Meta-Irony and Gen Z


There’s a notion gaining popularity that meta-irony is the dominant comedic point-of-view of Gen Z. I was resistant to this notion, at first, because I try to remain skeptical of any kind of trends overstatement, especially generational overstatements, but as I’ve sat with the idea, I do find some validity in it.

What is meta-irony?

Meta-irony is irony that happens in an already-ironic space. It is one of two types of irony that require the presence of pre-existing irony. The other is post-irony.

Most of the types of irony that you’re already familiar with are a reaction to reality or truth. Often, they are actually commentary on reality. Sarcasm, for example, is a form of irony in which the words being spoken are the opposite of what is meant, and through that rhetorical feint, the speaker emphasizes a perceived truth.

Post-irony and meta-irony presuppose a state of irony and proceed in one of two directions. Post-irony is a venture toward sincerity from the ironic state, and meta-irony is a retreat into further irony.

For example, suppose you and a loved one share a love of watching terrible movies. The act of watching those movies is an ironic endeavor. One day, you see that one of these terrible movies is playing in a theater, so you purchase tickets as a gift for date night, and in offering that gift, you are moving into a post-ironic phase by acknowledging the sincerity of your love of watching these movies. Alternatively, you might purchase those tickets for a loved one and offer them, jokingly, as a token of your enduring love. By adding a new layer of irony, you have moved into a meta-ironic phase, where it might not even be clear that 1) this is a declaration of love or 2) that you even want to go see the movie. This inability to discern the speaker’s intent – is the consequence of meta-irony and can be, for the speaker, the source of humor.

A reading of a 2015 comic that uses memes to comment on the creation of ironic meme

This meta-ironic state of being has become a standard operating mode for the internet.

Memes, Gifs, and the permanence of irony

Over the past decade, denizens of the internet have gained a powerful new vocabulary based on memes, reaction gifs, and emoji. All of these communication tools are inherently ironic because they repurpose and recontextualize existing images and media. When you see an Arthur meme, Arthur is never being used in the way it was intended by the creator. The meaning has been subverted, so Arthur is always ironic and that is understood. Because use of these symbols has become so commonplace, we have created a permanent stratum of irony in our online communications, and that sets the stage for our communication to err toward post-irony and meta-irony. I don’t think this means that everyone is now an ironist. Irony is just more commonplace in our communication.

Digital Natives – This is where Gen Z comes in

Marketers often refer to Gen Z as digital natives because they are the first generation to grow up in the digital environment as we know it today. It is that lifelong existence in an omnipresent internet that suggests that Gen Z will have grown up in an environment where the baseline discourse is ironic and, consequently, should feel comfortable with meta-ironic discourse and entertainment.

I think the first time it became clear to me that Gen Z had taken ownership of the internet, memes, and meta-irony was Harambe. As I tried to follow why Harambe was happening, it seemed the lionization of the gorilla seemed like a reaction to the black lives matter movement, which had been demanding recognition of people who had been the victim of police violence, and a commentary on keyboard activism. Each new wave of the meme rendered the meme even more absurd, with Gen Z fully ironically engaged with the meme, ultimately obscuring the reality that this had been a traumatic experience for anyone other than Harambe.

Image of Harambe wearing a graduation cap. Text reads "The Picture CNN Don't want you to see"

Gen Z has reached a point in its engagement with memes and meta-irony that penetrating the products of that culture will leave you scrambling to catch up with little hope of actually doing it because these memes are part of their lived cultural experience. Do you understand the references in this video? If so, you might be Gen Z!

warning: language, vulgar imagery

A recent study by Ypulse shows that Gen Z cares about memes as cultural events more than they care about the openings of new movies. As digital natives, this is their culture, and fluency in memes is vital to being able to operate in a meta-ironic environment.

The problem with meta-irony

As I was researching irony, this quote from Alper Erdoğan stood out:

That irony lies on the growing edge of language can also be seen from the linguistic and cultural competence required in making and understanding verbal irony. Note that, an otherwise successful irony may sound as a simple falsity or a pointlessly absurd statement to an incompetent hearer (e.g. a new language learner). Thus a successful interpretation of irony requires on the hearer’s and speaker’s side competence of the language, its grammar, its vocabulary as well as the cultural environment which harbors the language. – Alper Erdoğan, 2010

I think that applies to irony and the internet. Each layer of irony destabilizes one’s ability to understand meaning to a greater degree. When the speaker and the receiver are on the same level of understanding, this slippage is harmless. But when the speaker and the receiver are on different levels, misunderstanding is inevitable and probably even desired. In that sense, the observer can actually be the butt of the joke, which is fundamentally cruel. We’ve seen this in action with the hand-sign for “white power,” being circulated to create the confusion and allow for people to joke about people “falling for” the white power hand sign joke.

And the potential for meta-irony

I feel quite cynical about meta-irony because I believe that we just lived through a Presidency that was the embodiment of meta-irony, but I don’t want to end on a down note!

If there’s potential to be mapped out, it’s that meta-irony will continue to push our online language and creativity in ways we can’t imagine. I mean, we just came off of a year of people using “stonks” in place of “stocks” for the first time. Maybe meta-irony will provide language for ideas and feelings we haven’t yet been able to articulate even as Gen Z makes us olds feel cheugy for using it.

At the very least, I think meta-irony celebrates mastery of the tools of content creation and distribution, which is part and parcel of the democratization of media that people of my generation have championed. Maybe Gen Z’s memetic meta-irony will lead to a wholesale creative revolution that I don’t think the internet has quite delivered yet.

I wrote this blog post because I needed to sort this out for myself. If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to read them in the comments.

Additional Reading/Viewing – I found the following materials to be indispensable when researching this subject.

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Earnest Pettie

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