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.
Reagan-era political cartoon utilizing "content label" stylistic approach
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.”
This low barrier to entry but layered barrier to understanding that memes present make them a particularly valuable tool in methods of indoctrination, whether in political or fundamentalist ideology.
Meredith Clark, assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and researcher on the topic of Black Twitter.
Sue Blackmore, Plymouth, U.K.-based psychologist, memetic researcher and author of the 1999 book “The Meme Machine.”
Meme Types: Templates, Phrases and Macros
There are many types of internet memes, but for the purpose of this project we will focus on a select number of major categories, templates and mediums.
Image macro (circa 2004): An Image Macro is a captioned image that consists of a picture or drawing typically accompanied by a succinct and witty catchphrase.
On imageboards and forums, image macros can be used as reaction images to convey feelings and reactions to another user or post, similar to emoticons. The term was coined in 2004 by a user in the early blog forum SomethingAwful before spreading to 4chan where the medium or format evolved. It is a broad term and such image macros are one of the most prevalent forms of internet memes.
2006 (late-2000s and 2010s) Exploitables: Exploitables are meme templates where a central image is manipulated to achieve a humorous or precise effect. This manipulation can occur through various means including replacing or adding words to the original image, manipulating elements of the original image to change the meaning or context or replicating and transforming the original image all together to reflect a distinct and referential variation of the original for the purposes of humor, commentary or some intersection of the two. They don’t require extensive technical photo-editing skills to generate and replicate, making them a popular meme medium. Multiple types of exploitable meme templates exist and most visual internet memes are considered exploitables given the definition of a meme and methods by which they are shared, remixed and spread.
4-panel Movie Scenes
Object Labeling is a meme style where users add labels to characters or objects in an image to alter or inform the meaning, similar to object labeling in political cartoons. This type of meme grew particularly popular in 2017 with the growth of Distracted Boyfriend and other similar fluid situational images.
A mutation of the 4-panel Movie Scenes, comparison memes utilize and rely on a basic exploitable format that is then adopted, remixed, photoshopped and manipulated by and large to convey a particular sentiment or gain a particular effect. Often comparison memes will posit one concept as being superior to the other in a humorous and sarcastic manner that is occasionally “meta” in nature (i.e. poking fun at the comparison in the first place).
Obviously, the original image had nothing to do with Raytheon or the military-industrial complex — quite the contrary. The original image being manipulated using the object labelling method is so widely unrelated to the subject matter being juxtaposed in the body of this meme that it brings in elements of humor and irony in the sheer absurdity of labelling two "dueling" lobsters as being American teenagers or Iranian teenagers. But the message is perfectly conveyed (perhaps better than it would be if the images matched up to the subject matter at hand), and we've seen this in political cartoons for ages.
Characters: Many exploitables and reaction images also correspond to distinct characters that are representative of a meme regardless of context. Characters can become symbols of meaning or come to represent the essence of their reaction quality. But sometimes characters become adopted or co-opted as symbols, assigned meaning completely removed from or unrelated to their original associations. Examples of characters include Pepe the Frog (and variants), Doge, The Joker, Trollface, Wojak (and variants), Bad Luck Brian and Grumpy Cat.
Pepe the Frog
Le Troll Face
Bad Luck Brian
Viral videos: Viral videos are videos that become widely popularized by online sharing. They can span across any range of categories and the more exploitable the video, the more likely it is to lead to forms of participatory media including remixes, parodies, inspired trends, cross-platform replication and reaction or response memes sourced from or related to the video. First email chains and then Youtube made virality possible. Youtube streamlined virality with publicly accessible video sharing, but today TikTok brings virality to a new level through its immaculate algorithm and features for engagement.
Participatory media: Participatory media is any form of viral trend or activity that is spread and sustained through the active participation of individual users. The cinnamon challenge is an example of participatory media, as are TikTok trends. It can also refer to movements where the individual experience is typically reported or recorded online. Other examples include planking, the Ice Bucket Challenge, the Knife Challenge and flash mobs. Participatory media generally relies on video content but is not restricted to that mode of dissemination.
