From time to time in this space, I like to put on my lab coat (very slimming), take a pipette, suck up a tiny little sample of the Internet’s bustling semiotic biome, and squeeze it under some glass for inspection. There’s a whole world going on in every drop. It’s really something.
But as with all little things, the fascinating microtecture of the Internet can get lost in the stream of greater concerns and whirpools of mass confusion. It’s been years, for instance, since I first marveled at the canon of tiny plays that were premiering via Tweet.
In plain terms they were just tweets structured as severely short (and often absurd) dialogues between Barack Obama and Joe Biden, or Kermit and his dark side, or God and his exhausted staff of angels.
But in the context of a steadily darkening Twitter’s cesspool of content, these “tweet-compliant microplays” struck me as “instances of concision, introspection, and good humor that are growing rarer by the refresh.” I’m not this annoying in person, I promise.
In any case, they gave me a touch of hope — which the realm of memes tends to do just at the moment I want to log off forever. And the latest life-preserver to float down the stream is a direct relation to the Twitter microplay. It centers around a protagonist that truly counts as a hero of our time: No one.
Here’s an example of how they usually go:
literally no one:
me: are you mad at me?
Absolutely no one:
Me: Ratatouille is actually a really dark movie. Remy’s dad literally shows him DEAD RATS because he wanted to move out and be a chef. That’d be like your dad showing you dead bodies because you wanted to go to college out of state
Look around Twitter, and you’ll see this invisible, disinterested “no one” dispatched to preface everything from astrological flare-ups to general critiques of white people stuff to expressions of hometown pride to addressing the severity of potholes. (There’s also a whole subspecies of “no one” memes that imagine JK Rowling expounding upon various highly sexual revelations concerning characters in her Harry Potter novels, but I’ve never touched the stuff — and I can’t find one clean enough to bring over.)
What follows the “no one” setup can really be anything: a comment, a GIF, a video, a retweet. But reliably, what follows is information that “literally,” “absolutely,” or “absolutely literally” nobody asked for. It’s “Who asked you?” 2.0.
But the mechanics of the meme warrant further inspection.
It would be easy to mistake “no one” for a digital millennial offspring of that sassy, slangy, “Friends”-era sentence-ender, “. . . said no one ever!” — itself a descendant of the “NOT!” famously deployed to negate statements in “Wayne’s World.” But “no one:” is a bit more nuanced.
The “no one” prompt creates something quite rare on Twitter: a silence. It’s a momentary caesura of nothingness, no comment, no text. It’s vulnerable, defenseless, empty, and innocent — a reflecting pool.
So of course, like everything else on the Internet, disruption is its raison d’etre. Read enough “no one” memes, and you’ll soon come to understand the predictable setup of frail silence tempting the crush of unsolicited Internet discourse delivering the same satisfying comedic stomp as the classic 1969 short film “Bambi Meets Godzilla.”
But the deeper functionality of the meme is something even rarer on the Internet than silence, and more refined than self-consciousness: Self-awareness. The Internet, after all, draws its very life force from the renewable resource of wholly volunteered input, unasked-for opinions, and unprompted feedback. (We call it “social media.”)
Try applying “no one” to one of your own social media posts (e.g.: “no one: ______ / me: ‘You know what? I’m gay and do not care for Christina Aguilera. There, I said it.’ ”), and it feels like a revelatory self-own. Could this be Twittersphere slowly realizing that no one has ever asked for what we offer it each day? Could this meme signal the first step of a long overdue acknowledgment of the unpaid labor we all do to keep the Internet looking so busy? Can “no one” make us more aware of the forced performance of life online?
But for a brief period there in the lab, “no one” seemed a meme that was harnessing the current moment in an uncanny way — which is to say, “no one” was making a lot of sense.