Although they are not new, ‘daily’ memes are experiencing a resurgence in popularity with the health crisis, particularly on Twitter. How can this phenomenon be explained? What does it say about our relationship with time (in times of pandemic) and humour (at work)?
“Thursday what a concept”, “Captain it’s only Wednesday”, you’ve probably seen them pass by in your Twitter timeline. These bot accounts (or not, for that matter), respectively publish every Thursday and every Wednesday these captions from the Netflix series Russian Doll (a modern retelling of Groundhog Day) and from a Tintin album. The first thing that strikes you is the hype around these accounts, as well as the impressive number of likes and retweets: the public is there every day (get it?).
However, this is not very new. Inherently linked to the world of work, typical and rather hackneyed expressions are found in everyday language. “Thank God it’s Friday”, or “How are you? Like a Monday” are the spearheads.
“This work humour is part of the social cement, the coded language, which allows everyone to find themselves in a known cultural bath, in which they feel good” analyses Fanny Lederlin, author of the book Les Dépossédés de l’Open Space (PUF, 2020) [The Dispossessed of the Open Space, Ed.]. In short, these little phrases ensure the phatic expression of language, in the same way as the age-old “hello, how are you?”, which does not really serve to ask if you are OK, but rather to ensure that the person you are talking to agrees to play the conversation game.
Tele-jokes for teleworking
Does this mean that these memes are a digital version of small talk? Aurore Flipo, author of the article “Après la crise, tous nomades en télétravail?” [After the crisis, all nomads in telework, Ed.] and sociologist at the University of Grenoble Alpes, deciphers for us:
“Humour is part of the interactions that make work a collective and social activity, and as such it seems logical that people who are deprived of it, whether because of essentially solitary work or teleworking, seek to rebuild this collective framework by other means (notably the Internet)”.
Teleworking could explain the proliferation of these memes. Between two lockdowns, in the age of the Zoom meeting, Internet users undoubtedly feel a need to reconnect with a certain form of daily routine and with the time limits of the ‘old world’. The philosopher Fanny Lederlin sees in this a form of “ritualisation of daily life that is missing in teleworking. It is a question of rediscovering a form of connivance with others that we used to have in the workplace”. The regular posting of memes such as “Thursday what a concept”, “Captain it’s only Wednesday” perfectly illustrates this form of ritualisation, this taking into account of routinisation, and its incorporation into our digital practice.
Some Internet users have fun subverting this temporality, by posting the image of “Captain it’s only Wednesday” on a day other than Wednesday, or by evoking the particular temporality linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The intertwining of these two singular temporalities, that of the pandemic and that of telework, gives rise to this singular humour, a quasi-organic fusion of “the standardised humour of the Internet meeting the standardised humour of the office”, as Fanny Lederlin assumes.
The impossible subversion?
In their article “Enjeux sociologiques d’une analyse de l’humour au travail” [“Sociological issues in the analysis of humour at work”, Ed.] published in 2013, the researchers Stéphane Le Lay and Barbara Pentimalli formulate the “required joking” hypothesis. In the professional environment, there is a kind of obligatory humour, a second degree that is necessary for every team:
“The new recruit must first learn not to take offence at teasing, and then practice the art of joking and making colleagues laugh”
It is this obligatory passage through the ‘humour’ checkbox that allows certain situations to be untangled.
Fanny Lederlin distinguishes between two types of humor at work: ‘routine humor’, the famous jokes about the days of the week, and ‘subversive humor’:
“What is subversive is that which passes through one’s body, in interaction with another body, such as the wink or the grimace behind the boss’s back. Things that can no longer happen in video-conferencing. Or at the margin, like a text message between two people”
This rigidity of the conference call, which does not allow for any deviation, or at least less than in a face-to-face setting, restricts employees who nevertheless need these few moments to decompress. David Autissier and Elodie Arnéguy have clearly shown this in their Petit traité de l’humour au travail (Eyrolles, 2012) [A short treatise on humour at work, Ed.]: 71% of those questioned believe that humour in the workplace “helps people to live better on a daily basis” and 52% believe that it helps to “de-dramatise situations”. It is not certain that Internet memes will make up for in-person jokes.
In any case, this is the opinion of Fanny Lederlin:
“Teleworking is a poor experience. It is impossible to have a real laugh from a distance. Laughter is very subversive, very political, when it happens in a company”
For the researcher, this spontaneous laughter, which shakes up the regulated daily routine for a moment, should not be confused with the ‘connivance’ typical of online humour, which does not manage to achieve the same degree of subversion. In short, making fun of the passing of time is not making fun of the boss and capitalism, it is simply acknowledging the fact that we are part of it and that we can do nothing about it.
The little joke on the week, just like the joke of the small week (the meme) takes root in a globalized breeding ground, and resonates with the experiences of millions of people.
Aurore Flipo emphasises “the impact of the collective on work rhythms, such as the weekly rhythm”. In a survey conducted just before the pandemic, with her colleague Nathalie Ortar, she notes:
“Working from home requires a discipline that is often perceived as heavy, especially for self-employed people whose working hours are not limited by those of other employees in their company and who have to work at an intense pace”
The structuring of time at home is experienced as a false freedom, since time constraints still come into play.
The Covid-19 pandemic feels like a never-ending day, and paradoxically we sometimes feel a touch of nostalgia for the capitalist division of labour, as Fanny Lederlin summarises:
“We actually miss Mondays, we want to be at work and say the little ritualistic phrase that goes with it”
The old temporalities stumble on the new world, where nothing is more like a Monday than another Monday, or a Tuesday.
Doesn’t a popular Internet adage proclaim “you don’t hate Mondays, you hate capitalism”? The construction of Monday as the worst day of the week, intrinsically linked to the capitalist subdivision of labor, has become a joke, itself taken over by capitalism 👹
The transformation of the days of the week into memes creates, thanks to the magic of the Internet, a meta-loop of repetitions, just like the identical weeks that follow one another. Moreover, the fact that time passes more quickly in times of pandemic is already a hackneyed fact mocked by Internet users.
This temporality of confinement did not, in the end, move the lines that much. “A Sunday evening is still a Sunday evening, in other words a depressing evening; the aperitif is still taken around 6pm (if I believe the reasons for the curfew introduced at that time); and Friday is still the last day of a working week”, notes Géraldine Mosna-Savoye on France Culture. It is this unchanging change that the laconic memes on the days of the week reveal.
“Congrats sailer, you made it to Friday!”, says Mr. Krabs to the music of Sponge Bob’s main theme.
These words, put in the mouth of the stingy boss’s paragon, are certainly not lacking in irony. Just like this new French ‘daily’ meme, launched at the beginning of March, which uses an extract from the video that Emmanuel Macron posted on Twitter when he had COVID-19 last December.
It is this bittersweet irony that Internet users seek in search of daily memes: the comfort of the eternal return, in times of pandemic.