The Poetry of Digital Life

For a brief utopian moment, memes seemed a way to make poetry that was less elitist and more communal

To call something “poetry” is both an elevating and democratizing gesture. Poetry is at once a refined language art for a small, elite audience, and a common mode of expression accessible to anyone who shares the human experience. Poetry’s origin in the universal act of song suggests its rhythms never stray too far from the heart, its beat and its passions.

Memes may seem to have little to do with song, but these too can be poetry, expressing the “dream of a common language,” as Adrienne Rich put it. The democratizing nature of digital poetry is rooted in traditions as old as poetry itself, which has always drawn from the vernacular. The development of new media forms brings forth new forms of vernacular expression, and new modes of poetry along with them.

Through these adaptations of common usage, these new modes can express the immediacy and presence that some early media theorists limited to so-called oral cultures. For instance, the poetry of rapid print — telegraphy, typewriters, mimeographs — allowed an explosion of modernist poetry that foregrounded the beauty of the spoken word, conveying complex transmissions of the voice in a new, typographical way. The meme poetry of the digital age — often in the form of macros that superimpose text on a familiar image — allows for something different but equally common, drawing on the rapid circulation of digital images to convey the collective nature of meaning-making, associating thoughts and feelings with images. The ocean is a woman, all weapons are phallic, and cigarettes are still cool.

Image macros weren’t created self-consciously as poetry. The form first appeared in the memes of the early internet, from Something Awful to 4chan to Reddit. Often they were based on familiar and readily understandable images: photos made viral through news media exposure, celebrities and brands, stock photos, and selfies. When image macros circulate widely online as memes, augmented with new words and sometimes re-edited, they accrue unexpected, spontaneous, collective meanings. They become poetry — poetry for the web.

In some macros, words articulate a speaking voice and the image shapes the utterance

In digital circulation, an image ceases to be a title to an extant object, or a document of a particular event, but becomes an icon, a symbol, an evocation. Images begin to function like language. Any language has a stock of tropes, poetic figures, and common expressions. Regardless of where they originated, what is important is that they are commonly available. All macros are made under the assumption that they are themselves available to be taken and reused. We do the same in conversation: echoing and emulating one another in the process of sharing ideas. Image macros do with images what we already do with words: use them and shape them through circulation.

Memes are our quintessential contemporary poetry because they tap into the essence of what poetry does in any medium, seizing upon the possibilities and juxtapositions of being page and text simultaneously to permit a range of poetic expression. An image macro is filled with elements in tension with one another, a question unanswered, taut like the head of a drum. Words strike the image like a bolt of lightning and produce a burst of meaning. One must interpret who speaks the words from what possible standpoints, and navigate the ambiguity of the words’ relation to the image. Are they directly referential? Are they sincere or ironic, or both at once?

In some macros, words articulate a speaking voice and the image shapes the utterance. In some, the text blurs into the background; in others it is laid on top. Depending on the work, the image can set the tone and stand back, or it can approximate traditional figurative language in its own right. Images become imagery. Some have multiple active layers, with which the words tentatively dance. Others set the words in direct, cutting contrast with a simple image. The fonts also resonate ambiguously, and the provenance of the image is in play too, working in similar ways to a word’s etymology: A wildly kitschy stock-photo collage in comic sans with blaring primary colors can be comic or melancholic; a lush photo with delicately thin sans serif font can be romantic or brutal, flat or snarky.

Stock photos are particularly well suited to poetic image macros because of their uncanniness. On first glance, they often seem like failures: simultaneously too bland and too weird, they seem fit for nothing but the lowest-rent ad campaigns. Yet that tension between their familiarity and their artificiality makes them amenable to a range of poetic effects. They are general enough to apply anywhere, lending a sense of durability that balances the fleetingness of individual memes.

At the other end of the spectrum from stock photography is the selfie. Where found images are treated as a common resource for meme making, selfies appear irreducibly personal. But as a conventional form of visual communication, selfies are universal at the same time that they are intimately particular. In image macro poetry, they are the instances in which the poet chooses to say “I,” to use a lyric voice. In an unpublished talk, scholar Samantha Shorey pointed out that selfies express the personal without being restricted to the person in the picture. This visual lyricality adheres to anything taken with one’s own camera: a meal, a bedroom, the sky. With all of these, we are aware that they are taken by someone, and we put ourselves there, in the first-person voice. The intimacy and particularity of any personal image is a conduit to shared understanding. Where stock photos hover at a distance, as alien as tarot-deck illustrations, selfies invite us to feel alongside the creator.

