In Conversation with Anunaya Rajhans
Anunaya Rajhans is a Critical Writing Preceptor at the Young India Fellowship. He teaches Critical Writing through his course on Internet Culture and Memes. His course surveys the online as the primary space where culture happens and he believes that this participatory nature of the web is also imperative to sustaining a critical writing classroom community.
Office of PR & Communications15 January, 2021 | 20 min read
Anunaya Rajhans is a Critical Writing Preceptor at the Young India Fellowship. The Critical Writing Programme at Young India Fellowship helps Fellows engage with a world of ideas and enables them to develop and express their own thoughts and experiences in a well-reasoned, lucid, and engaging manner.
He teaches Critical Writing through his course on Internet Culture and Memes. In this interview he shared with us his first encounter with the hyperlinked world of the internet and what Internet Culture comprises of.
What is internet culture and how did you get introduced to internet culture?
Internet culture is slightly different from culture as it exists on the internet. Think of the prevailing culture in this current YIF batch and try to imagine how that’d be different from the cultural undercurrent in other batches which were on-campus. It’s not better or worse, but different. Every internet community has its own cultural underpinnings and its own way of interacting. Cultures, whether online or IRL have their artefacts and Memes can be understood as the cultural artefacts of cyberculture.
The first time that I came around internet culture was the first time that I found the internet. I was in 6th grade and a friend of mine took me to the cyber cafe to introduce me to this cool thing called the internet. It was a dial-up connection and we had to pay Rs. 10 for 1 hour of browsing.
We saw a bunch of things such as rudimentary online gaming and virtual chat rooms where one could talk to complete strangers on the basis of common interests. Growing up in a small town in Bihar, it was a massive moment of connection to the world. I was hooked. From there on it was a spiral, the internet can be termed as a hyperlink culture, so you never stay in one place. Everything is interconnected through hyperlinks and that’s the design logic of the internet. So it was a very organic introduction to internet culture for me.
When did memes become a part of internet culture?
Internet Memes came around much later, the first kind were what we today retrospectively call Rage Comics: crudely drawn Microsoft paint type figures such as ‘Herp and Derp’. Microsoft Paint has played a foundational role in the emergence of internet memes as we know them today, if there was no MS paint then we would have no internet memes. From there, of course, the big meme generating platform early in the day and till 2011 was Reddit. It was the cool place to hang out, it used to call itself the front page of the internet. Reddit Communities were extremely inclusive and diverse.
How and when did the internet and memes become mainstream?
Initially, internet culture was not mainstream, it was in fact built on a rejection of the mainstream.
I was on Reddit too and it took up a lot of my time. If you were on there you pretty much gave up on your life. Internet people were not cool as is the case right now and there was no cultural currency associated with being on the internet. It was for outcasts, people who did not have an actual social life or prospects in life. So,’ losers’ was a term that it associated with itself and sort of revelled in the idea that society did not need us and vice versa.
From there onwards more and more people got cheap internet connections through smartphones. In the early smartphones, even 2G was good enough for people to access some of these websites and I remember browsing on the internet with images disabled because images would take up a lot of time. So often it was a text-only browsing experience but the internet started becoming more mainstream.
Memes also from there went to more public platforms such as 9Gag. 9Gag was the next big thing because it was easy to navigate and because it stole content from everywhere. So 9Gag is only for ‘normies’ that know nothing about the internet culture which is important because as more and more people joined the internet the bottom tier of the pyramid was full of newbies or ‘normies’ who were trying to get a sense of this culture. 9 Gag, in my opinion, is what made memes mainstream along with Imgur: a hosting platform for Reddit. I also became part of this meme culture between 2009 and 2016. At the time I was spending at least 14 hours a day on the screen.
Today, everyone is contributing to internet culture and memes are of all different shapes and sizes but the logic of participation and the rules of this were written by these early settlers, who were mostly white teenagers and so on with access to decent internet connections before anyone else.
What were or are these fundamental laws of the internet that were created by white men?
