This post by Laura Schäfer is part of our series “Global Digital Cultures in times of COVID-19”, written by students of the research master Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
If you ever felt guilty laughing at Covid-19 and Zoom-Fatigue-related memes – do not be! Depression, anxiety, and tiredness are only part of a long list of psychological responses to the current pandemic and lockdowns. Working and studying from home has become the new normal. We – university students and professors – are among the groups most affected by zoom fatigue. The notion of ‘Zoom Fatigue’ describes the tiredness and lack of concentration we experience sitting in front of our screens and working from home, using, or rather overusing virtual platforms of communication.
The move to online teaching has triggered the production and circulation of countless pandemic- and Zoom-related memes. By creating memes on stressful topics such as this, we create space online to blow off steam and to convey a sense of togetherness. But as fun as memes can be, there is a flip-side that should not be ignored. Memes can also be the cause of more problems. They can be used to spread misinformation, hate-speech, and contextual misunderstandings, causing stress and even greater harms in times of crisis.
Zoom-Fatigue in academia
While students and professors are working, learning, studying, and teaching online, interpersonal connections, and academic exchanges also take place through ‘Zoom’. However, these connections and exchanges are hard, if not impossible to establish online. The consequence – a constant feeling of tiredness and demotivation. But in every dark moment, there is a spark of hope. The best way to cope with all of the negative emotions triggered by the pandemic is to laugh!
A study conducted by Caroline Gurvich and colleagues illustrates how important positive emotion-based coping strategies, such as humor and positive reframing, are for mental health and for reducing psychological symptoms. Making fun of a stressful situation such as the pandemic may help preserve perspective and impede the situation from becoming overwhelming. These findings explain the emergence of pandemic and Zoom-Fatigue related memes through which we can communicate our struggles and worries on social media and go through this situation together.
Memes have proven to be an effective way to share sentiments. According to researcher Limor Shifman, memes can be seen as a vital part of our contemporary participatory culture. We make use of funny images, vernacular language, humor, and irony to share opinions, stances, emotions, and sentiments. By looking at memes as a sociocultural practice embedded in a global digital culture rather than simple pictures underlined with text, we can learn a lot about the current mental state of society.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of memes went viral. All of them share three main characteristics: simplicity, humor, and participation. In ‘Memes in Digital Culture’, Shifman states that we are more likely to share positive and funny content instead of sad stories. Even if the emotion we are willing to share can be negative we prefer to express it humorously. In addition, memes depend on recreation and appropriation. Everyone who knows their way around digital space can create and share memes to contribute to a certain topic of interest. By packaging the message in a simple way the content is easy to understand and will be shared by more people. By defining so-called meme genres, Shifman points out that there are multiple kinds of memes. Some can only be understood by the subculture they are circulated in. Viral memes are easy to understand and “have indeed become powerful—yet often invisible—agents of globalization“.
University students around the world have created and circulated memes that reflect our frustration with online classes and the consequences of working from home. While we are all Zoom-fatigued we can see that multiple struggles with the platform Zoom become visible when we take a closer look at the most shared memes. These poke fun at technical issues with the platform itself, the struggle to participate in discussions through a screen, the feeling of having to get ready for a meeting while sitting at home, unnecessary meetings that could have been an email, and the challenge to not get distracted.
The wide dissemination of these memes does not only highlight our frustration but constitutes an example of a global response to a catastrophic event. Zoom-fatigue memes can be seen as universal as the content is not local but simply tied to the platform itself. Thus, people all over the world using the platform share the same concerns and problems. At the same time, memes are shaped by local contexts. A study by Nissenbaum and Shifman illustrates this observation by comparing memes from around the world related to the 2016 US presidential election. Memes addressing this global event were linked to local issues and political affairs. The universality of Zoom-fatigue related memes does not only reflect the global dimension of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it also highlights how Zoom Fatigue is experienced locally.
The dark side of memes
As much as Zoom-Fatigue related memes have given university students and professors the opportunity to vent, for some people they can be an additional source of stress. Closely tied to Zoom-fatigue is the anxiety many people experience when using the platform. The “feeling of panic when asked to jump on a video call“ does not simply disappear because of a funny meme. At worst, a meme can reinforce this feeling. Furthermore, the problematic nature of memes, in general, has become apparent when looking at pandemic related memes which can contribute to an overall feeling of tiredness, hopelessness, or even worse – hate.
Hate speech, racism, sexism, and other bigoted beliefs are often shared through memes. The pandemic has triggered a “tsunami of hate“ in online spaces. As we know, the virus originates in Wuhan, China, which is why a lot of hate against Chinese people emerged online. The AI start-up ‘L1ght’ recorded a 900% increase in hate speech directed towards the Chinese population. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, explains how “the pandemic has also been accompanied by a surge in stigma and racist discourse vilifying communities, spreading vile stereotypes and assigning blame“.
The circulation of conspiracy theories does not make the situation any better. An example of this problem is a meme that shows a snapshot of a music video by Canadian rapper Drake that conveys the false message that it is safer to get infected with the virus than getting the vaccine as it is supposed to modify our genetic code. While some people see that meme and laugh, it might discourage others to get vaccinated. Thus, memes have been a decisive source of misinformation. The threshold between satire and misinformation becomes questionable which leads us to another problematic aspect of memes: Not everyone entering the digital space is able to read and understand memes. As much as new generations enjoy the content and understand the Drake meme as a joke, it has been suggested that older generations have trouble understanding it. What is often referred to as meme-literacy illustrates how complex memes are and that the combination of text and image can be interpreted in many different ways depending on who creates, shares, or reads a meme. This can be misused by meme creators intentionally to pursue a wrong cause.
Be careful what you share
Memes give us the opportunity to share our mental state, emotions and to have a good laugh. Especially throughout the pandemic, they have helped us to cope with our new normal. While it is nice to share this kind of content with the people we connect with it is important to share it in a conscious way. We have to ask ourselves how the meme we are sending to someone can be understood and who that person is. Only then, we can help our digital space to become a better and safer place and still have a good laugh by spreading positive content.
Bio Laura Schäfer: I am a rMA student in Media Studies with a specialization in New Media and Digital Culture. I come from a business and marketing background. My main field of interest is the increasing digitization and platformization of infrastructures. I find it interesting to research how infrastructures do not only become increasingly digitized but how they function as economic, neo-liberal agents rather than neutral institutions respecting public values. In particular, I am very interested how such developments play into the accelerating process of urbanization.