Memetic phrases: Catchphrases, Hashtags, Slang: Memetic phrases or catchphrases are flexible, fluid and succinct expressions that can be applied to and used in various situations and contexts to achieve a related desired effect. There is little distinction between online and offline vernacular in this regard as memetic phrases born online are used in offline contexts (and vice-versa). Hashtags and acronyms that are born out of this tagged, streamlined and succinct messaging are also memetic phrases. Catchphrases are memetic in nature and can spread online accompanied by visual elements or alone in text-based formats. Examples include “OK Boomer,” “Let’s get this bread,” “Don’t talk to me or my son ever again,” “MAGA” (Make America Great Again), “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards), “#MeToo” and the list goes on. Even the term “meme” when used to describe a ridiculous non-memetic event or phenomenon is a memetic phrase.
When it comes to slang, a vast number of slang terms and phrases are memetic in nature and have entered the zeitgeist as a product of memes and meme culture as memes heavily influence offline culture and vis-a-vis language. Many slang terms have been generated as a result of variation, generation and transformation online in the form of memetic phrases. “Netflix and chill,” “normie,” “stonks,” “Karen,” “edgy,” “aesthetic,” “cringeworthy,” “smol,” “LOL,” “turnt,” “mansplaining” and “fake news” are just a few. If you use any of these words or terms, you have memes to thank.
Given that memes offer a degree of fluidity for any variety of messaging purposes, context is key in determining meaning. Some act as symbols and some present unhindered templates for messages to be conveyed, but the sheer fluidity of memes would not be possible without the infinite audiences social media provides — a feature referred to as the “context collapse.”
Context collapse refers to the flattening of multiple audiences into a single channel. It’s a sociological term that describes how users interact in spaces with possible infinite audiences online as opposed to the limited and controlled audiences we interact with in real life.
Context collapse in social media specifically refers to the idea that social networking channels nullify social and cultural context, setting a new standard for audience interaction. The unfettered audience of any given media platform can interpret, appropriate and spread memes, facilitating the evolution of those symbols and their applied meaning as they pass through different groups of users.
“Meaning is contextually specific, and what something means in one in-group, it does not mean in another in-group,” explains Citarella. This notion of context collapse factors heavily when regarding the evolution of memes like Pepe the Frog, for example, who was co-opted by the alt-right in 2015 but repurposed in 2021 as a symbol of resistance during the Hong Kong protests or reclaimed by American leftists on Twitch.
“If you were to visit /poll/ you would find the racist Pepes, but if you were to visit another group, you would find Pepe meaning very different things. And the question that throws all of this up in the air is the context collapse of social media,” explains Citarella. “The thing that we are really trying to map is kind of a technical question of social media, because we know the social aspect where the symbol only has meaning to the specific context of the group that it’s disseminated in.”
The same templates would not be made available to and travel through usage by different groups if not for context collapse. When memes are introduced to increasingly mainstream platforms (and therefore audiences), once-niche symbols and images that were only localized to usage by a particular audience or subculture can now be adopted or co-opted by any group of people.
Such as different memes can carry various meanings depending on the knowledge or subcultural alignment of the consumer in line with the in-group out-group divide, context collapse allows memes that are intended for a particular audience to flow freely into the ether, landing on whomever happens to scroll by. When you’re using professional jargon with co-workers, for example, you have control over who has access to that situation when talking face-to-face or even over the phone. But when you’re communicating with a co-worker on a Facebook page, an infinite number of social groups could bear witness to that interaction. So that jargon could make it to a mom or uncle or roommate — people who may not have all of the insider context to interpret the message.
So ultimately, the context collapse of social media levels the exchange of information.
The versatility of memes calls for a fluid, context-dependent understanding of traditional cultural symbols and emblematic imagery that once had fixed meaning. Simultaneously, because context matters, the symbols themselves may no longer hold as much weight as the channels in which they are disseminated.
But arguably, the infinite audiences that social media provides is a key feature in allowing internet memes to be what they are and serve the versatile functions they do.
“For something to become a meme, you need people watching the thing, you need people talking about the thing, you need people then remixing the thing and making it their own, adding their own iterations and applying it to new contexts,” adds Milner.
In the end, all elements bring us back to context.
In the age of social media, the notion that symbols are fixed is rendered void. Memes serve as a vessel for social commentary and culture, while channels for communication act as a surrogate for social movements.
“The memes are symbols,” explains Milner. “They’re kind of empty vessels in the sense that people put into them what they see in them, and how people understand them is really what matters … There is some kind of cultural artifact, some kind of content, some kind of text, some kind of whatever. And that resonates with people, and then they spread it, and, as they spread it, new people make it their own.”
