The Power of Memes


Limor Shifman wrote a publication titled “MEMES In Digital Culture,” where she discusses the use, characteristics and effects of memes in today’s digital culture.  Memes are quick visual ways of self-presentation, essentially telling whom someone is, what someone thinks is important, or what someone’s political stance is.  Despite what many of us may think today, memes existed long before the Internet and they do not actually have to be digital, as most are today.  For example, graffiti is ‘memeable’ because people weren’t sure where it came from so they were just able to put their own meaning to it.  For this reason there is not very much that needs to be updated in her article because memes simply change their forms and presentations, but the idea behind them remains the same.


Screenshot taken by author.

What Are Memes?

Shifman encourages us to think of memes as a culture; something that people can add their own meanings and interpretations to.  Shifman talks about the characteristics of memes that they are open to interpretation and there is some mystery to them.  They catch people’s attention and encourage people to engage with them usually through humor.  They are simple and easy to produce, and they are public so people can be exposed to them.  She also discusses the three properties of successful memes: longevity, copy fidelity and fecundity.  Longevity means that the Internet helps the memes flourish because of storage, archives and persistence.  Copy fidelity is how accurately the meme can be reproduced, and fecundity has to do with the meme’s sharability and replicability.  However the most important aspect about memes is that they need to resonate with people.  They begin by traveling from one person to another but they eventually become somewhat of a social phenomenon if, and when, they go viral.  Memes ultimately reflect the era we live in because we want to make ourselves visible.  For this reason Shifman’s article should not be updated but rather taken into consideration when analyzing memes in future generations to notice the shifts in representations and formats, but continuing to observe the same content. 

We are the subjects of communication, meaning that we are the one doing the communicating and spreading the content, and we also become the topic that is communicated about.  We use memes to brand ourselves and make us into the content we want to consume.  The three main lenses that Shifman discusses on why people are motivated to spread memes are the economic, the social, and the cultural or aesthetic.  People want to spread memes because of the attention economy, insinuating that how much attention something gets is equivalent to how important it is.  The social lens is for networking purposes so people can perform their selves to others and form relationships in the act of spreading memes.  The cultural lens shows that people simply like to create.


Political Memes:

An interesting lens to look through is that of political memes, which combines all the above three lenses.  We often think of memes as being funny and humorous, but they do not necessarily have to be.  For example, Mitt Romney’s classic viral meme “Binders Full of Women” makes a statement on the user’s political preference.  We have to understand political participation on a broader scale than we did in the past because posting memes have ultimately taken a place next to voting or marching in a protest, and are just as influential.  There are three interwoven functions of political memes: personal/political advocacy, grassroots action or connective action, and expressive and public discussion (having a conversation that is often through pop culture references).  Memes expand the range of participatory options in democracy, and can be about contributing to the discourse.  Memes have always been a part of the political sphere, but it is the visibility that makes them especially important in the digital age.  Memes have the ability to change someone’s opinions or simply expose someone to something specific when, for example, your entire news feed is filled with the same memes from different users and you can witness the “spreading effect” happening in real time.


Dr. Joel Penney of Montclair State University provides an interesting analysis on “the uses of participatory digital media platforms for political expression, rhetoric, mobilization, and collective identity-building” through affordances such as political memes in his blog VIRAL POLITICS.  The Trayvon Martin case had a very large social media representation with the black square or Trayvon portrait silhouette profile picture with the #blackout hashtag that traveled far and wide over social media platforms, especially Facebook.  The idea of the profile picture meme represents digital stability and presence that reappears each time someone posts a new comment or likes the photo.  It continuously pops up as people notice it and acknowledge it.  This particular meme has been used to promote social change and anti-racism simply through a profile picture on the Internet.  One’s identity is completely replaced by the political meme and therefore shows that the user stands strongly behind his belief and is willing to change his self-presentation for the cause.  The same effect happened with the marriage equality meme that is noticeable with the red equal sign in support of gay marriage, which is another significant moment in the development of political memes.  There is the idea of collectiveness and unity when you see hundreds of the same pictures on your newsfeed and people joining together to make an issue known and build awareness.


Anastasia Khoo, the managing director to the Human Rights Campaign further discusses the viral spread of their marriage equality logo in a Huffington Post article.  She tells audiences that sometimes something as simple as a meme or profile picture change can have such a large effect and emit such a strong feeling of support.  People began publicizing their support and therefore helping others share a part of themselves they may not have felt comfortable to share in the past.  Something about a descriptive and visual representation of a norm is more powerful than anything.  Melanie Tannenbaum describes a descriptive norm as “publicly acknowledging your belief along with the thousands of other people who are also publicly acknowledging theirs” in her Scientific American article.  Based on this article it seems as though online activism may have a more long-term impact on public opinion rather than a direct effect on public policy because as Tannenbaum says, “the power of social media to shape social norms, one Facebook friend at a time,” is a real thing in this day in age.




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