The idea of ingesting a Tide Pod used to be a little bit funny.
For example, when The New York Daily News printed a comment from Senator Chuck Schumer under a rudely ageist headline in September 2012. He had recently been informed that 40 children in New York City had eaten Tide Pods and received medical attention for eating Tide Pods in the preceding five months. And he said, mostly unprovoked, “I saw one on my staffer’s desk and I wanted to eat it.” It’s good in print and it’s better out loud. “I saw one on my staffer’s desk and I wanted to eat it.”
Very funny! Especially if you’re familiar with and entertained by Chuck Schumer’s general countenance and mannerisms, which — as a regular attendee of the Labor Day parade in Crown Heights, where it is so cheap and easy to become drunk in the sun — I am. Haha, Chuck. I know you were talking about a serious problem, so I’m sorry for being glib, but at the same time, why on earth did you say that? Makes me laugh.
Know Your Meme has a comprehensive history of how this whole thing got started, but in short, the Tide Pod meme evolved out of the pretty common “eating things you shouldn’t” subgenre, which also includes bleach-drinking memes and forbidden snack memes. “Forbidden snacks” are particularly popular on Tumblr, where people joke about eating Dungeons and Dragons dice, Himalayan salt lamps, bath bombs, pencil grips, and Nintendo DS styluses. The joke is simple: looks delicious, but I shouldn’t eat it, but think about how absurd and bad it would be if I did. Layered in there, maybe there’s something being said about how we’ve spent the last 75 years training ourselves to consider things with unnatural colors, flavors, and textures “food.” Some guy did try to get Gushers to make a Tide Pod-inspired Gusher. What’s the difference? But more likely the joke is just what it seems: nonsense. A way to pass the time.
Some of these are funny, mildly. Not more funny than some random tweet I read this morning but definitely not less funny than Salt Bae. You know, get your kicks where you can? But bop forward six years and Time is running the headline “Chuck Schumer Totally Predicted the Tide Pod Phenomenon Way Back in 2012.” I stopped laughing. Shut up! Totally shut up!
How did this happen? Who is this for? Who is laughing? Is anyone?
The inclination (now shared between the blogsophere and traditional media) to turn every single joke or online event into a topic of conversation for days or months at a time, cannonballing head-first from a 30-foot diving board into a four-inch-deep puddle of substance, is making me want to die. There is simply not enough there, for the Tide Pod meme to have taken up so much space in the conversation.
How did this happen? Who is this for? Who is laughing? Is anyone?
I am loath to do this, but I have to quote the essay that is perhaps the definition of the prescient essay — David Foster Wallace’s long, long one about America’s relationship to television. This was published in 1993, before the social web was really a concept, and certainly before it would make sense for a restaurant in Wichita, Kansa to serve meme-inspired donuts. Before “how many levels of irony are you on?” would become a frequent question among the kids posting things they believe in and things they don’t with the exact same level of outwardly-facing sincerity and seriousness.
“Irony tyrannizes us,” he wrote. “The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is a variation on a sort of existential poker-face. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I say.’”
The Tide Pod meme, which originated with people who were almost definitely not eating Tide Pods, was misread and re-presented so many times that some teens actually did end up eating Tide Pods. It became a joke about how idiots on the internet will do anything, a joke about how offline adults will panic about everything. Tide Pods were remixed with online anime culture, furry culture, and “general mocking of all ‘normies’ culture.” It became a joke about all jokes. Did any one contribution really have any clear intention behind it? Did anyone have any idea whether they meant what they were saying? To inquire would only get you mocked further, spun into the joke.
“Today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How very banal to ask what I mean.’”
I guess we’ve been doing this since at least 1993?
It’s a nightmare. Kids getting sick from poison? Sad, not funny. Bloggers trying to get in on the joke? So embarrassing. Thirteen-minute YouTube explainers? I can’t tell you how many times this year I have Googled “How to put your eyelid back on if you accidentally pull it off.” Adults acting all concerned about kids dying from ingesting laundry detergent? I mean, sure, but at the risk of being crass — it’s not that many kids and there are way bigger things for you to worry about if you’re in charge of someone else’s well-being. Like cars!
The Tide Pod craze is an example of the internet machine operating exactly as we have built it to. I’m sure you are familiar, but it goes like this: Meme becomes somewhat popular on Twitter or Reddit or a body-builder forum; bloggers talk about the meme because it is their job; national morning shows try to understand the meme because they’ve been told to start treating the internet like a real thing; local businesses participate in the meme because maybe they’ll be on TV for doing so; nightly news programs drive irrational panic about the meme because this is the purpose of the nightly news; bloggers are obligated to comment further, with needlessly detailed explanation, because now the posts will get oodles of search traffic; the subculture from which the meme originally sprung splits into two factions: people willing to debase themselves by making lowest common denominator versions of the joke that will spread quickly and keep them in the spotlight, and people who will double down on encrypting the meme with in-jokes and croissant-intricate layers of irony and sarcasm that make it indecipherable to an outside world that will, nevertheless, attempt to decipher it. All the while, everyone is getting angrier and more boring.
The Tide Pod craze is an example of the internet machine operating exactly as we have built it to
Who in this assembly line is having any fun? Now you have Tide Pod cookies on Instagram and Tide Pod Jell-O shots at the local pub. Now you can’t buy laundry detergent without Wal-Mart’s special “opening the Tide Pod case” guy hovering at your elbow, asking you about your day. (Not that it’s any better to be him. I can’t even imagine the number of times he’s had to smile at some doofus who says, “I swear I’m not going to eat them, haha!”)
Now you have a popular culture founded on something nobody likes. Remember when all the cultural critics were worried about things like “highbrow vs. lowbrow” and “kitsch vs. art”? Bunch of snobs? Now we have to worry about whether everything we look at is something we elevated totally by accident and actively hate. We don’t even have time to debate the notion of “guilty pleasure,” because we no longer find pleasure at all.
Wallace quotes poet and sociologist Lewis Hyde, who wrote back in 1979, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”
You could say that I’m being a grouch, spoiling fun that maybe someone, somewhere is still having. But the fact that grown-ups have become this cripplingly fascinated with and horrified by the idea of the nation’s teens eating Tide Pods also speaks to one of the most alarming facts about life in 2018, which is that we live in a country where the “adults” seem mentally incapable of recognizing the fact that the kids are in fact doing much, much better than they are. Kids are more literate in irony, which is sad for them, but they are also more information literate, more aware of where they are in space at any given point in time online, and more educated than any previous generation about the way ideas spread and how and where they can be trusted.
The reactionary Tide Pod memes that mock this kind of hysteria are again, not funny (!!), probably because the joke is far too obvious to surprise or delight anyone. Also, this has been going on for far too long and I’m tired. The latest evolution of Tide Pods phenomenon is “conservatives on Twitter saying they don’t have to listen to the survivors of a school shooting when they talk about gun control because uh, teens also eat Tide Pods.”
Do you ever scream and scream?
Last week I sent an email to my second cousin, who lives in Costa Rica and helps people re-orient their communities around shared farms. She doesn’t really grasp the plight of a Brooklyn blogger (good for her!), but I complained about essentially everything that’s happened in my life in the last six months and then swore, “I’m going to stop saying ‘The internet is terrible,’ because it’s like — you might as well just breathe quietly to yourself.”
Much like the participants in and observers of the Tide Pod meme, I had no idea how serious I was, and only got around to deciding later: very serious, thank you. I’m over it now! Tide Pods are the last joke, and this is my last word. From now on, I’m just going to breathe quietly to myself.