From signaling to organizing, memes as mobilizers in the age of viral media
A special report by Taraneh Azar
THE MEME IS THE MESSAGE
To meme or not to meme? That is the grand yet seldom-asked question. In the age of viral media, memeing is implied as a cornerstone of online communication. So the question is not so much whether to meme but rather how and to what end?
Memes are powerful units of cultural ephemera. Conveying complex meaning and sentiment in a minimum of space, they have the ability to illustrate, inform, encode and signal anything from information to allegiance. As memes replace traditional cultural artifacts, they act as easily digestible vessels of social commentary and personal expression, serving as instrumental aids for social and political participation. They are a central vehicle of online communication and increasingly, a source of social currency.
And they are everywhere: in family group chats, on newsfeeds and even referenced in political campaigns. Beyond packing humor and social commentary into a shorthand, easily-digestible format, memes are the culmination of sociopolitical and linguistic drift — valuable tools and vessels of culture. Sometimes there is no better way to get a point across than with a meme. They enable people to convey complex ideas, and all of the social and cultural implications tied to them, in sometimes even one-word utterances.
But before we go any further, to answer the big question and demystify this seemingly novel form of communication — what is a meme?
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Once a niche mode of communication only utilized by the few, internet memes have become the medium of choice for social, political and cultural messaging in the digital age. And while memes seem like a modern creation, a fad fixed in the present and determined to drive our communication in the future, in reality, memes have been in our toolbox of transmission for ages.
When most of us think of memes we think of humor. And that’s not wrong; internet memes deal in the currency of humor, generally speaking. But understanding irony and humor to be cornerstones of political participation in the digital age is key to discerning the role of memes as units of transmission that go beyond humor — they are units for political transformation, education, understanding and at times indoctrination. Memes go beyond humor in that they are the political cartoons and educational pamphlets and graffiti tags of the world wide web.
“If you see something that resonates with you in some way, you're more likely to pass it on, you're more likely to adopt it, you're more likely to make it your own. And humor is a really great way to have something resonate,” explains Ryan Milner, associate professor of communications at the College of Charleston and author of the 2016 book “The World Made Meme.”
“So you've got a culture that speaks in the humorous register. You've got the fact that humor resonates with people more generally. And you've got the fact that humor spreads well, because it boils things down. I think all of that is why we see so many funny memes, and why we tend to think ‘meme’ equals ‘humor,’ when that's really just one genre of the stuff that people are sharing.”
The images we choose, along with the symbols, the technological platforms and the mediums at their core, are an integral part of the signaling process. All of these elements play a substantial role in conveying information, making the meme quite literally the message. As the medium of dissemination is indicative of and fundamental to the content that’s being divulged, the meme format or type is not some neutral observer bearing witness to the compilation of meaning and messaging — the meme as the medium is the message.
Hashtags are memes, videos are memes, image macros are memes and infographics are memes. Internet memes as we know them are anything that can be replicated, remixed or reapplied to convey a particular sentiment. We can share memes far and wide or we can make our own, passing along little bits of ourselves in the process.
So going forward, the term meme will refer to internet memes exclusively, riffing on their most common context today as they exist in the zeitgeist.
Understanding memes in this way as foundational elements of complex messaging reveals innately that they have the potential to influence society, politics and culture in significant ways. Indeed, the sociopolitical impact of memes (their creation, share and spread) illustrates that we have entered and perhaps long-existed in an age where the online world is inextricably tied to the offline world, and the jokes that are made online scale to actions taken offline. And that means that who we are online — and all of the cultural ephemera that shape that identity — makes us who we are offline.
“Internet culture is just folk culture. And what folks are doing is really, really important. All the informal vernacular, jokey, everyday conversations. That's how ideologies spread, that's how groups are made and defined, that’s how insiders and outsiders are set up. That's how enemies are cast, and so that's how beliefs form,” explains Milner.
Memes can also unite and divide. They can offer a common language to consider universal feelings in universal terms, and they can just as easily operate on insider information and heavily referential meaning. They act as an entry point to political engagement and communication.
