How to Change the World with Memes
I gave a talk at National Meeting of English Students about the political use of memes. In case you missed it, here is what I intended to say. It might not be exactly what I said, so consider this the updated and slightly condensed version.
First, to understand the political context of memes and how they are used, it helps to know some background. Originally, meme didn’t refer to things like funny pictures on the internet. The concept was introduced by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), where he described it as a “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”. He conceived it in broad terms, so that included practices like holidays, ideas like God(s) and texts like The Selfish Gene itself. His way of thinking about memes is problematic in many ways, but the concept itself was less sticky than the word associated with it.
Why call it meme? The word has two roots: “mimeme” from Ancient Greek, meaning something that is imitated, and Dawkins’ favorite subject, genes. So “mimeme” became “meme” so that it would rhyme nicely with gene. For a while, the concept lingered on mostly in obscure academic circles, but Dawkins’ book became quite influential so others outside the academia also picked it up.
One of them was Mike Godwin. He spent time on what constituted the internet in late 80s and early 90s, had read Dawkins and saw how his ideas could be used to make the internet a better place. He writes:
The Nazi-comparison meme, I’d decided, had gotten out of hand – in countless Usenet newsgroups, in many conferences on the Well, and on every BBS that I frequented, the labeling of posters or their ideas as “similar to the Nazis” or “Hitler-like” was a recurrent and often predictable event.
I developed Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.
Godwin was familiar with the concept of memes and wanted to create a “counter-meme”. Of course, he named it after himself. The idea was to use as a tool to make discussions online slightly less terrible: when somebody (inevitably) invokes Hitler, you can hit back with Godwin’s Law. But not everyone had read Dawkins or thought in terms of memes. That would come later.
If we look at Google trends data for “meme”, we can chart the popularity of the term. Up until late 2011, the term was used mostly in obscure parts of the internet. Then the term surged in popularity and it has risen ever since. There were a few key places on the internet that contributed to what we now recognize as memes. Something Awful was the early pioneer of internet meme culture in 1999, despite an official culture of disaproving them.
Four years later, Christopher Poole started 4chan. Modeled after Japanese image boards, 4chan was originally focused on anime and manga, but soon incorporated everything people on the internet might want to post about, like porn. One of the important features of 4chan was that posting was possible without logging in, but those posts would be credited to “Anonymous”. Since most people didn’t bother logging in, most posts were anonymous. There was no way of linking individual posts to users and the users started referring to each other as “Anons”, for anonymous. The only way to tell apart a random passer-by from a regular user was how well they knew the proper language and ways of posting on 4chan – their knowledge of the subculture.
Later, some of discussion moved onto different platforms, like Reddit and Tumblr, where people circulated some of the same memes born on 4chan, but also created their own expressions. As the places of meme creation broadened, some of the subculture around it bled into the more mainstream internet culture and led to the popularity of lolcats outside their original breeding grounds. This was still internet culture, so knowledge of memes was still its own subculture – and to some extent continues to be to this day.
Godwin might have been the first to realize that memes could be used in a political way. He used memes to make a point about online discussions and Nazi comparisons. It took others some time to reach the same conclusion, but at around 2008 the subculture around 4chan had formed a shared vocabulary and maybe even some political agreements. There were few things these agreements could be built upon. There were no permanent identities to rally support around and the discussion was not tied to any geographic areas.
What do people on the internet care about? They care about the internet and their freedom to use it. In American terminology, the issue is often framed in terms of freedom of speech. Perhaps the only thing more important than “lulz” was that nobody would stop the lulz by censoring speech online. The Anons on 4chan started to identify as Anonymous, a collective, whose task was to guard the lulz from being trampled upon by anyone.
Their first major undertaking was against the Church of Scientology, a perfect enemy. The Church was everything Anonymous hated, censoring speech while spreading their nonsense as serious. They were also remarkably easy to make fun of, with their mythology being built on the narratives of a science fiction author. I won’t go into more detail on their campaign here, but you take a look at what I previously wrote if you are interested in this part of the story. Anonymous didn’t stop there and have since gone after a varied group of targets, including ISIS and Donald Trump.
However, the most important memetic component of Anonymous are their masks. Appropriated from the comic book and movie V for Vendetta, they do two things:
- Align Anonymous as the anti-authoritarian good guys.
- Allow anyone to identify as Anonymous.
Anybody inspired by V for Vendetta can put on a mask and become part of the Anonymous collective and participate in their projects.1 There are some signs that the mask has become a political symbol outside the original reference group. When the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) was being discussed in Poland, politicians associated with the Palikot Movement party wore Anonymous masks in parliament as an act of protest. Partially because of V for Vendetta and partially because of Anonymous’ projects, the mask has become a symbol of resistance.
Another group that has actively participated in creating political memes is Occupy Wall Street (OWS), a populist movement against economic inequality, started by the Canadian anti-consumerist group Adbusters. Like Anonymous, they use a combination of old tactics like standing on the streets and new approaches inspired by the internet. One of the memes to come out of OWS is Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop. I previously wrote about the meme, but what is important here is that OWS used the meme to make political point about civil rights, overuse of force and freedom of speech.