The adoption or appropriation of memes by different groups can package complex narratives in easily digestible formats, heavily influencing socio-political outlooks and engagement. These internet-made symbols convey complex social commentary — and the representative imagery associated with a particular movement — using minimal space.
Like with any social commentary, context provides a whole lot of essential information to understanding the core of a message, but communication channels influence the message from a structural perspective. The medium, largely, is the message. Content, subculture and technological base are intrinsically tied, as platforms greatly determine what types of content can exist and flourish in each space.
Our social sphere is defined by a lack of separation between online and offline culture. Memes have far-reaching implications for socio-political structure, as recognizable images replace words on protest signs and one-word utterances replace paragraphs of text without losing that complex and layered meaning to the in-group. They’re fun, they’re funny, but memes are also incredibly powerful.
New fluidity in the age of social media is key to understanding the ever-changing chain of social and political movement and progression. While symbols were once localized to groups, movements and ideologies, today those symbols — in the form of memes — constantly evolve with the cultural spaces that carry them.
Read: Pepe the Frog
Read: The Joker
IRONY AND GEN Z
Read: OK Boomer
“Memes are sort of the most basic layer of political communication and strategy now, and we see politicians embracing them, we see companies embracing them — they’re sort of a shortcut to getting people thinking and talking in certain ways,” explains Kevin Roose, New York Times columnist of “The Shift,” which examines the intersection of technology, business and culture.
When it comes to political messaging, the ability of memes to encode and convey layers of meaning makes them a particularly valuable tool for both sharing and spreading information and political sentiment, but also for rallying around that particular sentiment for those who relate.
They are a medium of communication that allows users to combine creativity, humor, irony and complex sentiment into a package that can resonate with others in a space where the ability to share, alter and spread the idea is readily available. But given the context collapse of social media, memes are particularly valuable because they increase the potential for any variety of audiences to get in on the joke or idea, even if they don’t intrinsically agree with the underlying message or ideology that’s being transmitted — at least right off the bat.
“The thing that makes internet memes so effective and more effective than traditional political literature and campaign messaging is that where anyone has access to the internet, they can contribute to the discussion,” explains Clark.
Political irony has long defined the ways populations interact with cultural conventions and political establishments. Humor allows complex messaging to be conveyed in intricate, layered ways with quippy commentary that packs a punch. So it’s no surprise that political irony is the foundation of meme culture — whether intentional or not.
“Memes use humor for social messaging similar to the ways that comics have done in the past — a comic strip or an editorial cartoon. So we've got this shared understanding of a few different elements, let's use that and subvert it through a picture that is either drawn or created or taken,” explains Clark.
This use of humor has a long history in political interaction and commentary, but when it comes to memes it can also be a powerful basis for weaponization.
“While memes are something that we tend to think of as really grassroots communications, they are easily manipulated. And people are easily manipulated,” explains Clark. “There's such a low barrier to entry for creating internet memes and sharing them for harmful purposes — for purposes of misinformation for purposes of disinformation. And we have seen that in political campaigns in the United States and around the world.”
Katy Pearce and Adnan Hajizada found in a 2013 study that memes and memetic content had tangible impacts on the political structure and climate of Azerbaijan as the government engaged in a form of meme-based astroturfing to influence public sentiment and voter outcomes under the guise of grassroots communication, by the people and for the people. Groups long-opposed to the state’s authoritarian regime engaged in oppositional political humor through the use of memes, recognizing that humor reaches a wider audience and that memes are harder for authoritarian regimes to control, ultimately leaving more room for unfettered self expression of political and social ideas. From 2008-2013, online humor including videos that exposed embezzlement and corruption through irony or Facebook pages ridiculing leadership has increased support among opposition parties.
The authors wrote: “While humor remains an important tool in the arsenal of the opposition, the government’s co-opting of humor is a significant development in the Azerbaijani online political realm. Whilst funny posts might seem frivolous, the consequences are anything but.”
The degree of trust this medium carries makes memes particularly powerful for hijacking narratives and triggering sweeping change through coordinated attacks from the ground up.
“You are able to influence and persuade and motivate people in ways that you simply can't with more traditional forms of political speech,” because the success and spread of internet memes “rely on trust and relationships that people have to one another,” explains Clark. “And when a meme has been successfully communicated to one influential person within a group, others have reason to trust them. So the creator of the meme is building on that trust and really taking advantage of it. For good or for evil, that’s certainly a really effective tool for political communication of all kinds.”
