Earlier this week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before Congress in a hearing about social media’s role in the spread of misinformation. The testimony was chock-full of platitudes about Twitter’s important role as a “global town square” where people can engage in “an open and free exchange of ideas,” assurances about accusations of political bias in ranking and restrictions, and a bit of background about how the site’s algorithms work. (You can read more about it here.)
Members of Congress asked ridiculous questions, and Dorsey gave overly diplomatic answers. A circus involving a disruption from a known conservative activist and a congressman’s surreal auctioneer chant ensued. Oh, and Alex Jones was there. But perhaps the most notable moment from the Twitter boss’s trip to Capitol Hill happened outside of Washington: almost immediately, photos from Dorsey’s hearing — to which he arrived wearing a rumpled, tie-less suit and a beard that made him look like a straight-to-video Hans Gruber — started making the meme rounds on his own site.
“Jack Dorsey’s collar, beard, and ‘Yeah, I did it myself at home—why do you ask?’ haircut make him look like a disgraced intergalactic council member in Star Wars or something,” tweeted writer Sam Diss. “[Dorsey] looks like a young Mel Gibson after a bender,” added Fox Business host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery.
Writer Bill Hanstock mused that Dorsey looked “exactly like the original lead singer of one of your favorite punk bands who left after one album and an EP and then got sober and six years later started a different, ‘folk-inspired’ punk band.” Alexis Novak compared him to someone Tom Cruise might face off against in the latest Mission: Impossible film.
The tweets are creative and funny and also a bit cruel. But let’s remember that Dorsey runs a company that can now influence the future of humanity in monumental ways. Surely, a man who Forbes lists as having a net worth of $6.2 billion can withstand a little light ribbing. And on top of that, mocking the powerful is not only a bit of fun, it’s a time-honored practice that has the potential to create actual, sociopolitical change.
In a 2016 article called “The Necessity of Political Vulgarity,” writer Amber A’Lee Frost took a stand for snark and obscenity, highlighting the rich tradition of mocking the powerful as a political tool. Frost explains that anti-monarchy pamphlets called libelles became enough of a threat to power in pre-revolutionary France that they were banned outright.
“One lesson of the French Revolution, then, is that rudeness can be extremely politically useful,” wrote Frost. “There are arguments to be made over who constitutes a valid target, but when crude obscenity is directed at figures of power, their prestige can be tarnished, even in the eyes of the most reverent of subjects. Caricature is designed to exaggerate, and therefore make more noticeable, people’s central defining qualities, and can thus be illuminating even at its most indelicate.”
Memes can be frivolous, absolutely. It’s unlikely that anybody’s opinion of Dorsey or President Trump or Elon Musk or any other member of the wealthy ruling class will be swayed by a joke about them being out of touch. But that doesn’t mean they should be off limits. In fact, their pettiness is, in a sense, actually an argument in favor of using them more liberally.
Easily repeatable, reproducible bits of information like memes take many forms and can have an effect on how we see the world, an issue, or a person — both good and bad. Ask someone what Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” means, exactly, and you’re bound to leave the situation feeling more confused than informed. It’s vague, but it’s easy to remember, repeat, and, most importantly, project your own feelings onto. There’s a moment from early in Trump’s run for president where the power of “Make America Great Again” as a meme was perfectly encapsulated. An August 2015 Time article quoted a Trump supporter:
“‘We know his goal is to make America great again,’ a woman said. ‘It’s on his hat. And we see it every time it’s on TV. Everything that he’s doing, there’s no doubt why he’s doing it: it’s to make America great again.”
Meme warfare, a term coined by Andrew Boyd in 2002, is real, and it’s an important component of any great marketing or public relations campaign — even if not referred to in those specific terms. The way we absorb information, especially if we’re hit repeatedly with the same messages, isn’t really a conscious action. It’s why we remember commercial jingles and why catchphrases like “Crooked Hillary,” “Failing New York Times,” and every other insult Trump repeats ad nauseam are actually really effective. It’s why the joke “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” has people Googling to check whether the Texas senator is, in fact, the infamous murderer, despite it being obviously untrue. It’s why people use a photo of war criminal Slobodan Praljak drinking poison after being sentenced to prison at The Hague to melodramatically depict “FML” moments.
The internet and its memes may have broken our brains, but there’s something cathartic about tweeting things like “Jack Dorsey looks like a villain in one of the shittier Marvel movies” or “Jack Dorsey looks like he’s testifying on behalf of the Magician’s Alliance.” Right or wrong, plenty of Twitter’s users view Dorsey as a feckless, spineless suit unwilling to address even the most basic problems plaguing his platform. Abuse runs rampant and white nationalists use it to organize, but Dorsey seems either unwilling or uninterested in tackling these challenges. If he doesn’t care about his users, what do they really owe him in return? It’s unlikely that the billionaire knows any of us exist, let alone cares enough to proactively address our many serious concerns. Making jokes about him won’t do much aside from cementing his legacy as ugh, this fuckin’ guy (and maybe even nudge him in the direction of enforcing the rules of his own site), but there’s no harm in having a few laughs at his expense. In 2018, laughter is important.