Probably the most successful meme to come out of OWS is “We are the 99%”. The slogan was used in a variety of ways as part of the protests, but a specific form of it was popularized by the Tumblr blog of the same name. On the blog, it took on a certain memetic format: a partially visible person holding a white piece of paper detailing their life story and the statement that they are part of the 99%. One reason the 99% meme is so powerful is because it can be customized to fit each participant, yet still retain the same basic message. It connects each participants personal experiences to a larger political message.
The 99% meme quickly elicited counteraction. A conservative blogger started a counter-campaign called “We are the 53%”, referring to the 53% of Americans who pay federal income tax. “Suck it up you whiners”, he suggested in a picture following the same format as the original 99% images. But it didn’t end there. Another meme to support the original was created by the wealthy 1% that supported the goals of the original campaign in a campaign called “We are the 1 percent: We stand with the 99 percent”.
The competition between the different meme campaigns followed the same meme-countermeme -structure used by Godwin when he came up with Godwin’s Law. The opposing campaigns also showed that memetic structure doesn’t determine the political content: the 99% and 53% campaigns were in direct opposition to each other, yet used an almost identical structure.
If we measure the impact of OWS on whether it managed to lessen the impact of money on politics or to make the country more equal in terms of economics, it seems to have failed. But if we look at the memetic effect their efforts had, it becomes less clear. OWS seems to have affected how political discourse in the US works. For example, talk of the 1% was a recurring theme in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. We’ll have to wait to see how permanent the change in discourse is, but the 99% percent -meme seems to allow new types of political expressions, at least partially thanks to OWS’ contribution.
The next example is less about changing the political discourse and more about enabling it in the first place. To understand the meme, it helps to know a bit more about the surrounding context. In 2002, the Communist Party of China ratified the socio-political theory commonly known as the Three Represents. The Three Represents that the Party stands for are, roughly, economic production, cultural development and political consensus. The exact details of the theory are unimportant for our purposes, but the last principle became central when the Party started applying the principle of political consensus in an effort to “harmonize” the internet in 2009. They closed hundreds of websites and many more were censored.
One of the reasons for being censored was mentioning this particular issue. Discussing censorship online become more difficult, so bloggers turned to alternative expressions. The first change was to call censorship “harmonizing”, in an ironic play on the campaign itself. But when discussions of harmonizing were also harmonized, Chinese bloggers had to find yet another way to convey the message.
The word “harmonious” happens to be a homophone for “river crab”, so whenever bloggers would need to talk about censorship, they would first replace it with “harmonizing” and then express that by calling it “river crabbing”. Another substitution done was to refer to the government with its official ideology, three represents. It happens to be homophone for “wears three watches”, so “government is censorship” was translated to “a river crab wears three watches”. This was also easy to convey with an image meme, unlike the abstract idea of censorship. The image of a river crab with three watches became the memetic expression of censorship.
A similar thing happened with an alpaca, which became known as the “Grass Mud Horse”. The Grass Mud Horse is an invented mythical creature that happens to have a name that is a homophone for the phrase “fuck your mother”. The alpaca was known for being the enemy of the river crab, which means that it’s an enemy of censorship.
The Grass Mud Horse became a symbol of resistance in China. The renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei did a photo shoot in 2009, wearing only the Grass Mud Horse to cover himself. When the Chinese government arrested and detained him, other artists created a full size Grass Mud Horse as a statement to the Chinese government and paraded it in Hong Kong.
How activism operates in China relates to what Ethan Zuckerman calls the Cute Cat Theory of Internet Activism. The theory has one hypothesis and two additional observations:
Sufficiently usable read/write platforms will attract porn and activists.
- If there’s no porn, the tool doesn’t work.
- If there are no activists, it doesn’t work well.
He posits that if there isn’t any porn on a platform, it doesn’t work at all. Since activists will start using any platform that is convenient, seeing activism on a platform means that it’s probably useful and usable. If activists try to start their own platforms, they are easy to find and control. A government can shut down any platform used only by activists. But people care about their pictures of cute cats, so you can’t shut down any platform that people are using to post pics of cats. If an activist blog is shut down, few people will notice. Block cute cats, and a lot of people will be angry. The only way for activism to survive in hostile networks is to be where the cats are.
As the examples analysed above show, memes can be a powerful tool, at least in certain situations and for some purposes. OWS participated in changing the political discourse in the US and the river crab has enabled political expression where it’s otherwise difficult. There is no straightforward way to control how memes are used. Both the 99% and the 53% memes have almost the exact structure, but their political arguments are opposites to each other. Memes work like languages in general: they enable expression, but ultimately it’s up to the people using them to decide what to express.
Coleman (2014): Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Verso.
Milner (2016): The World Made Meme. MIT Press.
Shifman (2013): Memes in Digital Culture. MIT Press.
Of course, it’s slightly more complicated than that in reality. While Anonymous is an open group, social capital and personal trust still matter. You can read about the practicalities of organizing from Gabriella Coleman’s excellent book. ↩