For community, swipe left on Memeland for a while

Astrid Munn on the separation between screen and (real) space.

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It took many years of actual living to fully understand real life is not like the movies.

In high school, redoing my eyeliner and straightening my hair did not result in jocks suddenly swooning for this basket case. In college, finding an admirer climbing up the side of my building inspired far more terror than delight. In the working world, I was never met with a swell of trumpets as office doors got shut in my face. Instead, I got The Sound of Silence; its heavy rotation limited to the confines of my daydreams.

It took many years of not watching movies and a decade of soapy television antiheroes for me to realize the feature films of my childhood – with their cartoonish, reactionary characters, grand gestures, and melodramatic flourish – are so brusque compared to new TV or the real world because they had to be. After all, they had only so much time and space to get a point across.

Today, the memes that fill my social media feeds sometimes sweep me away like a movie once could, if not more. So much message and emotion get packed into these small, shareable little squares. And just as Little Kid Me could momentarily believe in islands crawling with velociraptors and Christmastime burglars surviving multiple blows to the head, Present Day Me gets similarly lost in the magic of Memeland.

The difference, however, is that instead of craning my neck in a crowded theater and wondering whether sandworms are real, I am very alone as I look down at my hand, asking myself which parts of my friends are real.

There is the part of them that is kind to my face. They hug me, share meals with me, and seem genuinely happy when I RSVP.

But then there is the part that posts extreme memes. Memes suggesting they might abhor me and would prefer to see the likes of me quietly praying to Jesus from the faraway comfort of Mexico.

Which part do I believe? Do they actually like me? Or are social norms the only thing stopping their collective resent from spilling out of the Internet and into the checkout line at Target?

I feel my jaw clench up, so I swipe their memes away. My feed then floods with friends closer to my demo. Their memes are not much better; everyone not feeling the Bern is a racist billionaire that ought to be eaten.

What about our dads, I ask myself, jaw clenching harder now. Our curmudgeony Boomer dads. Within this canon we constructed from retweets, Impact typeface, and a cat scowling at vegetables, it would seem our dads should get the guillotine, too.

I get a knock at the door. As in, the real-life door of my real-life apartment.

“The machines are emptied if you want to do laundry next.”

 “Thanks, Tommy.”

By Memeland measurements, my neighbor Tommy and I are not complete opposites, but between his waking of the sheeple and my quiet upvoting of further research and study into Karens, we definitely occupy different ZIP codes of the Internet.

“Ruby Cheyenne hasn’t been eating much of her kibble lately. I think she’s depressed. Is it alright if she pays Sir Duffs-A-Lot a visit?”

“Of course. Let me straighten up the place and open a new bottle.”

 “Actually, it’s kind of nice out – let’s meet on the veranda.”

 “Okay!”

COVID-19 has turned Tommy and me into veritable astronauts. Each day we live and work alone; some pets and plants our only company. After the workday’s last transmissions, we and our dogs venture out to the veranda, and it becomes a space station of sorts. I’ll lend Tommy a cutting board after his cracks in half, and in return, he’ll share some pickled fungus from that gas station with the Russian goods.

The allure of casual conversation and fur babies draws other spacemen from upstairs and across the courtyard. Mondays might bring the lonesome hotel chef, or maybe the veteran who sings to quell his night terrors. Thursdays promise a hello from the soft-spoken ex-con or the Black kid whose summer plans for Paris got thrown out the window.

No matter the neighbor, we scoot another six feet and sit further back as the conversation inevitably Goes There.

“In Biblical times, people were getting married at 15, so I don’t see the fuss.”

“What does it matter? It’s not like America has any real culture to preserve.”

“America’s only marsupial is the possum, and I had to stab one the other day.”

Any one of these lines, if tossed into Memeland, would be chum for the social media waters. Yet when we Go There in person, there’s no urge to swipe each other away; no threats to doxx. A cock of the eyebrow perhaps, but nobody expects a complete transformation or elimination of the other. Not only is it hard to wish ill upon the people looking out for your Amazon packages, but confronting a provocative opinion face-to-face has more nuance than any interface online. There is simply more there there, a richness that cannot be dismissed, an analog warmth that reminds me that Nobody is Out to Get You.

That can be hard to remember, though, if I spend all day in Memeland.

Astrid Munn is the Child and Family Managing Attorney at Immigrant Legal Center in Omaha. A native of Scottsbluff, Astrid began her career as a journalist before earning her law degree from Washington University in St. Louis. She previously practiced immigration law in the D.C./Baltimore area and personal injury law in Western Nebraska. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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