It may well be possible to find the proverbial thousand words ascribed to each, but photographs can be surprisingly mute when it comes to context. Social sharing over the internet has only aggravated that confusion.

Consider the picture above, popularly known as “Skeptical Third World Child.” The image first surfaced around four months ago on Reddit, a site that could be variously described as a social news site, a social sharing site, or a link aggregator. Probably, though, it’s best described as a viral incubator, since, whatever the intentions of its creators or users, it’s most salient effect seems to be that of accelerating the process of popularizing whatever happens to climb to its front page.

Skeptical Third World Child” quickly climbed to the top of the pics community, but life on the submission queue at Reddit tends to be rather nasty, brutish and short. As consolation, there’s a sort of afterlife reserved for links that exhibit the proper virtues. The elect are mostly images, since they’re structurally exempt from the safeguards the site imposes against resubmissions, and the primary qualification for sainthood is personality. Given a sufficiently distinct, easily recognizable caricature of personality, an image can be transformed by a sort of apotheosis into a “meme.”

Macro Machines

That term can be a bit misleading. “Meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins back in the 1970s as a unit of cultural replication presumably comparable to the gene. The idea was that it might be possible to understand cultural evolution by tracing small variations in repetition over multiple generations. Dawkins’ favorite illustration is the child’s game Telephone, in which a string of participants repeat a whispered message ear-to-ear. By the time the message reaches the last participant, homophony and a series of minor misunderstandings along the way will have transformed it into an altogether different message. A few philosophers and social theorists have taken Dawkins suggestion seriously, though attempts to turn memetics into a practical social science have shown mostly middling results.

In the meantime, the term meme itself has been reshaped. Popular use of the word usually refers specifically to one particular strain of meme: the image macro. A digital image is made into a template with space (usually at the top and bottom) for the addition of bold font text. The image serves as a kind of visual anchor, providing a background of personality, emotion, situation for the text to play against.

Image macros have become the internet equivalent of the knock-knock joke, the sort of comedy that anyone can perform. In part, that’s due to sites like Quickmeme and Memebase, that provide tools for adding and formatting your own text to an image macro. Even that is only marginally easier than creating an image macro with a simple graphics editor like MS Paint.

When successful, the image underlying a macro becomes a subgenre unto itself, which is exactly what has happened with “Skeptical Third World Child.” The eponymous child can now be seen to strike a skeptical pose in response to any number of dubious propositions. One instance shows the child saying,

So you’re gonna give me new shoes
as long as I let you put a Jesus in my heart?

That’s the general pattern of his lovable skepticism: questioning the strings attached to much of the charitable work through which so many of us see developing nations. As such, he becomes a foil for our own self-righteousness, an acknowledgment that our altruism often contains a leavening of self-interest, ego, or even ignorance. At its best, “Skeptical Third World Child” can be the clever satire that keeps us honest.

The difficulty arises from the fact that most image macros are built by stripping away context. That, in fact, is virtually a criterion for their success. There are only limited opportunities available to any macro that relies heavily on the viewer’s familiarity with what the moment the image actually captures, which may be part of the reason “Skeptical Third World Child” took more than one try to catch on. It was originally posted by the photographer, but quickly reposted by another user who gave it its name. That second advocate was important not least of all because of the interpretive spin their title added.

“Skeptical Third World Child” works, then, in part because so many people are able to peg it to a very general circumstance. For the vast majority of them, the child has no name, no fixed nationality, no particular circumstance apart from being the reluctant recipient of foreign aid. The picture may well say a thousand words, but for most of us the only one that isn’t banal is the child’s apparent skepticism.

Which may not be skepticism at all. It could be that the boy was merely bashful. Once that possibility is suggested, it’s possible to see it more clearly in the picture itself, especially in the self-conscious position of his hands. “We were in a market in Gulu, Uganda,” Neha Satyanarayana told Reddit’s IAMA community, ”which is where we stumbled upon this kid.” After getting permission from his parents to take a picture, she and a friend tried to coax the boy into smiling. “When the kid made that face in response to her smile pleas,” Satyanarayana wrote, “it was too priceless not to snap the photo.”