This low barrier to entry positions memes to be effective for messaging but just as easily vulnerable to widespread manipulation. And it’s important to note that in that, we collectively have been primed to engage with politics on the basis of humor.
IRONY AND GEN Z
While humor more generally speaking has had a long-standing cultural stronghold in political interactions and engagement, irony politics is more an advent of the internet age. Irony comes into play when we recognize the anti-establishment overtones of the internet and the users who exist within and inhabit virtual spaces. And also, of course, the failures of capitalism and modern society to consider the needs of “zoomers.”
Generation Z or the “zoomer” generation (a colloquial term for the generation born roughly between 1995-2010 and a quippy play on ‘boomer’) is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date. They look a lot like millennials on key issues like recognizing the devastating prevalence of racism and failure of institutions to ensure general well-being in the U.S., but also globally. According to the Pew Research Center, they are more likely than other generations to want an “activist government,” that is, one that does more to address structural inequities, but also are less likely to trust the state or institutions generally speaking. This could be interpreted as a potential nod to a consensus that racism and capitalism are evils of the same nature as perpetuated by classist and racist policy. And with that, zoomers and millennials are more supportive of “socialism” and wealth redistribution. Gen Z are about the same as millennials in recognizing the failure of governments and older generations in addressing and ensuring the material and personal interests of the generation as they enter a bleak job market with unlivable wages and of course the impending doom of the climate disaster.
But growing up in large part online, this generation was in many ways born out of internet culture.
Eric Levitz describes millennials and Gen Z as ubiquitously misanthropic “dystopian socialists,” which is both hilarious and holds up well. That is quite the burn, NYMag — you actually nailed it.
“You can sort of see a generational battle to define who is the naive audience and who is the knowing audience,” explains Keir Milburn, U.K.-based lecturer in political economy and organization and author of the 2019 book “Generation Left,” of meme culture. Zoomers are digital natives in that few remember a time before the internet. So internet culture is yes, real-life culture, but internet culture is especially Gen Z culture.
“We just lived through that period of the Twitter attention economy and daily notifications of impending doom,” explains Citarella, describing the impetus of real-life absurdity for this steady flow of meme-based social commentary. “I don't know if you can even satirize it anymore.”
So the usage of political irony is almost inescapable in the attention economy and amid the oppression of late capitalism, but it is also used to illustrate dissatisfaction with existing institutions as a function of cynicism while navigating the identity-forming and shaping that comes with being a young person in any era.
“We know how irony works. We know that basically, the baseline of politics is based on cynicism. And so you have to go through the cynicism, you have to show that you understand the cynicism and the irony of contemporary society before you can get to the sincerity,” explains Milburn.
“There are some elements that are unique about Gen Z political engagement. Some of those elements are carryovers, right? People were playing with slogans in protest movements in the ‘60s. We had a long history of editorial cartoons in newspapers, for instance, doing satirical work, examples of political satire abound,” explains Milner. “Gen Z is not unique in these things, they didn’t invent being ironic about politics or using irony and humor to make political points . . . But I think what is unique is the concentration of those kinds of registers, and the sheer volume of those kinds of registers . . . So you've got the technology that makes it easy to share funny stuff, you've got this cultural sense that rewards us for being kind of quippy and funny, and that's how I think you get the political register that we get on TikTok, that we get on Twitter too.”
The affordances of the click-based attention economy coupled with this culture of shitposting and trolling encourage a sort of “teenage nihilism” that spans far beyond just use by teenagers. In many ways, nihilism is the foundation for the function of online communities (at least from conception) and therefore dictates and heavily influences the culture that is born online which has come to define culture more broadly. And socio-political realities are the ammunition for such nihilism.
Citarella, the artist and researcher specializing in Gen Z political participation online, describes this phenomenon of irony politics best — especially as it refers to Gen Z political participation — in his aptly named work: “Irony Politics & Gen Z.”
“To insulate ourselves from these seemingly guaranteed failures, Millennials, and Gen Z after us, adopted irony as a cultural strategy. Irony allowed us to continue life under late capitalism while psychologically sheltering ourselves from the demoralizing reality,” writes Citarella.
He distinguishes irony as culture from irony as politics, the two elements falling along the lines of the idea that trends, concepts and movements will inevitably fail, so an approach of irony from the get-go insulates populations from disappointment with the acknowledgement that trust in an idea was never sincere from the start.