A lot of what we see today- what you would call the toxic culture of the internet, the obsessiveness of it and the concerns regarding people’s anonymity against the now well-established practices such trolling, doxxing, threatening etc. we have inherited from early internet culture. ‘Know your meme’ is a historical archive of internet culture. There’s a page on it called the ‘Rules of the Internet’ written by teenagers some 12-13 years back on a website called 4chan. These aren’t real rules but the point is you can see the influence it has had on culture today. For e.g rule no. 3, ‘We are anonymous’ shows the power of anonymity, which people on the internet use to their advantage. The hachtivist group called Anonymous, responsible for things like WikiLeaks, was also born on 4chan so it is a reference to both those things. Rule no.11, ‘all your carefully picked arguments can easily be ignored’, even today you’ll see people writing two-paragraph responses to offensive posts but they don’t count for much. These are all references to in-jokes and the early internet culture built around them. Yet, the influence they have on our experience of browsing the internet today is unmistakably stark.
We hear a lot about the harmful repercussions of the internet, such as loss of control, so how do you place yourself when you say that you like it today than what it was earlier?
You see back in the day it was very monotonous. Today at least we know what is wrong with it and we have the means to have these conversations. Ignorance is bliss so the internet of the past was blissful because it was self-contained and ignorant. It did not have the means to bring about any sort of change in the larger world outside. That’s the difference. Before you could choose to participate or choose not to. Today you can’t. This conversation right now is proof of that. We can’t say let’s not be on the internet at all because everything said and done, it is a deeply fascinating and enriching space to be in. Hate it or not, it’s part of our lives and therefore the need to take it more seriously and engage with its current forms instead of having some sort of nostalgic tinted glasses about the rosy past. That’s not sustainable. The only way forward is forward.
How are you teaching critical writing through Internet memes?
Though this course is Critical Writing, it has three parts – critical reading, thinking and writing. Three interrelated processes, of which the most important is critical thinking because this is what all of us need going forward. But since we can’t teach people how to think, writing is the arena where critical thinking skills are imparted. However, we still need something to read and write about. This is where the themes of this course come in. I teach critical thinking through the thematic backdrop of critical writing of Internet Culture And Memes. The tools we learn here can be applied not only to Internet culture but also to other areas. So basically, the tools of critical thinking are the key takeaways of this course.
There are a lot of memes on the internet – some funny, some maybe not and some problematic. So how do you draw the line on meme humour and how do you navigate through that?
First of all, I am nobody to draw the line. Perhaps I can only draw the line for myself. Secondly, I feel the problem with us is that we find ourselves extremely incapable of talking to people on the other side. It’s very much an us vs them world we live in. The problem is there is no middle ground anymore, and therefore there is an urgent need to find this and disagree meaningfully. So this is something that I also do in class- I bring in a problematic piece of content to which people reply saying it is problematic. I then further prod them to tell me what is problematic about this. And they might say something like the content is sexist. But I ask them to think further and tell me what is sexist about this and why saying x or y is sexist. And you see, that’s how actual critical thinking happens. Talking about problematic things is perhaps one of the best ways to solve them. Otherwise, we have fallen into this trap of using easy terminology which allows us to pass judgement while standing on the wayside.
The internet is such a vast space, how are you covering this in your course?
I am not covering all of the internet, because it will be an extremely ridiculous thing to even try. What I am doing is showing people the internal architecture, logic and design of how the internet operates. There are tonnes of content on the internet, but there are few things we know for sure – everything will never go viral, something will always go viral and what goes viral today will be irrelevant in a week’s time. So individual memes never matter, because either they are seen by very few people or if they do go viral they are quickly forgotten. But memes as a whole will always stay relevant. And this allows you to zoom out of specific phenomena to the larger picture. This approach is what guides this course.
Anunaya Rajhans has been teaching Critical Writing at the YIF since 2017. He has a background in English Literature but both his research and teaching are primarily concerned with Internet culture and humour, primarily memes and memetic communities. His course surveys the online as the primary space where culture happens and he believes that this participatory nature of the web is also imperative to sustaining a critical writing classroom community. Over the years, he has realised that the classroom and the internet are the only places where he truly belongs.
Additionally, he teaches writing at the Plaksha Tech Leaders Fellowship, works as a non-fiction editor and contributor for Pendora, a lit-pop magazine, and has designed writing workshops for school and college students at various institutions such as IIMC, ISPP, Flame University and Ashoka Young Scholars Programme. Over the past two years, he has supervised a project for UNESCO and Bournemouth University, which is designed to study how rape is reported in Indian news media.