s a way of acknowledging that someone else created something that, because of their creativity, we are afforded the opportunity to not have to create something.

Which is great for me, because I have no knack for creating clever memes whatsoever.

WHAT. SO. EVER.

If we was using law words, someone might call their meme their intellectual property.

Intellectual property is:

Intellectual property (IP) is a category of property that includes intangible creations of the human intellect, and primarily encompasses copyrights, patents, and trademarks Artistic works like music and literature, as well as some discoveries, inventions, words, phrases, symbols, and designs, can all be protected as intellectual property. (Wikipedia)

According to the law, intellectual property belongs to its creator. We violate copyright laws when we use (another’s) intellectual property without permission.

Because taking possession of someone else’s stuff without permission is theft.

There’s a reason why people call it stealing memes.

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YES. I STOLE THIS MEME

The problem with stealing memes isn’t just using someone else’s creation without permission or acknowledgement, stealing memes also steals views and likes from the original creator.

If you peddle in stolen memes, you’re benefiting at someone else’s expense — using someone as a mere means to your ends.

And you know there’s no way in hell we’re going to make that a universal law.

Ok… so memes (at least none I’ve seen) are not copyrighted, but memes definitely are the creations of human intellect (specifically, someone else’s intellect). And– if we have on our philosopher hats, we’d know that the ethically correct individual shouldn’t depend on copyright law to tell him what is the morally right thing to do.

The ethically correct individual would give proper credit to the original meme makers because it is the right thing to do.

You could say it’s our moral duty to do so.

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You didn’t think I’d go a whole post without mentioning Kant, did you?

So…

Ok, I’ll admit I was a bit hyperbolic at the beginning of this post. Uncredited memes aren’t going to destroy philosophy.

I know what’s going to destroy philosophy, but it ain’t that.

The philosophical problem of memes isn’t a “real” philosophical problem.

Not to professional philosophers, anyway.

Professional philosopher’s DO NOT meme.

But, the taking and using someone else’s original ideas without giving proper credit is a problem — and not just a problem in philosophy.

I guess… if the next time you’re cruising the world wide web and you see fantastically hilariously derisive Hegel meme that absolutely must be shared, that giving a quick nod to the original creator is a good thing to do.

I mean, if using someone else’s intellectual creation without permission is theft, the very least we can do is say thank you while we’re doing it.

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