“Memes allow a person to express a complex cultural message through a minimum of space,” explains Shane Tilton, associate professor of journalism at Ohio Northern University and a published researcher on the topic of new media. “The old cliché used to be ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words.’ A well-constructed meme can be 10,000 or 100,000 words, if the audience understands all the complexity of the messages.”
The catch is that memes, while an invaluable tool in conveying layered meaning, inherently create an in-group, out-group mentality. Oftentimes, only those ‘in the know’ can relate to a meme, while those who are not, render the meme well, ineffective.
“A lot of internet memes work like inside jokes, where it’s really funny to people who get the reference, who understand what you’re talking about, and really befuddling to people who don’t, who find themselves on the outside of it,” explains Milner. “So you get that element of one, not only sharing experiences but two, saying we share this experience that other people don’t share. So there’s a lot of comradery and sociality in that.”
Today, internet memes are known by many primarily in their most common format: an image or video incorporating some kind of text or conveying an overt meaning. While many people would define memes as restricted to image and text-based formats, everyday people consume memes of all different kinds. Tweets, short videos, images and essays can be memes – memes are broad and encompassing of any social artifact that resonates with people and in turn can be easily shared.
It is clear that memes have the ability to bridge communities around humor or language, but do memes have the ability to institute tangible, quantifiable change in the real world? Well, the content we consume makes us who we are, so that’s an unequivocal yes.
“If people recognize the symbols — the visual symbols, the cultural symbols — within the meme, they can rally around it. It’s like telling a really good story,” explains Tilton. “We may change the parts of the story coming along as we tell it to others, but the meme and the story all have something that we recognize, and therefore we can come around it.”
In addition to strengthening social identity around emblematic concepts or imagery, memes arguably have resounding impacts on culture and society — that is to say that memes reflect social commentary but also shape it. Memes can also carry real-world implications for politics as well as linguistics.
When used strategically, memes have the capacity to forge connections across demographic lines and bring people together through commonalities in humor and social understanding. But the inverse can occur as well, so it’s important to know your meme.
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2020 content-label meme
Memes are the most effective form of viral media — made by the people for the people — establishing them as more effective than other cultural ephemera at influencing political sentiment, fostering (or fronting) a sense of community and indoctrinating people, broadly speaking. In many ways, memes can act as a Trojan horse by presenting more palatable methods of conveying extremist ideologies, falling back on the guise of humor. But that ironic and satirical element can also make them more effective in the same ways that political cartoons are effective at strengthening associations for those already in the know and hooking outsiders by cutting them into the internal systems informing the front-facing message.
There’s also an element of trust that memes offer as a form of grassroots communication, which also works to make them more effective in influencing political and ideological alignment than traditional structural media such as campaign ads or television and radio broadcasts. And given the ubiquity of internet engagement, memes have the potential to impact everyone with internet access across demographics and generations.
In the former Soviet Union, pamphlets or “samizdat” as they are known were amazingly effective vehicles of messaging and cultural ephemera used to disseminate information in hidden, coded and subliminal ways. And central to that messaging was political humor. Given the history of political humor as a tool for dissent, memes were culturally primed to make an impact.
Political comics and cartoons are not restricted to historic use in the former USSR, however, as many cultures have used satire and irony to highlight political sentiment — particularly dissent. So there’s a universal language of political humor coupled with the instant dissemination and active engagement offered by technological platforms, which make memes very much a sociopolitical mobilizer as users rally around — or against — a political sentiment.
Political humor appeals to even those who are not politically inclined. And when it comes to shifting public sentiment, humor has the potential to reach a wider audience than dense theory or commentary. Particularly in the age of digitally-based viral humor, the dissemination of these digital cartoons are harder for governments to control — having a broad social impact while leaving room for individual participation in self-expression.
Memes stand in for the communication methods of yesteryear, providing the opinions, information and agendas of internet users to spread with unparalleled efficiency, efficacy and scope.