The accessibility of using image macros complements the leveling process associated with digital social media in general. Anyone with any digital tool can participate. I was fortunate to become webmaster of Internet Poetry, a Tumblr started by Steve Roggenbuck, a widely heralded “internet bard” whose innovations inspired many to embrace the internet’s potential for disseminating distinctly digital forms of poetry. People who never considered themselves poets submitted work to the Tumblr and found themselves reimagining themselves as creative. Where the written works called poetry seemed increasingly removed from how we sense and describe things, the image macros we created either personally or communally seemed to be a language closer to how we actually experienced the world.

The site grew and garnered more attention, but more important than popularizing the form, it served various communities online right when such creative solidarity was needed. It confirmed my core belief that regardless of our training or background, we are all poetic beings, forever turning the resources of our experiences into meaning.

Just as image macros derive meaning from the tension between word and image, so they also straddle the line between personal and collective experience, between popular and elite forms. Memes, like our Twitter rants and our selfie angles, are a spontaneous communal association of meaning with a form. These shapes are collectively molded. They speak to the collective experience of our transition into a life suffused with digitality, where so much of how we conduct and understand ourselves is augmented by digital technology. Image macros in all their forms are a window into how we negotiate this transition, as well as a window into the uniqueness of this historical moment.

It would be a mistake to understand the emergence of social media culture apart from other manifestations of social change. In my own experience, the years 2011 and 2012 were when internet culture stopped being the province of the tech-savvy and became popular culture. In these same years, a wave of insurgent energy spread across the globe, manifesting in anti-austerity demonstrations, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement. The spirit of occupation led to collectively engaging any and all social spaces in new ways, including social media.

In those years, at 23, I became a net kid. I fell into Weird Facebook, a sprawling metacommunity at the intersection of personal and professional networks of artists, writers, musicians, DJs, queer and trans youth support communities, and unaffiliated strangers. It was there that I first encountered the image macro as poetry, one among many emerging art forms of collective interaction, including timeline posts, comments made of random found text, users tagging one another in crude nonsensical images, self-published ebooks, ad hoc digital-gallery exhibitions, online poetry readings, and so on. Vaporwave, swag rap, alt lit, intersectional feminism, indie gaming, net art, the maker movement, the accelerationist left, and many other widely divergent subcultures all exploded online in the same years and for the same reason: Social media provided a platform for it. The subcultures tended to offer a delirious utopianism; some rising stars who promised to take everyone with them; and a noisy, fiercely loyal belief in community.

If the following seems like a truism, it is because what was once mind-blowingly novel is now commonplace: Social media is not just a means of making connections but a way of collectively creating culture. Simultaneously solitary and richly social, decentering the body but feeling its emotions and playing with its image, life mediated online is ecstatic, playful, and raucous. Our senses and our language become, as Marshall McLuhan would have it, reconfigured. The streams and feeds of our social universe become more explicitly demarcated, and our language is spun from memes, the presence of viral images and expressions in our immediate and more distant collective memory.

Millennials, as a cohort, have had to negotiate the way their creative potential has been hyperbolically idealized even as the institutions for supporting that potential have been neglected. This generation has known the No Child Left Behind Act, the student loan crisis, LGBT youth homelessness, and the school-to-prison pipeline. It is the generation whose parents co-signed a decade-plus long war on terror, gutted public institutions, and failed to act on climate change.

The visual lyricality of image macros adheres to anything taken with one’s own camera. Where stock photos are as alien as tarot-deck illustrations, selfies invite us to feel alongside the creator

Against this, millennials turned to what seemed like an alternative. Life online is not the cyberpunk carnival imagined by older media theorists, but it figured as a place of imaginative refuge from a precarious “real life” choked of possibility. Though social media culture is now so commonplace as to seem inevitable, it did not emerge merely as an automatic effect of platform shifts. Weird Facebook’s first memes would not exist without the communities created by queer and trans youth, left behind not only by their families but by a corporatized LGBT movement. Likewise, the metacommunity that was once called “Black Twitter” (and has always been too big and diverse to be reduced to such a generalizing name) was a response in part to the way Facebook’s early appeal was coded as white. Precarity pushed people to try to revitalize themselves online, which was seized upon as an entirely new conception of public space. It was actually a reclaiming of space, to root lived experience in new forms of cultural expression. Digital community has served as a survival tactic, a creative act of radical refusal, and a utopian project.

