There was a time, not long ago, when someone said something in passing and said it to an actual person — and that essentially was that. Then what ensued was a full-on conversation, or sometimes an argument, or occasionally a fat lip. But people spoke their truths and generally stood by it.
Now though — thanks to the dynamic duo of smart-phones and social media — the grand vision of technology Steve Jobs had in store for humanity has completely imploded. Thank you snide memes. Yes you, the ones intent on baiting even the most casual viewer into a “like” or a “laugh out loud” emoji — and worse — the comment in reply that happens to just come to mind. And of course, this is where all the trouble begins.
Some turd somewhere across the country serves up some pompous zinger in a feed that (again) magically gets served up to me and millions of other unsuspecting victims who fall continually into these algorithmic traps. Today, for example, someone served up a Twitter (now X) screen shot from a “Julius Goat” who by all accounts is some secret identity. Is it of some basement-dwelling male Karen who dislikes his mom but still eats her undercooked quesadillas anyway? Of course his (or her) profile picture is Groucho Marx to simultaneously show how witty he (or she) is while hiding his (or her) true identity. Impressive (not really).
This mysterious, possible quesadilla-chomper’s meme reads: “No one who complains that they ‘can’t say… things… anymore’ is prevented from saying things,” (yada, yada, yada) and wraps up declaring as smarmy as you may, “What they object to is personal accountability.”
Mr. Goat? Or is it Groucho? Either way, if I may, I need to interject. This isn’t about mere personal accountability over what someone says. It’s the wrath and penance meted out over expressing an opinion at all. It’s ambush bullying actually— in the same way we dissuade our kids from social media through (at least) middle school, to keep the sidebar melodramas of adolescence from getting amplified on social media throught the whole fucking school.
But no, I reply to a meme — and in lies the distinct possibility some fart-sniffing bottom feeder is poised to screen grab and make me go viral. And not in a good way. So no, it’s not mere accountability, Mr. Goat, for what someone says in momentary reflection of someone’s post. Facebook likes to ask: What's on your mind? I think we’re all astute enough to realize Facebook isn’t interested in the answer. The platform just wants content — and an avalanche of reaction to it. So who cares (potentially) who gets wrecked over it?
How simplistic a view this is (“what they object to is personal accountability”). Once again, use myself as an example. Here I am, just waking up, reading the FB feed, and this aforementioned brain worm of a meme forces its way in my head. I react, really for myself, but it’s broadcasted to everyone. My reply goes out to certain “friends” I know and an assortment of Facebook beings I don’t even know at all, but keep getting crammed into interacting with through that Zuckerberg algorithmic magic. And I know I have better things to do on a weekend than message my instantaneous thoughts to these strangers and classmates from high school I once knew. Still here I am, and here you are too.
It’s a mind worm addiction Facebook has us swirling in. And around we go, but if I say something crass or maybe political (rare as that is on social media), I am subject to someone I don’t even know, who doesn’t know me, to end my career (or try like it's their job to). It’s doxing, a virtual pile on that is tantamount to the worst kind of bullying — simply because someone like me responds to a meme served up by Facebook — especially because I’m apt to respond to it, since they knew statistically I was going to. We’re all in this machine, Mr. Goat. And it’s built to keep us connected and wielding words back and forth.
But let me pull at a thread on this sweater a bit more. Please don’t couch this as self control and living with the repercussions. I imagine most of us check replies when we’re between ordinary, real life things — waking up, going to bed — or in the minutes (some more than others) on the can. We browse. We read. We catch up. And yep, there’s a post, then a thought we want to send in reply.
But let's be honest. Reporting LIVE from Toilet Central doesn't often yield a fully-forged, argument-tested thesis, so much as a spark of an idea being batted around. We react. We reply. And we get on with the business of what we were doing. And we don’t realize what’s brewing out in the cloud of Facebook’s data farm. Try telling this to the onslaught of trolls who’ve waited, cold quesadillas dangling from their mouths, for someone with an actual job and a family to feed — to take exception to whatever they said. And if they put you in this political camp or that social sub group, you get piled on. And sometimes in horrible ways. Explain that.
Now I entertain all of this because I’m a writer and tinker with these interactions the way a cat bats around a mouse or a ball — but never would it occur to me to bring these social media back-and-forths into real life repercussions. How wretched. Just awful. They’re just words, quick quips, and half-formed thoughts left hanging amid. But Facebook trolls exist and they wreck with best machinations of Orwellian thought police.
So casual Facebook browsers, beware. And as an aside, the author of that brain worm of a meme was SOOOOO bold he / she posted with a pseudonym and someone else’s picture. To me, it seems like someone bracing for battle, hiding a true identity. Or maybe someone is too affraid to stand by what he or she really means to say. And that says quite enough, without me having to write with a single word in retort. But I probably will anyway.
Jason James Barry is an award-winning essayist and journalist, and author of “A Season in Madness: Essays on The Year of Isolation, Introspection, and Closed Schools” and “The Midnight Coffee Club: A Memoir of Grit, Glimmers, and The Pull of Police Life”.