Why You Should Think Twice About Sharing That Meme


Last week, The Awl posted an article by C. D. Hermelin, also known as the "Roving Typist," a young writer who recently moved to New York City and, upon finding himself with no source of income, decided to bring his $10 typewriter to the park and write post-card size stories on the spot for passersby in exchange for meager donations. His idea was a success and soon Hermelin was writing a story every seven to 10 minutes, receiving so many requests he had to turn people away.

Of course, a guy in skinny jeans wearing black-framed glasses and using a typewriter in a park can’t escape notice for long. Hermelin awoke one morning to a barrage of missed calls, emails, and Facebook posts from friends and family alerting him that a stranger had snapped a photo of him typing away, which appeared on the front page of Reddit. The picture lacked the sign explaining why he was there — to write stories — thus making him look like a slovenly if quirky guy just trying to garner attention.

Hundreds of commentators latched onto the picture and unloaded on him their loathing of what they called the “hipster scum,” with posts criticizing his pale skin and glasses, comments like “I have never wanted to fistfight someone so badly in my entire life” and other remarks so uncouth they’re unrepeatable here. The photo reappeared days later as a meme with the words, “You’re not a real hipster until you’ve taken a typewriter to the park,” accompanied by more hate-comments aimed at Hermelin and the hipster crowd he supposedly represented. The meme was pinned over 30,000 times on Pinterest and shared at least 9,000 times on Facebook.

Hermelin had become another victim of the internet and its vast army of mean-spirited men and women who peruse its bowels. His post on The Awl is neither outraged nor provocative. It’s a well-written, somewhat sensitive clarification that he was not trying to attract attention for attention’s sake, but instead trying to earn some extra cash by doing what he’s good at and enjoys, writing.

His story is telling in several ways. It serves as a reminder that people pictured in these memes are real people and the comments written about them are often out of context.

It's also illustrative of what happens when people are given a means to express their voice, namely the internet, but no accompanying accountability for what they say. Hidden behind the protective cover of our computer screens and social media identities, we humans are apt to reveal a nasty, mean-spirited side of our nature.

There is little we can do to prevent memefication. After all, Hermelin didn’t take or post the picture. He didn't even know about it until after it went viral.

Perhaps taking a lesson from Scumbag Steve's reaction to being memefied is our best response. Upon finding a picture of him turned into a meme with phrases like "Grandpa gets surgery, steals pain meds," he revealed his real identity as a single father, working and going to school, while simultaneously releasing this video embracing his second identity and celebrity status as Scumbag Steve.