Which Capitalization of the Self Am I?: An Exploration of Identity Through Memes

Meme by Sam Narcisco

Instagram was on the verge of becoming obsolete during this period of global pandemic where the narrative of our lives has ceased. We can no longer rely on posting photos with friends or on trips to our favorite public places. There is nothing left to post except what is already in our homes. When our identity is so tied to who we are online, how do we define ourselves without that? In addition, a large portion of people, including myself, are unemployed. I am accustomed to only finding value in myself if I am producing labor. As I would say most millennials do. We also value each other, comparing our stages of success and anything that proves we are worthy of living if we are able to provide a useful and interesting skill.

So what does it mean that a stranger on the internet is telling me which stock images with word art I am?

About a month ago, a meme began popping up on Instagram, telling us all which stock image of a frog or dog or prepared food we are. Where and how this trend started is beyond me, but I cannot stop thinking about the implications of redefining my personal brand based on stock images of everyday items, animals, and concepts. Now, it’s interesting that this trend began on Instagram, an app famously used for cultivating our own personal brand. This is the platform where influencers thrive and we all try our best to convince ourselves and other people that we are happy.

In her essay “The I in Internet” from the book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino addresses this idea of capitalizing on the self via social media. She writes: “Capitalism has no land left to cultivate but the self.” In a pre-pandemic world, capitalism has a field day with Instagram, where brands literally hire people with social capital to sell us their lifestyle. Influencers are encouraging us every day to desire what they have, but those products are often related to our beauty. But we can’t see anyone! Whatever shall we do without the over-valuing of external Western beauty standards!

We compare ourselves to objects, foods, tv characters, and cute little baby animals.

“The everyday madness perpetuated by the internet is the madness of this architecture, which positions personal identity as the center of the universe. Through social media, many people have quickly come to view all new information as a sort of direct commentary on who they are,” says Queen Jia. Personally, I think she would tell me that if a stranger sees me as a stock photo of a small screaming cat, I can now tell everyone that I am a small screaming cat. How much cuter and quirkier would that be than having to admit to the amount of very scary mental health crises I have had since March? My personal brand is no longer attributed to the disaster that I am, I can put the blame on someone else who chose my identity at random!

I have noticed that we have also been using these memes to bond with other people, sharing them to our Instagram stories and waiting for one of our followers to react and start a conversation. They send a laugh emoji, or they respond with a message that says “that’s so you!” And they are right, that is so me. I am more interesting than ever with a myriad of low resolution boxes with word art to choose from, as I am being handed a form of entertainment that entirely defines my selfhood, as a treat.

And ultimately these memes are a treat. Whatever caused this trend to come about is most likely linked to sadness and despair, but I am able to admit that it brought me a sense of joy and comfort, and it was one that I didn’t feel guilty about. I am 26 years old, of course I am looking to find who I am and what I want, I would be doing that regardless of the circumstances. Memes themselves began as a Dadaist expression of absurdist humor in a generation filled with consistent crisis. They have not disappeared for a reason, they have only evolved into what they need them to be within a cultural context. Right now I need to be told who I am; my brain is working too hard to comprehend mass death under the ruling of an administration that is destructive and scary. My mental health is having a field day without the usual comfort of my support system and I am in extreme states of panic unlike I ever have before.

I’m finding things I love in these memes: frogs, little baby kitties, Nick Miller, Harry Styles, and even architectural landmarks at my college. I screenshot them and show my friends and I also send them the meme with their name on it. We have a quick laugh, reminisce on the things that make us happy, and breath for just a second before returning to the capitalist hellscape we have not been prepared to survive.