He cites disingenuous modes of consumption, or what we often refer to as virtue signaling as it relates to self and presentation, as the genesis for this breach between social aesthetics and reality.
“Soon, irony didn’t so much signal active engagement as it suggested an underlying political nihilism, allowing one to disassociate from the real world effects of one’s own actions,” he writes. “The inertia of ironic consumption and production continued to accelerate right up until 2016 — at which point the Pepe-style trolls of the Alt-right made it clear that irony had never been apolitical. Ironic propaganda functions the same as real propaganda. Ironic voting is just voting.”
And still today we see a distinction between irony politics in memes as a means of signaling versus indicators of a genuine commitment to a political ideology. And Citarella defines the former as the norm and the latter as the mark of a very effective meme-based ideological campaign.
Read: Wojak and Doomer
In an ironic setup, “there's at least two imaginary audiences,” he explains. “There's a knowing audience” who’s in on the joke, “and then there's the naive audience who doesn't realize a double meaning, and therefore is the butt of the joke.” When it comes to memes, this concept certainly scales and it often follows generational lines, hence the ubiquity of memes like OK Boomer which are doused in dismissive irony.
But here’s where things get interesting. While memes can work to represent or symbolize pre-existing sentiment, they can also work to cue people in or introduce them to new concepts and topics. When it comes to more radical corners of the internet, memes are a valuable tool in the game of collective indoctrination as they work to conceal radical ideology behind layers of intricate in-group, insider, subliminal elements and meaning.
General dissatisfaction with the sociopolitical establishment can lead to interest in anarchy and communism as a viable means for collective action and liberation. But if this dissatisfaction and cultural apathy is exploited properly, it can also lead to viable indoctrination on the political right which veers from abolishing the state to rather establishing an ethnostate. And in short, one of these outcomes involves the potential for engagement with (often) obtuse theory and maybe getting a tattoo of a molotov cocktail while the other involves the potential for engagement in, well, hate crimes.
“We're tempted to dismiss these like silly political cartoons. But sometimes they get at a very powerful truth underneath the message or the illustration. So I think, most notably, in the last few years, in the context of the U.S., there's been or there was a huge influx of young people who were reached through social media, and then brought into mostly for right forces in that context,” explains Citarella. “You just look at the cost of living and look at the rate at which boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z are being proletarianized. Who in American society now could aspire to own anything, ever? That's the answer right there. Unless there's some possibility for upward mobility, very often also we inadvertently make the case to these young people that their own material interests are better represented by right wing populism” while the more accurate and effective messaging should say that “the only way you stand to really significantly benefit is by joining organized labor.”
And that’s where shitposting and “owning” our political opponents comes into play.
"THE LEFT CAN'T MEME"
Shitposting describes a range of misbehaviors and rhetoric deployed on social media platforms or forums, usually with the intention of derailing a conversation or topic. Shitposts can be categorized by aggressive, ironic and intentionally low-quality posts or content. Shitposts can exist on personal social media pages as a statement of disregard for the conventions or “social” aspect of a particular platform (like say Instagram), or they can be directed at a topic, person or group of people.
“Memes are not just a political thing. They're not just an extremist thing. They're everywhere. And I think what sort of extremists realized maybe earlier than anyone is that you could use memes as part of an effective radicalization strategy,” explains Roose, the Times columnist. “If you just couched your most extreme beliefs in memes and humor — if you weren't an angry cross-burning white supremacist but you were like a jokey online neo-Nazi — you could become more palatable to people who may have otherwise been turned off by your style.”
This TikTok aptly illustrates the slide from naïveté to radicalization that takes place as a result of this alt-right meme-based indoctrination strategy
“‘Alt-right’ really appeared with Richard Spencer, and basically it was an artifact of Trump's election,” explains Mark Potok, former senior fellow at the Southern Law Poverty Center. “I would say to the extent the alt-right is different from the overall white supremacist right is that it is younger, hipper, more media savvy, more misogynistic and more giving to a certain kind of joking style.”
A key feature of the alt-right is that it is categorized by heavy use of social media and memes to recruit and indoctrinate. Members tend to skew young as a result.
