Internet memes are frequently cat related and often funny, but they can also be threatening. It isn't uncommon to see Facebook statuses instructing you to share, like, or comment in order to save your life, or the lives of those you love. A strange video recently surfaced in Europe that takes an urban legend popularized by The Ring. Watch it and you'll die, supposedly.
Dr. Jenny Davis is a professor of Sociology, and the co-editor of cyborgology.org, a website that claims we live in a cyborg world and, "chronicles our new, augmented reality." She and I spoke about the prevalence of threatening memes and why they originate, and thrive, online.
It's the click that will kill you.
"Myths are really powerful, and today they come in meme form," she says. But just because they've migrated online, doesn't mean they function differently to traditional myths. For instance, they both often reflect cultural fears. Dr. Davis explains that, "[Threatening memes] reflect the fear people have about the pervasiveness of digital technology in everyday life. It's the click that will kill you, a share that saves you--but also a share that puts your friends in danger."
She underscores the fact that fear can be fun. "For a long time, kids have dared each other to say bloody mary in front of a dark mirror." But the fun factor isn't without risk; sometimes disturbing online myths merge with reality.
In 2014 Bustle wrote about two such cases. In one, a girl set fire to her home, in the other, "two 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin stabbed their friend 19 times after her luring her into the woods under the ruse of playing a game." Both of those instances were inspired by a fictional, online meme known as Slenderman. Slenderman is part of what is called creepypasta - spooky user submitted stories on internet forums. The character is a tall, ominous, faceless creature in a suit with tentacles. He's known amongst teens for his proclivity to stalk and traumatize children.
He's known amongst teens for his proclivity to stalk and traumatize children.
"These are tragic cases," Dr. Davis says. "There are always people vulnerable to the charisma of those who wish to impart violence (e.g., Charles Manson and the "Manson Family."). Manson essentially presented his followers with a mythology that led to murder. The medium is different in the Slenderman case, but the process and outcome similar."
According to Dr. Davis, these dark, mythic phenomena circulate differently than traditional forms of storytelling because the web obscures the source. "Digital media gives regular people an opportunity to create and spread things, and the source is not always clear. With traditional media, we know where the content comes from. This isn't necessarily the case on Youtube. However, 'real' terror scenarios have become a popular mainstream genre (e.g., Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity)."
As the real world becomes increasingly augmented with technological advancements, the division between reality and fantasy is more easily manipulated. It defies reason to believe that sharing (or not sharing) a meme will have any real impact, but strain superstitious thrill through the untraceable channels of the internet, and there's no telling what you'll find on the other side.