And activists have been using memes to spread ideas in the U.S. for decades. A notable example is Occupy Wall Street movement and the phrase “we are the 99%,” but also with the long fight for Black lives and the memetic phrases, hashtags and imagery that have continued to surface in the last six-plus years as fuel for camaraderie and mobilization around a united sentiment.
As visual storytelling techniques like graphs and charts can improve understanding of information, memes operate in similar ways. They demonstrate the potential to improve the understanding of a message, making them particularly valuable for sharing information as they call upon humor and simplicity to strengthen associations.
“Memes — they're just vernacular communication. They're just folklore. They're just the stuff that everyday people pass around. And because of that, they are good and bad, and everything in between. And also, because of that, they're really, really powerful. And they're really, really significant,” explains Milner.
Ultimately, memes are a mobilizer like any cultural ephemera prior to the digital age, but the streamlined structure and potential for instant dissemination makes this medium of communication more powerful and effective than any format before.
Before memes were a cornerstone of communication in the digital age populating everything from your Twitter feed to the evening news, internet memes were effectively conceived through email threads and later more recognizably on imageboards and chat forums. They existed really only on the so-called “fringes'' of the world wide web at a time when notions of a digital mainstream were still hazy. But the term “meme” is one that predates the internet all together.
The term was first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 text “The Selfish Gene.” It describes ideas and trends that spread among people within a cultural framework, deriving from the French term même meaning “same” or “alike.” And memetics is the study of that information and culture based on the analogy of Universal Darwinism that Dawkins uses to establish and introduce the meme as a unit of transmission.
“This is the idea that if you take Darwin's brilliant idea, basically it comes down to an algorithm, it comes down to take any kind of information you like. Copy it lots of times with variations, and then kill off most of the copies — copy, vary select, copy, vary select — and you must get evolution, you must get design,” explains Susan Blackmore, Plymouth, U.K.-based psychologist, memetic researcher and author of the 1999 book “The Meme Machine.” “My glasses and book and pen, and all the words I'm speaking, everything like that — everything in this room has been passed from person to person with variation and selection. And therefore, that's a new replicator. It's evolving.”
Just as Charles Darwin posits that all elements of the natural world as we know it have evolved through and are therefore the product of biological evolution, Dawkins deduces that units of culture are similarly the product of replication and natural selection operating on the same algorithm. Culture evolves like genes. Just as the “selfish” gene is passed on through evolution, the similarly selfish (or best) cultural unit lives on to replicate and evolve. And he dubbed this similar but different replicator the meme.
“This is different from all the conventional theories of cultural evolution, which always go back to the genes as the ultimate replicator. Memetics says there are two replicators on this planet, and the two replicators are fighting it out. And memes are using us and our brains and our language to propagate themselves as genes are using bodies to propagate more babies,” notes Blackmore.
Alongside consumer goods and the language we speak, internet memes are nothing but one variety of meme — at least in the Dawkins sense.
“An internet meme is just one type of meme. I know that [for] an awful lot of people nowadays, the only context they've heard of a meme is internet memes,” explains Blackmore. “But actually, it's not a bad thing. Because internet memes are a really perfect example of the Darwinian process. Because if you think how many people put up cat photos every day, and how few of those cat photos make it into viral land, and have millions and millions of copies, or the videos people take [of] various silly things … Huge selection pressure means this phenomenal flowering of creativity. And you might say, ‘Well, we're the creative ones with our clever brains.’ But I would say it's the evolutionary process. It's the memetic process using us that is creative.”
But as with any meme that evolves as a function of cultural replication and propagation, the term evolved to serve a noble function in describing the cultural ephemera to be born out of the online world. It has come to be used primarily in the context of the internet meme — the meme to end all memes
“Dawkins used the term to describe ideas that resonate with people and spread between people and then are altered as they spread and influence cultures they spread to. He talks about fashion trends, he talks about songs, he talks about catchphrases. Any kind of idea that goes through the population: legends, jokes, rumors,” explains Milner.