Valerie Gilbert, New York-based author, audio book producer and "Anon"
“A picture's worth a thousand words. And, you know, having been as scholarly as I had to be to go to Harvard and the excellent schools I attended prior to that in New York City, I don't have the patience to read minutiae anymore,” said Gilbert. “Sometimes when your brain is full, you just want something that's pithy with an image, and an idea. And that's what this all boils down to, is the amount of information that I study is overwhelming … A meme kind of just says it all, when you're just tired from everything, you know. And so they pack a punch, and I share a lot of them, even on LinkedIn, on Pinterest.”
The New York Times' Kevin Roose tells the story of how one woman was radicalized online by tracking the memes she shares on Facebook going back to 2016.
Memes act as potent units of sociopolitical messaging, coding meaning and vast swaths of information in a minimum of space. There’s no denying that memes are one of the most important tools in an internet-era radical’s artillery of mediums, but Roose’s investigation aptly illustrates just how that path materializes. And the people who engage in this communication are hardly homogenous.
“It’s one thing to have [Gilbert] narrate the story of how she got into QAnon, but it’s really illuminating to actually see it. Her Facebook page was sort of telling the story in real-time. You can see how she went from Democrat to Jill Stein voter who was disillusioned with the Democrats, to getting more into countercultural figures and sort of hacktivists — people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden,” explained Roose, recalling his interviews with and writing on Gilbert’s meme sharing on Facebook.
The New York Times mapped how Gilbert’s Facebook posts shifted in content and nature over the years. By 2021, she was sharing memes that were filled with QAnon conspiracies and misinformation about the Capitol siege. Here, a telling selection illustrates the nature of these posts.
“Part of the ethos of these communities is that you’re supposed to do your own research — that you’re not supposed to blindly accept things that are filtered through the mainstream media,” added Roose. “People in QAnon trust the grainy memes that their friends are posting more than the things that are being said on the evening news. And it’s almost like … the worse something looks, the less polished it is, the more likely it is to be true, because it’s coming from this alternate universe of researchers and diggers and people who assemble shards of internet rumors and old screenshots and Wikipedia pages. It’s like this forbidden knowledge that they’re accessing. And to them, that feels more real than the people in suits on the news reading off a teleprompter.”
Ultimately, memes are tools. They can illustrate, they can bind and they can certainly indoctrinate. Encoding ideology can be a powerful pipeline as we’ve seen historically for thousands of years. The only difference is that the source, characters and format are now digitized and ready to share at a click of your mouse.
Meme culture plays an important role in many if not most online communities today. From fan pages dedicated to celebrities to obscure political alignments and decentralized groups organized around uniting, central aims and theories, memes strengthen commonality while spreading the messages that often bring people together in the first place. In their ability to conceal meaning behind degrees of visual or verbal separation, memes are a particularly valuable tool when it comes to spreading hateful rhetoric that may not make it to the newsfeeds of unsuspecting users if not for the palatable packaging of what can be passed off as seemingly innocuous and light humor.
This feature of memes that allows users to hide behind a layer of encoded messaging and irony makes them an incredibly valuable tool for indoctrination and radicalization. Hate can be passed off as ambiguity, adding a safety net for users who are engaging in the spread of hateful rhetoric. Not to mention the ability of symbolic or otherwise encoded memes to appeal to normies more than outright hate speech. This vagueness and palatability makes them valuable recruiting tools as what we engage in and explore online translates directly to what we say or are emboldened to do offline. If you get called out for spreading hate speech, just turn around and say you’re trolling. “Take a joke!”
In that sense, memes can be and often are a pipeline for indoctrination when weaponized effectively. And they aid in the culture wars through furthering the right-wing strategy of “owning the libs” — that is upsetting liberals by provoking strong emotional reactions through divisive content and out-memeing them.
“If you can turn it into a joke, then you're less likely to be turning off people who don't agree with that ideology. And that's part of the extremist strategy that's been explicitly laid out, is that people should never be able to tell when you're serious or not,” adds Roose.
This strategy has been recognized as a serious and coordinated effort to sew discord and incite chaos online, and since 2018 Twitter has suspended a number of accounts for engaging in right-wing trolling campaigns.
“Memes are a prominent way that white nationalist groups online will spread their message and recruit people — there's benefits to white nationalist groups to use memes,” explains Milner. “They are more palatable to the normies, so to speak. Because of this, they become these kind of good recruiting tools. They give people permission to think racist things and say racist things under the guise of a joke.”
