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a small submarine in the ocean with the words Ocean Gate titan writen on it.
The Titan submersible that imploded in the Atlantic Ocean on June 18, 2023 while attempting to reach the wreck of the Titanic. (OceanGate Expeditions via AP, File)

Too soon? Titan or Titanic, people always make weird jokes about rich people’s tragedies

It has been one year since the Titan submersible imploded en route to the wreck of the Titanic, killing all five people aboard. Yet, despite the Titan’s violent end, another billionaire is gearing up an attempt to reach the Titanic. In May, American real-estate investor Larry Connor announced he wants to take another submersible to the Titanic to prove the trip is safe.

As we approach the first anniversary of the Titan’s implosion — and a potential second journey — now is an apt time to reflect on an event that captivated the public along with the flood of memes that followed.

When the Titan submersible disappeared on June 18, 2023, it set off a storm on news and social media platforms. News outlets provided constant updates. The disappearance went viral online — on TikTok alone, #titansubmarine had more than 71 million views.

Commentators were quick to draw comparisons between the Titanic’s sinking in 1912 and the Titan’s implosion, describing them as “eerie bookends” and an example of how “history repeats itself.”

Titan submersible memes

While these comments focused on the similarities between the accidents, there’s also a lot of similarities in the ways people reacted to them.

Many people online tweeted opinions, created TikToks or made memes, especially as details came to light about the Titan’s wealthy passengers and the use of a 2011 game controller to steer the submersible.

While some blamed this phenomenon on social media or Millenials and Gen Zs for having a dark sense of humour, people also had weird takes on the Titanic in 1912.

Commentators discussed the “insensitivity” of the memes and asked “why people are being so mean,” and “what internet jokes about the submersible disaster say about society.”

The “crass humour” was blamed on schadenfreude, wealth inequality and “kids who spend their days on the internet.”

Above all, social media was blamed. One article argued that the memes showed social media at its worst. Los Angeles Times columnist Jessica Gelt said:

“The exploitative coverage of the death and terror unfolding in real time has only been compounded by the public’s reaction on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram… social media is evolving into an increasingly ugly and chaotic space.”

There was a sense that this was a new phenomenon, and that social media had brought out the worst in people. Some bemoaned the loss of a past “kindness of spirit.”

But people also made fun of the Titanic, well before the existence of social media.

Reactions to the Titanic

Cultural historian Steven Biel has chronicled public reactions to the Titanic’s sinking. After the tragedy, (unsolicited) poems were sent to The New York Times for publication; hundreds every day in the first week alone.

The magazine Current Literature commented: “We do not remember any other event in our history that has called forth such a rush of song in the columns of the daily press.”

Just like our modern memes, everyone had something to say. And everyone, from labour unions to suffragettes to preachers, used the Titanic as fodder for their arguments.

One writer asked, “Would the suffragette have stood on that deck for women’s rights or women’s privileges?” For their part, suffragettes argued that all the world’s evils, including marine disasters, could be solved if women had the vote.

The Titanic was invoked in sermons as an example of manliness and godliness, proof of the “superiority” of the “Ango-Saxon race.” Many mourned that wealthy, accomplished men were lost while poor, non-English immigrants were saved.

Criticizing the rich

While many takes on the Titanic reinforced white supremacy, xenophobia and misogyny, others were influenced by a growing critique of wealth inequality and greed.

In a sermon condemning modern capitalism, Rev. Charles Parkhurst, a Presbyterian preacher in Manhattan, said:

“Grand men, charming women, beautiful babies, all becoming horrible in the midst of the glittering splendor of a $10,000,000 casket!”

Labour activist Mother Jones told striking coal miners:

“The papers came out and said those millionaires tried to save the women. Oh Lord, why don’t they give up their millions if they want to save the women and children? Why do they rob them of home, why do they rob millions of women to fill the hell-holes of capitalism?”

The Miners Magazine asked why the daily press had:

“devoted almost all of its editorial space to showering encomiums of immortal glory upon the names of the multi-millionaires who accepted the Titanic as a coffin and the ocean as a grave.”

One Finnish newspaper pointed out “much costlier disasters in terms of human life,” like mine cave-ins, got less attention than the Titanic. Similarly, as media obsessed over the Titan submersible, some pointed out the relative lack of attention when a boat carrying hundreds of migrants sank near Greece just a week earlier.

Shine toasts

Toasts from the African-American community used the incident to highlight racial inequalities. These spoken performances mostly centred on a fictitious Black stoker named Shine who successfully escaped the Titanic.

One toast described how Shine tried to tell the racist captain about the water pouring into the boiler room before being sent back down:

“Shine went back below and began to think

That, umph, this big bad muthafucka is bound to sink.

Shine said, it’s fish in the ocean, crabs in the sea

But it’s one time you good cool white people ain’t gone bullshit me.”

A performance of Shine and the Titanic which tells the story of a fictitious Black stoker aboard the Titanic.

Commodifying tragedy

There’s an interesting commodification that happens as people try to own pieces of history, both then and now.

The possessions of unclaimed Titanic victims were burned as a pre-emptive measure against souvenir collection. Titanic memorabilia — from menus to life jackets and plaques from the lifeboats — have been sold at auctions. You can even buy coal salvaged from the wreck, available in pens, hourglasses and snow globes.

On the Etsy online store, you can buy miniature models of both the Titanic and Titan submersible. Following the Titan’s implosion, Roblox users quickly made games, including “Titanic Submarine Simulator” and “Escape The Evil Submarine Obby.”

The Logitech controller infamously used to control the submersible quickly sold out on Amazon in the days following the accident.

Screenshot from a website showing miniature titan and titanic figures.
Screenshot from the website Etsy showing Titan and Titanic-related merchandise on sale. (Author provided)

Memory rituals

Humour plays a role in our collective memory of historical events, especially disasters. The Titanic has remained a point of interest for over a century: movies, museums, cartoons, musicals and memorabilia are testament to our ongoing fascination with the tragedy.

In his book, Steven Biel says: “Meanings are contingent and contextual rather than inherent or timeless.” Reactions to the Titan are shaped by similar social contexts around the Titanic: increasing wealth inequality, white male billionaires moving fast and breaking things, government regulation and policy lagging behind tech innovation and the sense that technology has moved too fast and too quickly.

Memory and myth help us to make sense of a tumultuous world — as does humour. The kids haven’t been broken by social media. People have always reacted to the tragedies of the rich in weird ways.

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