‘American Meme’: So Maybe Social Media Culture Can Be Shallow, Crude and Silly. Is That a Bad Thing?

If you’re worried that our social media-obsessed culture has plunged us into a world of empty, meaningless, brain-rotting babble, The American Meme will provide all the convincing you need.

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If you’re in the glass-half-full school and think social media just increases the size of a cultural room we already lived in, The American Meme makes that case, too.

Either way, The American Meme — which debuts Friday on Netflix — is essential watching for anyone who wants the full if not always pretty picture of contemporary cultural media.

Memes, to oversimplify a little, are quick-hit videos, images or messages that millions of mostly younger viewers watch constantly, sometimes to the point of obsession, on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

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While anyone can post memes, a handful of posters have made it a career and writer/director/producer Bert Marcus focuses on four: Paris Hilton, the hotel heiress who has been selling her life for years; Josh Ostrovsky, who goes for shocking and outrageous images under names that include “The Fat Jew”; Kirill Bichutsky, who among other things hosts drunken orgies and films them; and Brittany Furlan, who specializes in snarky remarks on pop culture and young adult life.

Those capsule descriptions don’t do full justice to the content that has enabled each of these four to build social media empires with hundreds of thousands of followers.

Hilton talks about how she really loves her million-plus followers and in some ways feels closer to them than to her family. She loves that they pour their hearts out when they write to her, talking about all the troubles in their lives and how following the pain in Paris’s life has helped them to cope and feel less along.

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Marcus films Paris talking about all this as she walks through her world of luxury, designer dog tucked under her arm. She remarks at one point that if there’s no further life after you die, “That would be really boring.” Hmmm.

Josh and Kirill revel in crudity and sloppy excess. Kirill sometimes relies on old frat moves like having drunken girls take off their tops and get squirted with chocolate syrup. Sometimes he guzzles an entire bottle of alcohol, with someone filming its effect on him.

Brittany has the documentary’s most complete story arc. Partway through the filming she meets Tommy Lee, the rock drummer who was once married to Pamela Anderson and Heather Locklear. He’s 56, she’s 30. She says it’s “my first true love.” They get married.

And even beyond that, they make this super-cool video where he deals very tenderly with some material from Brittany’s nose. We won’t ruin the scene with any further spoilers.

Marcus spends some time on the larger world of social media and memes, where much of the quest is simply finding something more outrageous than everyone else has done. A door stunt breaks someone’s nose. A young fellow eats laundry detergent. Dude!

If it gets clicks, it’s a winner, because every day millions of phone owners troll the Internet in search of moments when they can text their friends, “Hey, did U see . . . . ?”

Marcus doesn’t wade too deeply into the economics of it all. Monetizing clicks is still a work in progress, on the Internet in general, and The American Meme notes repeatedly that in this corner of the social media world, longevity is not the norm. The meme game is “what have you done for me in the last five minutes.”

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Ostrovsky says that’s why he’s expanded into the wine business, hoping it has a longer shelf life than the gags he has to spend every day thinking up.

One of the larger questions here, of course, is whether any of this has what used to quaintly be called redeeming social value.

Social media, and traditional media like television for that matter, are cluttered with people who are famous for being famous. They do pretty much nothing. They let other people watch a curated portion of their lives, including some parts that have traditionally been considered private, and that gives them enough recognition that they can then market themselves. Not anything they do, just themselves.

Social media stars like Bichutsky and Furlan, arguably, do create something outside themselves. Some of it is social satire or commentary. Some of it aims to be nothing more than outrageous, a loud shout of “Hey, look at me!”

Bichutsky argues that crude, outrageous and stupid is the real essence of human nature, and that he’s liberating his subjects and followers from society’s stifling repression.

The argument also surfaces here, implicitly, that all of us are engaged by something — which suggests that finding inspiration in the life of Paris Hilton isn’t necessarily less legitimate for some people than finding inspiration in the life of Mother Teresa.

Whatever works, y’know?

The American Meme does not judge its subjects. It wonders aloud what they can ultimately do with their creations, but right now, it suggests, they’re quintessential successful American capitalists. They’ve found a demand and they’re supplying product to meet it.

If they’re also exhibitionists, so what? To most of their followers, presumably, it’s harmless fun, a way to liven up the day.

Following memes, even dumb memes, doesn’t preclude those followers from also someday becoming contributing members of a healthy community, raising thoughtful kids of their own, working at food banks, or finding ways to alleviate water pollution. It just means that is not how, at the moment, they’re spending some portion of their time.

We’ve declared young people to be lost generations before, and most of those generations have outperformed that ominous prediction. It only gets sad if The American Meme generation does not.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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