The large boat caught within the Suez Canal, Oprah waving off Meghan and Harry along with her “Stop it” arms, all of the Teletubbies boinking each other blue because the solar child watches approvingly, a photograph bashing trans athletes shared by Donald Trump Jr. These memes are unified not solely in encapsulating the lunacy of 2021, however within the 4 phrases which have constantly appeared beside them and numerous others, in captions in addition to feedback: “The web stays undefeated.”
Surely you’ve seen these phrases, however perhaps you haven’t learn them. (Congratulations in your sanity.) An apolitical, amoral stand-in equally for lol, fuck you, and thanks, used for each schadenfreude and firgun, “The web stays undefeated” is the web of phrases in regards to the web, current in all places and nowhere, that means every little thing and nothing. A seemingly benign expression—till you say it again.
The web stays undefeated. The web stays undefeated. The web stays undefeated.
The extra I encounter these phrases, the extra they pierce me with mortal dread. It’s not simply the rotten onion of their ambiguity: When did the web’s successful streak start? What, or who, is it undefeated towards? Ourselves, perhaps. But then why are so many people so jubilant about reminding ourselves that we’ve defeated ourselves? And what would, may, ought to defeating the web appear like? But my disdain for the saying can be due to its underlying sentiment. The true terror of “The web stays undefeated” is that it’s most frequently utilized in lighthearted contexts, but exposes the deepest darkness of our lives on-line, a darkness that we’ve turn out to be both blind to or numb to.
Searches on the time period “undefeated web” counsel that the oldest extant utilization of the ghastly phrase may belong to Timothy Hall (@peoplescrtic), a movie critic and meme lord from Seattle. On the morning of August 12, 2013, he posted on Instagram a meme of a scowling Russell Westbrook, the mercurial NBA dynamo, photoshopped into a personality choice display from the arcade basic Mortal Kombat, with the caption “The web stays undefeated.” It’s a textbook utilization, the sort Hall says he’s been deploying on social media and in group chats within the years since. To him, the saying epitomizes the web because the world’s nice equalizer. “You might be POTUS,” he says, “otherwise you is usually a soccer mother yelling at a recreation, not understanding you’re being filmed. Everyone is honest recreation to turn out to be a meme. Maybe it’s POTUS who makes you right into a meme, or perhaps it’s my 14-year-old nephew. You might not realize it’s your day, you simply should journey the wave and let the web defeat you till it’s another person’s flip.”
But Hall can’t take credit score for coining the phrase; he says he should’ve picked it up from somebody on the web alongside the best way. “If somebody ever claimed to have invented it,” he provides, “the web would defeat them. That’s the fantastic thing about it.”
To a wide-ranging group of social media customers like Hall, “The web stays undefeated” is, on its face, a easy expression of pleasure, or nostalgia for a extra joyous period of the web. Ryan Milner, a professor of web tradition on the College of Charleston and creator of The World Made Meme, says the phrase harkens again to a time, between roughly 2003 and 2013, when the web was “nonetheless type of this different place that didn’t function by and will perhaps transcend real-world guidelines.” This was the heyday of early YouTube and message boards like Something Awful, 4chan, and Reddit, “once you noticed a flurry of subcultural exercise and content material creation that turned type of a tone setter for people who find themselves nonetheless extraordinarily on-line.” So in 2021, folks remark “The web stays undefeated” to a flourishing of memes about Bernie Sanders and his mittens or the discord between your fall plans and the Delta variant, as a result of it recollects when life on-line appeared much less about livestreamed mass murders and the algorithmically pushed demise of democracy and extra about rickrolling and lolcats. At the floor degree, says Milner, the phrase “is a option to type of recognize when the early spirit of collective creativity on-line resurfaces.”
People additionally use the phrase, Milner provides, as a manner of “reacting to the randomness of what they encounter on-line.” Every piece of content material “is made by an actual individual on the different finish of the tubes. But we simply see the humorous image. So as an alternative of claiming ‘Tim from Madison, Wisconsin, stays undefeated,’ we are likely to collapse every little thing from everybody as being from ‘the web,’ as if it’s this singular mystical being.” In that sense, the saying is a collectivist antivenom to unhinged individualism on-line.
