What happened?

Karen” is a pejorative term for a person claiming the right to ask for and demand more than would be considered appropriate or necessary in the situation according to societal standards. It’s the stereotype of a white middle-aged woman who displays aggressive behavior whenever she doesn’t get her way and adopts a very exacting attitude in these situations (e.g. “I want to speak to your manager!”). During the corona crisis, the term is mostly applied to women who refuse to abide by social distancing rules (with the signature demand of getting a haircut). Then there are “Kyles”: angry teenagers riled up from drinking large quantities of energy drink and gaming a lot, but not really getting anywhere in the real world.

What does this mean?

Karen was born on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and particularly Reddit, making her an internet meme and part of online culture. An internet meme is an information pattern that rapidly spreads among a large group of users through the internet, often as a normative witticism. By replicating and building on other memes through creative reproduction (“liking”, reposting and sharing a meme online), using the “power of repetition” and intertextuality (i.e. a generic meme can be applied as a pattern, to different situations, persons, objects, etc.), internet memes are used to quickly spread the underlying message to large groups of people. As the gene is the unit of evolution in biology, the internet meme is the unit of the digital cultural evolution. And memes have long stopped being a niche of online culture, they’re now even an integral part of campaign strategies.

What’s next?

In his research, Joseph Burgo shows that shame is an important socio-psychological determinant of individual and collective human behavior and thinking. However, this works best when concrete behaviors and acts are concerned. The risk of internet memes representing an archetype, such as Karen, is that they are probably not productive in the normative sanctioning of positive behavior. On the contrary, memes can lead to polarization when they generalize or even stigmatize. And considering their viral nature, the most popular memes are likely to be the most extremely stereotypical, leading to further polarization. This means that memes can also contribute to a regressive cultural development on the internet and social media, which is risky, given the fragility of the current cultural balance in our post-corona societies.