There wasn’t much of a meme to be made of Bashful Third World Child. Skeptical Third World Child, however, is a viral hit.

Ruining the Punchline

Inasmuch as it serves as a criterion for memetic success, that transformation is practically a structural feature of most image macros that you’re likely to see. As a consequence, they cast off obfuscations like so many sparks.

The above example, “…a Jesus in my heart,” recasts the scene in exploitative evangelical terms, but the picture was actually taken by volunteers with the University of Oklahoma’s Student Global Health Alliance, a secular organization that sends volunteers from the school’s Health Sciences Center to clinics in developing nations. When I asked Satyanarayana, she told me, “A number of students who went on the trip do not have a religious affiliation and probably would have been uncomfortable if there had been a religious focus to the trip.” The trip had been planned in coordination with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Ugandan nun, but SGHA leaves the evangelism to other charitable organizations.

On the whole, that’s a pretty innocuous confusion. It’s unlikely that anyone will mistake the SGHA for an evangelical charity on the basis of that macro. But there’s also “Third World Kid on Hurricane Sandy” to illustrate the greater hazards of the macro form. Therein, our hero skeptically inquires,

You’re telling me you buy water
because it’s going to rain too much?

It’s a notable entrant into the “Skeptical Third World Child” lexicon, not solely because it is, to date, the highest scoring version of the macro to have hit Reddit, but also because a better understanding of the context of the picture renders it virtually nonsensical.

It is one of the paradoxes of affluence that education is sometimes required to acquaint otherwise intelligent adults with the complexities on which seemingly basic elements of our survival depend. There’s a beguiling simplicity to the equation that you shouldn’t need to buy water when it’s simply falling from the sky. That may account for the macro’s popularity, but it’s still a false equivalence. According to the African Development Bank Group, around 40% of Africans south of the Sahara lack access to potable water. Reports from the country’s own Ministry of Water and Environment show that in Uganda around 65% of the population had routine access to safe water as of three years ago, with significantly lower rates in some districts.

As such, it’s a bit odd to suppose that a third world child, skeptical or otherwise, would make the facile equation between rainfall and safe drinking water. That’s an even greater stretch when you generalize from Uganda or Africa to developing countries worldwide. Hurricane victims in Haiti, for example, are no doubt well aware that more rain can actually mean less drinking water. For that matter, you need not even be from a developing country to see the disjunction. That North Americans are facing a similar difficulty in the wake of one of the worst storms to strike this continent in generations is not, on its own, a particularly promising basis for internet lulz.

To salvage “you buy water”—that is, to make it funny again—it becomes necessary to forcibly rewrite its context in your own mind. This isn’t Skeptical Third World Child; it’s his brother, Facetious. His expression says not that it’s ridiculous to buy water, but that only someone who doesn’t have to struggle daily to find potable water would offer that up as a novelty. The subtext is, you’re not so different from me; you just think you are.

If that requires taking quite a few liberties with the genre, that’s only to be expected. The process of stripping away the original context of an image and replacing it with something far more generic is part and parcel of image macro humor. It isn’t a side effect of the form, but rather its very structure. It isn’t so much that it becomes possible to say something false about the image, as that it grows more difficult to say things that aren’t platitudinously false.

It may be that the best we can do to recover our hold on the truth is to go back and try to discover the original context. “What drew us to that child was the fact that he wasn’t in school,” Satyanarayana told me. “We were startled by the fact that he was playing in the middle of the market while his mother ran a nearby stall, trying to earn a living selling what appeared to be homegrown food items.” This was just down the street from one of the clinics where the students were volunteering, St. Monica’s in Gulu. “I know only that his mother was working in a booth in the market, struggling to make a living. They appeared to have very meager resources.”

But if the boy was shy about having his picture taken, he was less so in other ways. “He ran up and grabbed my water bottle,” she told me. “I guess he was thirsty.”

Images: Neha Satyanarayana

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.