But exuberant and egalitarian because the expression might seem, its undertones are a lot darker. For one factor, “The web stays undefeated” can be a symptom of what Milner and fellow web tradition scholar Whitney Phillips name fetishistic flattening. This is the tendency for web customers to fixate on a meme or tweet itself, and never think about how or why it was created, the backstory of who or what’s being depicted and shared, or who could also be harmed within the course of. (The “Hide your children, conceal your spouse” music, which belittles the person within the authentic clip, and deepfaked drunk Nancy Pelosi are all commonplace examples of fetishization.) In this manner, “The web stays undefeated” glorifies the removing of context, nuance, and thought. “Undefeated” specifically additionally captures how on social media, context is subsumed by combativeness. Beneath the floor, says Milner, the phrase is commonly “antagonistic and barbed,” and of “an environment the place how humorous you might be about what you produce and say, and the way many individuals reply it doesn’t matter what you say, is seen as a contest.”
Of course, context removing and ruthless competitiveness are embedded in dozens of different fashionable memes and replies to memes: Distracted Boyfriend, Galaxy Brain, Swole Doge vs. Meek Doge, so and so “awoke and selected violence.” But whereas these all have a good time the defeat of a single frequent enemy or concept lampooned within the meme itself, what makes “The web stays undefeated” so deflating is that it celebrates our personal collective defeat of ourselves. The web’s unspoken, vanquished opponent is us, the customers who each devour and are the butts of the memes that phrase is commonly a response to. But deep down all of us perceive that we are additionally the web, as those who populate it, generate its content material, and created it within the first place. As Jeffrey Bloechl, a philosophy professor and phenomenologist at Boston College, instructed me, any issues that seem on the web “might be traced again to issues we human beings both did or didn’t do after we made the factor.” After all, he provides, people designed the web to be boundless. “If the web, strictly as web, is essentially mathematical, it can’t itself be the supply of any limits.” By that logic, “there isn’t a manner not to wonder if in unleashing an influence that’s undefeated,” one that may transcend the boundaries of our personal our bodies and minds, we’ve additionally unleashed “an influence to vary what we’re,” an influence to defeat the human situation.
That is the horrifying economic system of Those Four Words: There isn’t any extra haunting a distillation of the unstoppable seepage of know-how into each material of our being than “The web stays undefeated.” These phrases are a obtrusive reminder that the web, of which I’m a component, is defeating me. That within the second I’m studying them, I’m devoting my consideration to not my spouse, toddler daughter, pals, household, colleagues, wind rattling the window pane, or my respiration, however to what faceless strangers are saying about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s pals’ balls, and to what quippy issues I needs to be saying to faceless strangers about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s pals balls. That gif of the Teletubbies having tantric intercourse? It exists solely in my clean, damaged mind, a mind the web broke in order that I feel in the best way the web needs me to assume.
The subtext of “The web stays undefeated” is a vaguely Zen koan: “We stay undefeated towards ourselves.” Yes, it speaks to humanity’s skill to harness the web to beat people with collective humor. But it additionally speaks to how we’ve been harnessed by the web’s energy—an influence we bestowed— and really feel powerless to do something about. Saying these 4 phrases solely appears to perpetuate that unlucky actuality.
But recognizing this may also be a primary step in taking energy again. It’s telling that we regularly use these phrases within the silliest of circumstances—that even after we can all appear to put aside our many polarized variations and are available collectively to snort about somebody hiding a testicle-swelling STD with pretend signs of the Covid vaccine, somebody nonetheless says “The web stays undefeated” as a reminder that we’re continuously fraying our humanity on-line. In that sense, the act of claiming that “the web stays undefeated” is an act of condemning what the saying itself celebrates. A human typed these phrases, phrases that may attune fellow people to simply how very on-line we’re, however may also remind us that we now have a alternative. We can both fall proper again into the unthinking slipstream and let the web stay undefeated, or take our raised consciousness and step away.
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