Reforming the social online naturally reverberated through IRL as well. Just as online social networks have reshaped art and poetry, they have also reshaped our relationships and modes of performance. But the precariousness of IRL has also caught up with the digital exodus: Pitchfork aptly named 2015 the year of the “internet hangover.”

The moment in which one leaps into digital life is teeming with possibility, but the solace it provides may quickly begin to crumble, leading to suspicion of digital community in general. In my personal experience, the “alt lit” community, where many of the early image macros were circulated, began as a space of collective reimagining of literature. But soon, it became clear that those very differences of experience that made the community so rich brought out untenable tensions over whose voices were actually being heard. These tensions exploded when over a half dozen prominent voices in the community were outed as abusers almost simultaneously. The righteous outpouring of collective anger, which ultimately ended in the group’s self-destruction, indicated to me that community is not an inherently stable and self-sustaining category. The joy of togetherness fades without collective assurance and care.

Coming together, people find excitement in one another, but the material struggles in their lives, rooted in identity and social inequality, come with them, sowing the seeds of rupture. If people come together on the internet to surpass the material constraints of their IRL life, the very thing they attempted to surpass will eventually come with them. After the joy of coming together, the pain, unequally distributed, still remains. Communities, especially idealized ones created by artists, are always virtual. The things they promise — collective reconstitution of reality, mutual support and care — are based on mechanics without friction, a thermodynamics without entropy, a free market where the invisible hand isn’t the Koch brothers. They lie on the margins of our thought as a necessary ideal, and in our lives only briefly.

If there is a fundamental relationship between poetry and memory, then macros have contributed to this larger thread of who and where we are

But what also remains is the grammar of social interaction created by those initial communities. Given certain tools, how are we to imagine social life? What practices emerge? How does it feel different in one’s body? What are the political stakes? Meme culture, as a key window into how we create poetic meaning as communities, is also a critical means by which we think through our political challenges. It is not an accident that the most engaged poles of millennial politics — the social justice movements on the left and the cultural revanchists of the “alt right” — invest most of their effort into communicating online and often use memes to do it.

The current moment of crisis is likely to bring out further discord. With the collapse of the first communities, we find that the standing of image macros as a self-consciously poetic genre may fade. In its place, meme culture may become more refined and specialized than ever before, with the rise of the political meme group becoming a new means of how we imagine collective life. Image macros as poetry under these conditions tend toward that elite, removed form that we at first feared.

And yet, some are tugging at the edges of this conception. I’m inspired by Rafael Iniguez, who blends the surreal snarky humor and empathetic melancholy of internet culture, and Gangster Popeye, who draws on her affinity for redneck memes to create punchy, hilarious calls for trans liberation. A more intimate following for image macros breeds experimentation: Kubelko Bondy’s transformation of leet speak into psychedelic ruminations, Megan Lent’s use of homespun digital collage and culture aware wisecracks, while Tumblr pages like Super Artilect employ machine learning to randomly generate haunting collages. And, of course, the Aumm group remains Facebook’s biggest, loudest, and most aggressively strange image macro community.

My deepest creative investments are in the macro series and the ebook — a focus of the alt-lit community that subsided after the movement’s death. Can a consciously created longer sequence of macros do something that the ongoing stream of isolated individual works cannot? The image macro emerged alongside a renewed interest in lyric poetry, but longer forms, the epic in particular, can perhaps also have a relevance to the poetry of digital life. Epics are historical, and we can see the entire memeplex as a vast skein of folk poetry commemorating our turn to digitality. If there is a fundamental relationship between poetry and memory, as a commemorative source of alternative windows into our history and our potential as humans, then macros have contributed to this larger vision of who and where we are.

If I have a nostalgia for my own leap into digital life, it is not because 2012 was the end-all of art and expression but because it was a utopian moment, fleeting but leaving a permanent impression of the dream of collective life, in which our creative impulses, at least for a moment,  transcended our divisions. The future is uncertain, precarious. But the poetry remains. And it’s beautiful that we have made something together.

Michael Hessel-Mial is the co-editor, with Penny Goring, of MACRO: an anthology of image macros (Boost House), a collection of image macro poetry published from 2011 and 2015.