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What if You Followed the Facebook Hearings Through Just the Memes?

Mark Zuckerberg.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

How young we were a few years ago, during Jon Stewart’s reign on The Daily Show, when we wrung our hands over young people getting their news from Comedy Central. Now the idea that a young person would do something as old-fashioned as tune into a TV show at an appointed time is positively comical, and the new thing to worry about is this: What if the kids are getting their news through memes? As in, instead of reading or watching the news, they might be settling for the hazy impression that emerges from whatever funny pictures happen to whiz by as they’re scrolling their feeds, and uh-oh, shouldn’t we all be extremely shook by this?

This thought experiment took up residence in my brain courtesy of a tweet from technology writer and researcher Ingrid Burrington, who posted on Wednesday, after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finished answering questions about his company on Capitol Hill, that one of her students told her he or she hadn’t watched the hearings … but had seen the resulting memes.

Immediately, my task was clear: I must attempt to understand what these hearings would have seemed like if processed only through memes. Would I be able to form a nuanced impression of how they had gone and what this meant for democracy writ large/me specifically? Would my understanding be good enough that I could contact my representatives and urge further action on their parts? Or would my takeaway from the whole thing be something trivial, like that some people have a fixation on Zuckerberg’s eyeballs?

One thing standing in my way was that I did watch the Facebook hearings. It’s true that at times I got bored by the House.gov livestream and started watching music videos in other tabs, but I am pretty much up-to-date on the whole Cambridge Analytica scandal and what took place in Washington—but in the case of this week’s hearings, I more or less stayed away from the silly stuff on Twitter. Luckily for me, there exists a whole cottage industry (in which I am sometimes a bit player) where people on the internet aggregate how “the internet” is said to have processed a particular happening, and sure enough, outlets both esteemed (Time, the Washington Post, Cnet) and slightly less so (Hello Giggles, Thrillist, Nerdist, Someecards) compiled the supposedly funniest memes and best internet reactions to come out of the Zuckerberg hearings for my sifting pleasure.

After reviewing their coverage, I am saddened to report a state of general confusion about what even constitutes a “meme” anymore. Despite headlines promising the best memes of the Facebook hearings, there were precious few memes as I would have defined them to be found in these pieces, and much more in the way of funny tweets. There is certainly a relationship between memes and funny tweets, particularly viral ones, but are they just full-on synonyms now? Perhaps this is not a distinction that matters at all to young people, who after all only consume news in between vape hits? Maybe to them, tweets is memes is news? Anyway, I have reviewed the “memes” (note: they were mostly not actually memes), and this is what I learned about how the hearings went down:

• Mark Zuckerberg pulled lots of faces.

• This Zuckerberg, he’s a bit of a robot. He even reminds people of a Star Trek character.
He tried to act human, but his robotic and alien ways shone through.

• Zuckerberg’s hair looked a little funny.

• There was once a movie about this same guy, and it was called The Social Network.

• Mark Zuckerberg sat on a platform to look taller.

• Senators and congressional representatives are old and don’t understand Facebook.

• A bunch of photographers swarmed Mark Zuckerberg to take photos at one point, and it was one of those extremely on-the-nose moments.

• Perhaps the real winner all along was Tom from Myspace. Or the Winklevoss twins. Anyone but Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg.

• Zuckerberg thinks “this is fine,” but it’s not fine.

If the above “memes” (again, not memes) were all you saw, you certainly would’ve understood at least how some corners of Twitter discussed the hearings—but you obviously would’ve missed the full picture. As confusing as it might be to try to follow the Cambridge Analytica story through internet funnies, I’ve got some bad news for you: It’s also an incredibly confusing story to try to follow through traditional news. You could read every mainstream story about the scandal and still not have a firm opinion on why this matters or what ought to happen next.

Because of its connections to Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, and the Donald Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica is tied up with another of our current moment’s most complicated and ever-developing stories, the Mueller investigation. (It’s like they’re both part of an Extended Trump Presidency Universe horror series.) And there’s simply too much news coming out every day for anyone to follow it all—or maybe it’s just that social media and an increasingly connected world conspire to make us feel like we should be able to consume and understand it all in ways that we never felt previously obligated. One way to explain all the memes and Twitter jokes might simply be that there’s so much news that we need new ways to understand and organize it in our heads. It’s unlikely anyone out there is processing the news solely through memes, but in a moment when there’s just so much news, viral nuggets are a shortcut; they provide a useful summary of what news is out there, and a way for our overloaded brains to break down which stories are worthy of our time and attention. At a moment when we’ve all just scrolled through 100 stories, maybe we’re using memes to help us clarify which stories have reached a point of significance at which we actually need to pay attention—that is, when we graduate from “I keep hearing these words, Cambridge Analytica” to “OK, time to find out what Cambridge Analytica is.” If it’s important enough to be mocked, maybe it’s important enough to take the time to understand.

So there’s (probably) no reason to fret over statements like “I didn’t watch the hearings, but I saw the memes.” It’s good that memes of Mark Zuckerberg answering questions about Cambridge Analytica on Capitol Hill are taking up enough of some kid’s mental real estate that he understands they are part of an important story. When people stop meme-ing the Cambridge Analytica story is when we ought to start worrying.

Heather Schwedel is a Slate staff writer.