The tale of Jackie Weaver is a tale as old as the internet. It’s also a tale as old as about two weeks ago.
For those unfamiliar, Cheshire Association of Local Councils official Jackie Weaver shot to brief internet stardom recently for having an argument during a Zoom meeting with a Handforth Parish councillor over local rules. The details of the standoff aren’t important – though it did, at one point, devolve into Weaver requesting that the assembled council call her “Britney Spears”.
What matters is what came next.
The Zoom meeting reached the Internet, and we consequently took collective leave of our senses. Twitter, especially, fell in love, as it tends to with vaguely amusing events with limited popular shelf life. Timelines were practically drownedin cries of “you have no authority here” and “read the standing orders” –now ever-quotable highlights of the meeting. Soon, Etsy shops sprung up selling Jackie Weaver merchandise, and before long, the council meeting was the talk of the nation. Weaver herself didthemediacircuit.
Then, it came out that she was to be appearing at a meeting of Conservative Young Women, and the internet that shot her to stardom dropped her like a hot coal. A clerk at a parish council meeting becomes the talk of the internet, immediately gets monetised and covered by the media, and then disappears beneath the waves as quickly as she arrived.
A good analogy is a forest fire – if it runs out of trees to catch, it dies. If a meme runs out of minds to enter, it likewise disappears. This is what happened to Jackie Weaver.
Weaver’s experience is the experience of an online meme – and it is deeply instructive about our discourse in the time of the internet. Deeply instructive, and deeply concerning.
Memes are ideas that spread from one person to another in a culture. On the internet, they do this by being shared, and the more it gets shared the more minds it enters, much like, dare I say, a pathogen. Sometimes we share memes to make people laugh; sometimes to communicate information; sometimes to spread misinformation. Critical, though, is that if the meme doesn’t provoke more people to share it, it burns out fast. A good analogy is a forest fire – if it runs out of trees to catch, it dies. If a meme runs out of minds to enter, it likewise disappears.
This is what happened to Jackie Weaver: we all found her very funny for a while, and her getting covered in the mainstream media caused the meme to worm its way into the heads of more and more people. But, sooner or later, there are no more people to reach, and the people it hasreached have lost interest. The story is static – she’s not about to go on tour reprising her role as Jackie Weaver in the stage play version of the meeting.
Most of the time, this life cycle is fine. I think I speak for all introverts when I say that brief fame is better than a lifetime of not being able to go outside without being recognised.
But it becomes a problem when we can’t tell the difference between memes designed to be funny and critical issues, both of which we seem to memory-hole.
If institutions of authority realise that eventually all but the most truly egregious misuses or abuses of power will disappear, to avoid accountability all they need do is ride the outrage out.
For instance, do you remember when Lindsay Lohan broadcast live on Instagram harassing an apparently refugee family on the streets of Moscow. The story is as bizarre as it sounds, but it ended with her trying to take one of the children and getting into an altercation with his mother, after which she accused them of trafficking. Lohan was rightly called out for the incident online – but, because the matter remained nothing more than an outrage-inspiring meme that lasted one news cycle. The limits of her accountability for it were ultimately just that.
Another example, closer to home: do you remember when it resurfaced in 2019 that Boris Johnson once “plotted to have a journalist beaten up”? Probably. You may even recall with complete clarity. The important point is that the news at the time spread wildly, provoked outrage, and then contributed exactly zilch to stopping Johnson becoming prime minister. Not enough people still talk about it. It burned through its forest.
Memes aren’t what’s wrong with discourse. The problem is that we can’t seem to tell the difference between them anymore – and that’s dangerous. Terrifying, in fact. If institutions of authority realise that eventually all but the most truly egregious misuses or abuses of power will disappear, to avoid accountability all they need do is ride the outrage out. We would be handing governments an unspoken license to do as they please.
Because a lot of this discourse happens online, we struggle to tell the difference between real people with real lives and the memes we see right next to them on our timelines. But that attitude is not good enough anymore. We must interrogate the things we see. Who is this person? What did they do? Why does the internet want me to see them? By asking these questions, we create a background for the person and stop seeing them as just another shareable post.
To survive the flood of ideas the internet has unleashed and salvage our discourse, we should start immediately. The next meme may have bigger stakes than a parish council meeting.
Harrison Gowland is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @harrisongowland