I’m weathering the pandemic at my parents’ house. From where I spend my days, on an armchair in the sitting room, I can hear my dad working in his office. It’s not as silent as you might expect. The peace is punctuated, increasingly these days, by very loud videos – which he has learned are called “memes” – that he watches again and again, finding them funnier with every revisit.
The virus that has been nicknamed the “boomer remover” has also awoken the generation of baby boomers, those born after the Second World War, to meme culture. The older people in my life seem, as one, to have gone meme-mad. Everything is forwarded on WhatsApp or Messenger, and no videos or pictures that are sent to me come with an explanation or an endorsement beyond the crying-laughing emoji. It is assumed that I will devour whatever bleak little sketch I am served, because that is what boomers do when they are sent something.
In a way, the fact that older people are embracing memes is no bad thing. Stuff is pretty weird right now. The more jokes we can tell one another the better. Certainly, it’s nice to hear my mother laughing at errant goats, rather than seeing her fret about Covid-19 testing capacity.
There’s also something endearing about the way boomers are embracing memes, with an innocence and wonder that makes me nostalgic. “I can’t believe how funny this is,” my mum will tell me, wiping her eyes as she watches, again, some kid doing a pratfall or a cat leaping at the sight of a cucumber.
Of course, boomers have been scoping out this internet thing for a while. They love Facebook. They love a good email and a forum. But until fairly recently, friends and family members of mine who are 50-plus have seldom felt the impetus to send me “content”. A 29-year-old tells me that she and her siblings have had to put a moratorium on coronavirus jokes on the family chat, to stem the tide of lolz coming at them hourly from their parents.
Is there a quintessential boomer meme? There are certainly evergreen themes. Lots of the videos I’ve noticed doing the rounds revolve around domestic strife. Particularly, the joke that husbands hate their wives. I’ve been forwarded a few times now the video of an American guy who is asked by a friend where he would like to spend his quarantine. Option A, the friend explains off-camera, is at home with his wife. And option B is… But before the friend can finish his sentence, the man yells “option B, option B”. Geddit? He’d rather be anywhere than holed up with his wife.
Jokes about alcohol are another boomer crowd-pleaser. “Quick question,” asks one viral tweet about the stresses of home-schooling. “How are teachers not alcoholics? #sendhelp”. Other photo-based memes ask the eternal question, “What time is wine o’clock?” And there seem to be endless videos that show someone pouring themselves a modest glass of wine, until the perspective shifts and you realise the glass is the size of a barrel. Ha, ha.
One of the mysteries of the meme pandemic – and it’s hard to plumb given the black box that is WhatsApp – is where these memes come from. I ask an expert: my mother. Does she spend her time combing the internet for content? “No,” she says, appalled. She has “about four dealers” who send her stuff that makes her laugh. She then passes her favourite memes on. She also has a group of friends she calls “the Coven” who supply with her good videos. What I admire is her commitment – she will wade through an entire minute of a video, no matter how boring. She has faith. Whereas if I’m not hooked within 20 seconds, I jump ship.
It’s good to see boomers finally realising the fun that can be had online. But their etiquette has some way to go. My little sister, a Gen-Zer umbilically linked to her phone, wouldn’t dream of watching a video at maximum volume while everyone is watching TV together. My parents might, though they’re unfailingly polite the rest of the time.
The meme explosion also seems to have lowered standards of propriety. My godfather – not a creep – seems to relish sending me videos that involve some poor bloke having his trousers pulled down as a prank. I don’t know how to tell him I’m tired of seeing strangers’ penises.
With things as febrile as they are right now, it’s perhaps to be expected that norms have yet to be established. My grandpa died last week, and it was really sad, but he was old and he didn’t die of coronavirus, thank goodness. Within hours of it happening, my mum was back on the meme wagon. She stopped crying for a few minutes and watched videos that her mysterious meme-dealers had sent her, laughing helplessly and forwarding them dutifully on. I was grateful that something, no matter how eerily anodyne or formulaic, was cheering her up.
Leaf Arbuthnot is a freelance journalist and a novelist