Love him, loathe him or laugh scathingly at him, there can be no denying that when Elon Musk speaks — or tweets, usually — the world pays attention. And so in March, when the world’s richest man tweeted a meme showing a character waving a Ukraine flag with the slogan “I SUPPORT THE CURRENT THING” encircling him, it duly went viral.
The meme, whose featured protagonist is an “NPC” — a term from the gaming world that stands for non-player character and is used as a slur to mean someone who doesn’t think for themselves — was embraced enthusiastically by Musk’s fellow crypto-loving tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen. He has tweeted about “The Current Thing” over 100 times.
It has also been heavily pontificated over by a host of tech-focused bloggers and Substack writers. Like Andreessen, this group seems to believe the meme provides a useful framing of a phenomenon we should be concerned about.
In some senses, the meme is just a new way to make a charge that’s been levied against “social justice warriors” for a while now: that of slacktivism. This is the practice of signalling your support for the moral cause du jour by, for instance, adding a flag emoji or hashtag to your Twitter bio, while doing nothing to help that cause in the real world. The implicit criticism is that this is ultimately hollow, providing the virtue signaller with social credit, but ultimately achieving little.
So could we say that The Current Thing, then, is just the current thing for those on the right?
In some ways, yes. The meme is now seeping out of social media and Substack into broader rightwing discourse. Last week, far-right news outlet Breitbart promoted one of its articles — about how the organisers of Dublin’s Pride Festival had added the Ukraine colours to the “ever-evolving rainbow flag” for this year’s parade — by putting “THE CURRENT THING” at the start of a tweet. It is surely only a matter of time before Fox News does a segment.
But there’s more to it than that, which helps explain why the meme has captured the imagination. It speaks to not only how shallow allegiance to the moral cause of the moment can be, but also how transitory; how quickly we are able to move from one thing to the next, forgetting The Previous Thing we were apparently so passionate about.
Part of this is simply what social scientists call “salience bias” — that is, we focus on what’s put in front of us or what is most noteworthy, and tend to forget about the rest.
“Salience is really a zero-sum game for people,” Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, tells me. “When you ask people what are the most important issues facing the country . . . if one issue takes off in importance, the proportion [of people] flagging other issues drops. We can only worry about so much at one time.” We can also only squeeze so many emojis and hashtags into 50-character Twitter display names.
But the incentives of the attention economy are also what make us flit more quickly from one idea to the next. A 2019 study showed the amount of time ideas trend for has fallen steeply, and that this decline was accelerating — in terms of social media hashtags, but also when it comes to phrases used in books, web searches and even how long films are popular for. We seem to be suffering from a sort of en-masse attention deficit, where we are always outraged about something but we might not remember what it was the next day.
So what, if anything, should be done about this? We shouldn’t, surely, dismiss ideas or causes simply because they happen to be The Current Thing — sometimes it is right to switch our collective focus to something new.
But the problem with Current Thing-ism is that new issues, by their very nature, have not yet stood the test of time. In the internet age, individuals and institutions are incentivised to put out their “take” on something as quickly as possible, to ensure maximum clicks. Once that view is out there, it becomes awkward to change.
This means that positions on topical issues are staked out long before they have been subjected to scrutiny, counterargument and empirical analysis, and often before all the facts have even come to light.
In a distracted digital world, in which attention is the only finite resource, we need to learn to slow down enough to be able to think critically and independently, and to reward, rather than shame, those who change their minds.
Contrarians, meanwhile, should be careful not to unthinkingly oppose whatever The Current Thing may be. After all, doing that makes you just as much of an NPC as the person you are shouting into your screens at.