Memes are everywhere.
Memes are powerful units of cultural ephemera, inextricably tied to online and offline communication and signaling in the digital age. Beyond packing humor and meaning into shorthand, byte-sized units of ephemera, memes have the power to tangibly influence political sentiment, voting behavior and individual ideological alignment. Memes have the power to influence identity, and through that cultural trends which translate to political participation.
In considering this, internet memes are also the new dominant medium for communication in the digital age. They’re the new campaign ads, the new political cartoons, the new pamphlets, picket signs, propaganda and folk art. This project was named with that sentiment in mind — a nod to the first chapter of communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” “The Medium is the Message.” As McLuhan argues that the medium used to disseminate a particular sentiment is indicative of the message itself, the use of memes and viral content act in a similar way.
This power of memes is something that those who grew up online — as many Gen Z-ers did — have long known. It was just a matter of tracking and conveying the power of memes as is the intention of this project.
Through interviews with leading meme scholars, creators and journalists focused on online communities and communication in the digital age, “The Meme is the Message” maps the sociopolitical impact of memes and the robust role they play as tools for signaling, identity development and political engagement.
This project was created as part of an Honors in the Discipline project for the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern University, under the direction of Professor Carlene Hempel without whom this project would not be possible.
Many thanks to Professor Hempel for hours of edits, guidance and development.
I am thrilled to present the product of years of research, interviews and content compilation. Thank you to all involved.
Taraneh Azar is a fifth-year journalism and political science combined major at Northeastern University with an emphasis on viral content and online communities. Azar will be joining USA Today's Investigations Unit in June 2022 to report on the political impact of memes and viral content. They are originally from Cleveland, Ohio and spent plenty of time on Tumblr making and sharing memes back in its heyday. Azar is also a visual artist and musician. You can access her body of work at taranehazar.com.
As an Iranian-American, I've witnessed how memes can not only signal anything from subculture to political ideology but also how memes can enable and foster unhindered communication in the presence of state-sanctioned surveillance, for example. Memes and humor are powerful in the freedom of communication and expression they can offer anyone with internet access. From encoding meaning to overtly displaying content, memes are the message.
In understanding their function and utility, we have the power to redirect conversations and conventions in meaningful ways.
Susan J. Blackmore is a U.K.-based psychologist, lecturer and writer researching consciousness, memes and anomalous experiences. She is a visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. Blackmore is author of the 1999 book "The Meme Machine" among other works and was featured in the 2020 documentary "Feels Good Man" which chronicles the life and journey of Pepe the Frog.
You can find Blackmore online at susanblackmore.uk.
Patia Borja created and co-runs the popular Instagram meme account, @patiasfantasyworld. The New York-based activist, model and meme-queen also created a comprehensive database of anti-racism resources in 2020 which can be accessed here.
Joshua Citarella is an artist and researcher from New York who studies online political subcultures. He is an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design and the School of Visual Arts and has served as an outside advisor at Carnegie Mellon University (2020) and Tufts University (2021).
Citarella is the author of "20 Interviews" (2020) and "Politigram & the Post-left" (2018), among other works. Find him online at joshuacitarella.com.
Meredith D. Clark is a researcher, scholar and teacher currently based in Boston. Clark is an associate professor in the School of Journalism & the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. Her research centers Black Twitter, cancel culture and systemic racism in U.S. news media.
You can find her online at meredithdclark.com.
Matt Furie is a Bay Area-based artist and author of the 2005 comic book "Boys Club," the birthplace of Pepe the Frog.
You can find him online at mattfurie.com.
Valerie Gilbert is a New York-based author, audio book producer and mystic. She was featured in the New York Times column, "The Shift," and is the author of four books.
Michele Knobel is a professor of education at Montclair State University and an internationally recognized researcher and scholar in the area of literacy education, new literacies and digital technologies.
Keir Milburn is a U.K.-based lecturer in political economy and organization at the University of Leicester and author of the 2019 book "Generation Left."
Ryan M. Milner is a writer, professor and researcher specializing in internet culture and digital communications. Milner is an associate professor in and associate chair for the communications department of the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
He’s the author of "The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media"(2016) and the co-author of "The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online" (2017).
Mark Potok is a former senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and an expert on the radical right. Currently based in Montgomery, Ala., Potok was featured in the 2018 documentary "Alt-Right: The Age of Rage" and the 2016 documentary "The Red Pill."
Kevin Roose is a Bay Area-based technology columnist for the New York Times and the New York Times bestselling author of three books. His column, "The Shift," explores the intersection of technology, business and culture.
You can find him online at kevinroose.com.
Elle Rochford is a a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University focused on social movements, social media and inequality.
Shane Tilton is an associate professor of multimedia journalism at the Ohio Northern University. He was the former director of the Center of Society and Cyberstudies, an international think tank designed to study the impact of the Internet on society.
You can find him online at shanetilton.com.