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Monday, June 6, 2022

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Mirror in the shape of a speech bubble on a red background (Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty)

Meta Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

Perhaps no morpheme has been more crucial to understanding the current cultural moment than meta. I first remember hearing it in high school, an echo across the East River from Brooklyn during the Obama-era hipster boom. On a basic level, meta meant recursive or self-referential—like a warning sign warning you about warning signs or a coffee-table book about coffee tables. But in the 2010s, it also came to signify coolness. To be meta was to flex your self-awareness for social currency, to demonstrate proficiency in the language of smirky dissociative irony that was the trendy cultural refuge from the massive information shitstorm (think: “Thrift Shop” and Deadpool). The word became ever more ingrained in the national consciousness until, in what felt like a culmination of its journey, the primary social-media company responsible for stirring up said shitstorm announced that it was rebranding itself with the word.

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