Internet memes, or ‘trolls’, have come to embody a thinking commoner’s response to the issues of varying import he or she finds themselves amidst. Memes could be phrases, images, audio or video files that spreads from one person to another online, with the common thread stringing them together being laughter. In Kerala, which has a rich tradition of humour and satire and enough incidents that pack a potential for a good laugh, memes appear on a regular basis in two popular social media platforms - International Chalu Union (ICU), set up in 2011, and Troll Malayalam (TM), set up in 2012.
Memes and Popularity
Many facets that define our times contribute to the popularity and ubiquity of memes, among which the relatively high-speed internet and proliferation of the number of social media users, are the most obvious. Equally important is the maturation of a pop culture that draws heavily on Malayalam films, especially the ones that got released in the late 1980s and 90s. Sarath Menon, the man behind TM, says, “Youngsters of our time have a lot of shared memories which adds spice to our conversations. Troll Malayalam was an attempt to recreate that universe of experience.” This universe Sarath talks about has an eclectic collection of inhabitants - Jagathy’s ‘bomb kadha’ (from the movie Boeing Boeing), Sachin’s master knock against Australia in Sharjah, the advice of Shaktimaan, India’s own Superman, which are often laughable in hindsight and much more.
Another important factor is a vertiginous increase in the comments of politicians and celebrities that borders on the illogical. A spot-on meme serves as a better response to such comments than a strongly-worded essay, much like a powerful cartoon. In fact, the creators of memes duly accede to the cartoonists the mantle of their predecessors. Roshan Thomas, one of the owners of ICU, says, “Memes serve the same function as cartoons. Many of our memes have a humorous take on political and social issues.” If creating a cartoon needed the basic drawing skills, making a meme depends solely on sharp humour, as Photoshop or an online meme creator will take care of the image-making part for you.
Holding One’s Own against Backlash
The creators of memes that make fun or lay bare the vanity of powerful people in society are sure to be the objects of their wrath. Days after TM trolled a leader of a leading political party in Kerala, Sarath says partymen paid him a visit in Qatar, where he was based then, to teach him lessons in online propriety. The members of ICU have also received threats online and over phone. “But nobody has filed a suit against us till now. We are assisted by a team of lawyers and try to stay clear of legal pitfalls,” says Roshan.
In view of the possible backlash their memes could trigger, ICU goes through a fastidious screening process before they publish their content online. “We have a closed FB group of contributors,” Roshan says. “The members post the memes they create and the ones which are popular within the group are published online. Some of the posts evoke widely varied responses and the group of administrators (numbered at one hundred) takes a final call on what gets published.” He adds they ensure their posts are within the limits of political correctness. Posts with misogynistic or homophobic content would never make the cut.
TM has a dedicated team of three who monitor the posts in their closed group, but the final call on the appropriateness of the posts are made by Sarath himself. “Earlier, it was mostly my thoughts and beliefs that got represented, as I launched TM as a personal space,” he says. “But, nowadays, I consider the popular reaction to each issue when I take the decision.” But both Roshan and Sarath vow that their pages are not about politics or beliefs, but about one thing only - good humour.
Internet memes take on a critical importance at a time when doctored photographs get thrown in the political ring as authentic artifacts. May be the answer to a photoshopped image is another photoshopped one.