Over the past week, the Aurora shootings have been everywhere online. From the time the first shots were fired, the tragedy has been reported in up-to-the-minute detail by outlets ranging from the New York Times to Reddit. The 12 victims have been mourned and memorialized on blogs and Facebook, and via hashtags on Twitter. However, while the response has been tremendous, not all of it is what you'd expect.
Memegenerator.net is a website that allows users to create Advice Memes, single-frame image macros that are essentially templated jokes, often based on tropes (the unlucky nerd, the technologically inept, the crazy girlfriend). There are dozens upon dozens of Advice Memes, the majority of which circulate on forums and platforms like 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr.
Over the past week, the site's usual jokes about video games, forum culture, and bodily functions became interspersed with a darker humor: images that poked fun at the Aurora massacre. This trend surfaced across several different memes (Success Kid, Aaand It's Gone, Y U NO, Condescending Wonka), but the tone was the same: irreverent and insensitive, mocking the victims as well as the crime itself. In one Condescending Wonka macro, the anonymous author snarked, "You shot at 71 people and only killed 12? Glad I don't have your gamertag."
In the face of a senseless tragedy like Aurora, such seemingly contemptuous humor is hard to understand: How can people be so glib about something so terrible?
Though we may think of these memes as something birthed to us by the Internet, this genre of humor predates contemporary online culture and stretches back alongside the rise of media that expose us to tragedies to which we have no direct connection. According to folklorist Bill Ellis, "disaster humor" is an important part of a response to tragedy, particularly the type of tragedy that becomes a media spectacle. In the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger disaster, such humor was common, and often verged on brutal: One of the most popular jokes to emerge after that event was, "What was the last thing that went through Christa McAuliffe's mind? The control panel."
A similar situation emerged in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings in 2001, where off-color jokes circulated via email and online messageboards. Those jokes were similarly hard-edged, making light of the grisly details of the attack ("Who are the fastest readers in the world? New Yorkers -- some of them go through 110 stories in 5 seconds"). However, while the Challenger jokes were the usually the subject of guilty laughs behind closed doors, 9/11 took place in an digitally networked world, which meant the jokes were posted publicly, disseminated quickly, and consumed on a much more widespread basis.
The online ecosystem has changed our relationship to major disasters even since 9/11. Sites like Reddit and Twitter have reduced the distance between us and those who have experienced these events firsthand, which is a marked change. As Time's Keith Wagstaff points out, "You can't ask a witness in a newspaper story how he felt during a disaster or offer condolences to someone you see on cable news." With sites like Reddit and Twitter, people can establish their own connections to those who were at an event.
Moreover, people can respond publicly in their own rights. Memorial Facebook pages and hashtags like "RIPJessica" have provided ways for us to express our collective grief: Instead of laying flowers at a disaster site, we litter our feeds with messages of sympathy and commiseration. For many, this public expression of grief and shock is a way to deal with the difficult feelings that arise from horrific events, whether close to home or across an ocean.
However, these public outpourings can come across as inauthentic and that can end up inciting negative responses like those seen on Memegenerator. Dr. Whitney Phillips, who recently wrote her PhD dissertation on internet trolls, discussed with me some of the motivations that may lie behind the disaster-humor memes.
Part of the explanation for these images is what Phillips calls "the troll side of the equation," which is that trolls create these memes "simply to upset people." Phillips said that while some of this is lulz for lulz' sake, a lot of it is a response to what trolls see as "grief tourism," and a push back against (or exploitation of) "overblown emotional responses." One disaster meme to come out of the Aurora tragedy captures this sentiment clearly:
The other, trickier side of the equation, Phillips explained, is that while some of these images might be offensive or upsetting to some, they're created to make a social or political point, and not necessarily to offend. Elliott Oring, who authored a seminal piece on the Challenger jokes, noted that a lot of disaster humor is created in response to the media's exploitation of tragedy. In particular, it is the juxtaposition of repeated images of death and destruction with "manicured official platitudes" that are often sources of frustration and anger for the public.
In the case of the Aurora shootings, "the media" is not just cable news, but also us. Through innumerable social platforms, we are able to not only see cameraphone-snapped pictures of bloody shirts with bulletholes, but also retweet, opine, and rehash the details of the event ad infinitum. This can have a paradoxical effect: while it keeps the tragedy alive in the public's consciousness, it can also have a desensitizing effect, turning horror into humdrum (or at least, upvote fodder). A few of the Aurora memes reflect this frustration, critiquing both the ubiquity of the story, as well as the medium that is used to discuss it.