Within this framework, memes can be identified as a mode of communication, too. This historical analysis of memetic content from a political lens explains why internet memes are such effective forms of political communication as well.
“We have to acknowledge that memes have existed far, far in advance of digital technologies,” explains Clark. “Political campaigns of the late 20th century, early 21st century, have relied on really effective messaging and the communication of that messaging through media … And that is, essentially what a meme does. It is an idea that is shared that expresses a shared sentiment that people can take and interpret in different ways, but still have some sort of shared sense of meaning about the core idea.”
In terms of how the term meme came to describe this parallel form of communication online, Milner argues that the term was discovered and adopted by early internet users in part because of the nature of sharing and spreading information online. Much like jokes, rumors and trends, such ephemeral and cryptic internet content had an appeal to the culture that created it — ultimately spreading and evolving within that paradigm.
“It was somebody creating a piece of culture and then other people passing it along to their friends and making additions and remixes as they went to where one thing became massively culturally influential as it resonated with people,” explains Milner.
Michele Knobel, a professor of literacy education at Montclair State University in New Jersey and author of the 2008 text “Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices,” describes the differences between the Dawkins sense of memes and internet memes as we know them today.
“Dawkins originally said that one of the defining features of a real meme is its longevity, but that’s never been the case for online memes,” says Knobel. “They can be topical, or it can just be something that bubbles up to the surface and then it's gone.”
Certainly some memes have more longevity than others, rising to the level of cultural celebrity and entering the zeitgeist inextricably. But others get absorbed in one way or another, and they certainly all evolve as a function of time by nature of the medium. While certain memes die down in relevance or appeal over time, the essence of meaning across memes is retained and transferred into other memes or mediums. In that sense, the meme embodies the message therefore becoming the unit of transmission. So the meaning never dissolves but rather evolves with formats given changes in technology and culture.
To understand memes, we must understand the functions of the platforms that give way to them. The structural elements implicit in social networks play an integral role in the kinds of memes that are cultivated and produced in a given space and the function those memes serve as reactions, as cultural signals, as tools for indoctrination or as simply innocent units of humor.
4chan is an anonymous image and message board site, founded by a then-15-year-old Christopher Poole in 2003. Today, 4chan is primarily frequented by members of the radical right, internet trolls and pre-teen "shitposters." There are separate boards dedicated to specific topics where users are able to post text and image-based content. The anonymous interface of the platform makes it an appealing space for hate groups and trolls to coalesce as vulgar topics and comments fester unopposed. Back in the day, however, it was a space for users from all corners of the political (or apolitical) spectrum to explore ideas and share information.
Launched a year before Facebook, 4chan quickly became a space for users to share images and discuss common interests like anime, popular culture, coding and oftentimes, pornography. 4chan, anonymous and decentralized in nature, not surprisingly gave birth to groups like Anonymous, the international "hacktivist" collective, which is anarchic and anti-fascist in nature, known for a variety of cyber attacks against a slew of governments, corporations and terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
The site thrived, as it still does, off of the freedom anonymity offers users to interact and discuss without rules. It grew increasingly crude, however, and now the majority of 4chan posts are racist, (insert term)-phobic or simply vulgar, with images and gifs to match. But, 4chan is the original meme capital of the internet, so it will be referenced (a lot).
Also instrumental in the meme game have been Tumblr, Reddit, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and most recently the Gen Z favorite: TikTok.
Understanding the platform is essential to fully understanding the meme. This distinct, encoded language is particularly characteristic of the “in-group” “out-group” mentalities that often accompany memes. Considering the function of an anonymous message board like 4chan, for example, it makes sense that memes will be used as reaction images to interact with other users in a forum-like framework but it also makes sense that memes will illustrate or nod to increasingly extreme and hateful rhetoric as users can hide behind the veil of anonymity within this niche platform that serves as a community center or breeding ground for hate speech and trolling.