But given that there is virtually no separation between online and offline culture, this online indoctrination is not for naught and doesn’t end at the imageboard or Twitter feed. Case in point: A Washington Post investigation found that there has been a sharp rise in domestic terrorist incidents in the U.S., driven by white supremacists and other extremists on the far right. They found that the ubiquity of social media was a major propellant as extremists share theories, grievances and tactics. The number of domestic terrorism incidents peaked in 2020 and since 2015, right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 attacks producing 91 fatalities, according the Post.
The Alternative Right, commonly referred to as the alt-right, is a right-wing ideological movement comprising a set of identities and fringe groups that embrace white ethnonationalism as a fundamental tenet. The movement is motivated by opposition to racial, religious and gender equality, operating on the core belief that their whiteness and “white civilization” is under attack by multiculturalism and social justice. It generally refers to heavily misogynistic white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups in the United States who advocate for a return to antiquated ideals, values and government operating on the fallacy of “scientific racism.” It’s different from other right-wing classifications in that the alt-right is characterized by the rejection of mainstream politics and relies heavily on social media to spread provocative content, offering a “hip” updated rebrand to domestic terrorism. The term was coined by Richard Spencer, head of the white nationalist think tank The National Policy Institute, in 2008.
Ryan Milner, associate professor of communications at the College of Charleston and author of the 2016 book “The World Made Meme.”
Screenshot from Kevin Roose's New York Times article “A QAnon ‘Digital Soldier’ Marches On, Undeterred by Theory’s Unraveling” for "The Shift" analyzing Gilbert's meme sharing trends on Facebook from 2016 to early-2021.
Gilbert was featured in a piece about the role of memes in the Q conspiracy movement for Roose’s column “The Shift” back in January following the Capitol Insurrection that QAnon supporters visibly played a central role in carrying out. As Roose did with Gilbert’s feed for his piece, tracking the memes people share especially in intimate and identity-oriented spaces like Facebook can convey the nature of personal and political journeys as a function of time.
Beyond summing up complex ideas in a minimum of space, memes can encode and conceal political meaning — a tactic that is particularly valuable when it comes to extremist ideologies and conspiracy theories like that of QAnon.
Parallel to the creation and spread of anti-establishment subcultures — whether critiquing attacks on free speech from a government-hating, political perspective or critiquing pornography censorship laws from a similar place with different intentions — is the spread of conspiracy theories. And white nationalist subcultures are no exception. Like with any movement started and spread online, the success of conspiracy theories is in part reliant on the ability of memes within the paradigm of a social media context collapse to mobilize and “Trojan horse” information across social media platforms. They are often the perfect vehicle for potentially far-fetched concepts to integrate into the mainstream.
QAnon is a conspiracy conglomerate of sorts — the product of decades of meme culture on imageboards, subsequent chan culture and anti establishment trolling and then the confluence of palatability that memes offer users in pulling information off of often-crass sites like 4chan and 8kun for greener pastures on Facebook for mainstream audiences.
That’s to say that conspiracy theories tend to exist and propagate in tandem with memes today. The power of memes to codify controversial information and also signal commonality and allegiance to particular subcultures and movements allow users to rally around collective sentiment while identifying fellow in-groupers.
“Conspiracy theories are incredibly important — they are absolutely central to the radical right in America. And that's been true for a very, very long time,” explains Potok.
In addition to being a published author and audio book producer, Valerie Gilbert is a devoted Anon and follower of Q. A Harvard-educated New Yorker and self-proclaimed “meme queen,” Gilbert made her way from the Green Party and voting for Jill Stein in 2016 to supporting Donald Trump. While there is some overlap between the alt-right and QAnon, Gilbert says she falls outside of these allegiances. “I’m not into groups. I’m an American, a patriot,” she clarified over Facebook messenger after we spoke in an interview. “I’m more conservative than I used to be, but my spirit for freedom burns just as bright, simply with new perspectives.”
Facebook was the pipeline for her introduction to the world of Trump-era conspiracy. Gilbert spreads information far and wide online. Her medium of choice? Virtual ephemera in the form of internet memes.
QAnon is a disproven and discredited far-right conspiracy theory that started on 4chan in 2017. Adherents of the movement or “Anons” as they are known believe that a “deep state” cabal of Satan-worshipping, canibalistic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring. “Q,” an anonymous poster who is believed to be a top military intelligence officer, would offer cryptic information “drops” on imageboard 8chan or 8kun as it was rebranded to be in 2019. Communitie