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“Storm Area 51”: How Memes Become Incomprehensible

Updated: Oct 28, 2019

By Bridget Griffin

People in costume dance during a DJ set at Alienstock in Rachel, Nevada. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

It’s September 20th 2019, and 150 people are at the gates of Area 51, a facility in Nevada owned by the United States Air Force, protesting against alien imprisonment. The location has been at the heart of alien conspiracy theories for decades now. However, this event is different. It started as an internet meme: a Facebook event called "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All Of Us." 

“It was obviously a joke,” says Dawson student Maddie Slater about the event, “they were just doing it for the meme.” 

The FBI, on the other hand, took the joke seriously, contacting event creator Matty Roberts a month before the event to ensure that he wasn’t actually going to storm the facility. 

The difference between these two reactions to the Area 51 raid is an example of how memes can cause miscommunications, especially between different generations.

“I have [shown memes to my parents] before, and they usually don’t understand them,” says Slater, “They don’t understand why I find it funny, because a lot of the time it’s a more complex level of memes.” 

“This complexity of memes depends upon prior knowledge in order to be understood,” explains Dawson student Devyn Sherry. “We have this network of understanding,” he says, “all to do with jokes and how they relate to each other.” 

This understanding can also be built on a smaller scale, memes circulating within specific in-groups. “You can send a very basic meme in a basic format that would be very accessible to everybody,” says Sherry, “but if you have an in-group of friends that have very specific memes, they're always gonna hit harder than if you have something more general.” 

Making assumptions about your audience’s prior knowledge is nothing new, according to comedian Dylan Griffin, who performed with his group The Organ Grinders in the 90’s.  “If you pay attention to stand-ups and listen to what they’re doing, a lot of the time there’s a whole set of knowledge that they assume their audience knows about,” he says, “But it’s always been like that, whatever the dominant culture of the day is. When you want to identify with the crowd, there’s gonna be some common points of reference.” 

Even though this core principle of comedy remains the same, the rise of the internet in recent years has changed a lot. “The hardest thing about the internet is realizing you’re not original,” says Griffin, “you’ll think you came up with something, and then find something that’s almost exactly like it online.” 

However, memes can thrive off of that lack of originality. “A part of the comedy [of a meme] comes in different contexts you can use it in,” says Sherry, “Adding a recurring meme to something that is relevant for it to be in is pretty funny.” 

According to Slater, this is how memes become incomprehensible to outsiders. “Once a meme is popular enough, that’s when it becomes completely obscure,” she says, “You just need the picture at that point, you don’t need any context or explanation.” But for those who don’t understand the language of meme culture, this can lead to misunderstandings. Case in point: the Area 51 raid.  

“I respect that people went,” says Slater about the raid, “The fact that they didn’t actually storm it is a meme in of itself. People will say that they wouldn’t have been able to anyway, the aliens are on the bottom floor.” 

Slater fears the day she’ll feel that miscommunication with the younger generation. “I’d like to think that for now, I’m up to date on the memes, but there will be a point in time when I don’t get it,” she says, “I don’t want that day to come. It’s a little scary.”


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