The memes on 4chan will vary significantly from the memes on say Facebook, where the entire platform is structured around displaying personal identity — there, memes will likely illustrate more personal messaging. On platforms which are structured to streamline community-building based on specific topics and interests like Twitter, memes will be more geared toward signalling alignment but also more jarring as hashtag-organization is coupled with the fueling force of the attention economy. Instagram is siloed so users will have more control over which pages they want to follow or subscribe to making the memes more intricate, nuanced and heavily referential, and so on.
When it comes to political education, traditionally Instagram and increasingly TikTok are particularly central platforms, especially for Gen Z users.
But Instagram has the structural framework to encourage the engagement with and adoption of particular ideologies, whereas TikTok is more a broadcast network for far-reaching and near-instantaneous spread. In his 2018 study of Politigram (political-Instagram) titled “Politigram & the Post-Left,” Joshua Citarella, New York-based artist and researcher specializing in online communities, illustrates the connections between community, framework for interaction and collective education. He explores the fine lines between political posting as a means for virtue-signaling versus genuine indoctrination or ideological conversion.
“In my understanding of how these spaces work as an informal pipeline to political education, it is heavily reliant on the communities that exist within the platforms — not just in terms of what people post and what you see, but also the communication infrastructure group DMs, especially discord servers, related spaces, Reddit, what have you,” explains Citarella. “My understanding is that some of these memes on TikTok get boosted and they blow up really quickly. But I don't think there's the same robust kind of intellectual debate and stimulation that Instagram group DMs have.”
Although the consumption of content on TikTok might not translate to tangible pipeline radicalization or political conversion as measured by physical engagement with political ideas, there's no denying that consuming a monolith of content translates to a subsequent cultural shift that will inadvertently change the attitudes of users offline.
Just as certain people are able to recognize all of the complex elements, references and associations packed into and evocative of the term “anarcho-primitivism,” for example, memes and meme culture act in the same way.
“One thing that you’ve seen over the last decade is that internet memes have become more distributed in the sense that they are popping up in more places and on bigger platforms. A decade ago, they were on these really small niche platforms, 4chan and then Reddit and then Tumblr,” explains Milner. “But now the place where you get the biggest meme accounts is on Instagram which obviously everybody is on. They are more distributed, and they are more versatile in that way and so their meanings can be more versatile.”
Subculture, meaning and context are intrinsically tied to platforms. The content that exists on imageboards like 4chan differs dramatically from the memes you send to your mom on Facebook because the flavor and intensity of the political message is shaped and enabled by the structure of the technology that’s disseminating information. For 4chan, the anonymity of the imageboard makes for more controversial and hateful content. Similarly the streamlining algorithms of Twitter and TikTok, for example, make for more intricately referential memes and content. In turn, memetic imagery becomes fluid based on spatial context. One must be “in the know” to understand the underlying message — only then can a meme effectively spread and evolve in the hands of the user.
To understand the history of memetic imagery is to understand the future, and as platforms have continued to change, memes have continued to change. In large part, platform structure determines in that it permits or hinders what kinds of content will emerge in online spaces.
As the spread of memes expands, the potential for versatility grows with it. A shift from 4chan as the mainstream meme source to the fringe means that memes are growing in scope, size and influence as new mainstreams are created.
“Internet memes start as these niche subcultural things,” explains Milner. “Now all of a sudden, memes are kind of just part of the way that people communicate with each other. . . they’re one of the tools in our communicative toolbox. And so I think, in that arc is an example of how internet culture is kind of just becoming culture.”
That technological arc corresponds with (and simultaneously shapes) our communication patterns, trends and needs. Mode of communication from a structural perspective corresponds with the medium of communication.
“Most of our daily life is happening via a whole lot of mediated communication. It's happening with the stuff that we send in the group chat. It’s happening with what we find online and then show our friend as we hold up our phone. And so the idea of a niche subcultural internet culture isn't really what we have anymore,” says Milner. “Instead, we just have the internet as part of culture. And then you see with memes that evolution to where they're not hidden-away subcultural things anymore, they're just whatever goofy thing or whatever poignant thing or whatever thing from the internet you're sharing with your friends.”