When a giant container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal in March 2021, the world was enthralled. As local crews worked tirelessly to free the Ever Given from the essential trade channel, the incident became the source of countless memes – from serving as a visual metaphor for procrastination to featuring as a Met Gala red carpet blunder. A mariner working on dislodging the ship said the stream of memes spurred him and his team onwards, and after seven days of being stuck – supposedly costing global trade $400 million an hour – they managed to free the vessel.
While this is just the latest example of memes nudging things into action, it’s long been established that they hold far greater power than inducing giggles. “Most of the time, we think about memes as personal, fun, and entertaining, but there’s a lot of civic resonance,” explains Dr. Paul Mihailidis, a professor of civic media and journalism at Emerson College, Boston. Indeed, pro-choice memes and hashtags were a factor in repealing Ireland’s eighth amendment, memes about police brutality in Nigeria eventually morphed into the #EndSARS movement, and in 2020, few protests – regardless of whether they were in Myanmar and Moscow – were absent of meme culture.
Although the sharing of memes has spread to older internet users – 55% of Americans had shared a political meme between June and September 2020 – they remain the lingua franca of Gen Zers. According to GWI, 54% of Zers in the UK and US looked at memes on the day they were surveyed in April 2020 (the highest proportion among all age groups), and during the pandemic, 72% of them said that memes and other humorous content were helping them cope. But do young people recognise the power of memes? Canvas8 spoke to Mihailidis about his work with young people to understand their relationships with these potent mobilising tools.
Why is this topic important to understand?
Memes have become so present in internet subcultures and the way young people understand and engage in contemporary public life, but they’re not necessarily new. Research has traced memes back before digital culture – in pamphlets and word-of-mouth – but we just didn’t call it that because it wasn’t so pervasive. I think the term ‘meme’ has exploded because there are artefacts that are so easily transmissible in culture now. People understand all these different images and they create connections around them without there needing to be so much context involved. That’s what we understand a meme to be – that transmission available through a form that’s able to be understood across demographic and cultural backgrounds.
We wanted to unpack how young people understand and think about them through this research project. Thekey question was ‘what is the civic potential of memes and hashtags in the lives of young people?’ The literature shows that memes and hashtags play an important civic role and the way that young people affiliate and show affinity towards public and civic issues, such as environmental rights. But our real question was whether young people understand the civic potential of memes.
Cottonbro (2020) ©
How did you go about conducting your study?
For a project I led some years ago, we created public, accessible, low-barrier-to-entry tools enabling people to use popular social expressive modalities for civic purposes. For this research, we used Meme Machine and Hashtag You’re It – Jackbox-style games where eight players connect around one screen through any mobile device, with a host (a professor, teacher, or one of the peers).
With the meme game, they’d have 15 meme backgrounds and would make a meme around an issue, and then their peers would vote on it. Whichever got the most votes would win. For the hashtag game, they’d get real tweets on an issue but the hashtag would be missing and they’d insert one to convince the rest of their team to vote for it, like the Apples to Apples game. Through the tools, we were testing to see if we could nudge their attitudes towards seeing the civic potential of memes and hashtags more clearly.
We worked with 93 participants across six classrooms in public schools in the Greater Boston area. We led a class for 40-50 minutes, starting with quick introductions and then playing three rounds of the games around six core categories: race, gender rights, gun control, climate change, health, and education. The facilitators took the students through the activities and grabbed screenshots of each round. In addition to quick debriefs on motivations between the rounds, we had a full classroom discussion for 15-20 minutes and took copious notes.
Tim Douglas (2021) ©
What were your key findings?
Few acknowledged or saw the civic potential of these modalities. Almost all of the things on social media are negative. It’s herd politics, and memes are seen as just silly and jokeful things, so I understand the disconnect. Witty, humorous, or sarcastic memes in the middle of dialogue have never been considered a high functioning form of political engagement. Next to all of the other less serious content young people see online, they don’t separate that because the internet is not cognitively designed to help people compartmentalise. Subcultures, or the memes around certain issues, are all blended and young people aren’t distinguishing that. But when we dug in a little, they definitely acknowledged it.
With 14- or 15-year olds, there’s obviously posturing, which reflects how young people engage with civic information. We saw a lot of them just not wanting to engage – a clear negativity towards the civic potential of these tools. It’s not surprising – the values of the web are to extract information from people and repurpose that for profit or other motives. It lets young people come in through things that interest them – often politics, civics, and news. Subversive advertising and content can integrate news and civic information, but there’s no clear divide between the personal and the political. The algorithms on platforms are designed to bring people in by putting fun, interesting, and sensational information in front of them, but also have ways to weave in other information.
The majority of the students enjoyed the study, especially the Meme Machine, where humour and sarcasm were the most frequently deployed tactics, followed by straightforward literal questions. We noticed a ‘playful resistance’ – they were engaging in fun ways, having interesting conversations, laughing at each other around these topics. It provided an opportunity for them to engage in the creation process and to think about social and political norms and how they understand and view issues. For us, that is the first gateway into political and civic participation.
Artem Podrez (2020) ©
Insights and opportunities
Use humour to shatter apathy
The COVID-19 pandemic intensified the problematic nature of fake news, with a study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene suggesting that more than 800 people may have died due to misinformation in the first three months of 2020. While some may blame the tech giants hosting such content, the Taiwanese government took matters into its own hands with ‘humour over rumour’ tactics. Within two hours of spotting a fake news post, a team of civic hackers, led by digital minister Audrey Tang, would publish a funny meme – with the facts – to regain the narrative. Whether it’s to quash toilet roll panic-buying or to raise awareness of social distancing guidelines, hitting the right tone of humour is not easy and shouldn’t be seen as the only weapon against misinformation. In March 2021, Google announced a $29.3 million donation to help set up the European Media and Information Fund, with plans to enlist researchers, fact-checkers, NGOs, and other public bodies to help reduce the spread of fake news.
Memes can quickly go awry
As artist Matt Furie discovered when Pepe the Frog was adopted as an alt-right symbol, once something is out on the internet, its creator has no control over its journey. With countless subcultures operating on unregulated message boards, and with many internet users adept at quickly cutting and pasting images and text, online hate is extremely hard to moderate. As noted in a report from the Alan Turing Institute: “Interconnected hate clusters form global ‘hate highways’ that – assisted by collective online adaptations – cross social media platforms, sometimes using ‘back doors’ even after being banned, as well as jumping between countries, continents, and languages.” But it’s not just the co-opting of content by extremist groups that brands need to be aware of – a failure to credit creators for their jokes and memes could also have repercussions (as discovered by the likes of Drunk Elephant and Not Pot). As well as being pulled up by accounts such as Diet Prada and Estee Laundry for creative theft, in the wrong context, memes can backfire. “There’s a lot of cases where rooms of marketers think something is just slang but it has a deeper history on the internet,” says Nikita Walia, a creative strategist and the founder of Blank, a social media consultancy.
Hashtags help draw attention to forgotten causes
People are using hashtags to draw attention and build communities around issues that have disappeared from the news agenda or, in some countries, run the risk of being censored. For instance, hashtag campaigns run by Gen Zers and Yers in 2020 alone fuelled concrete change in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria. In Cameroon, #EndAnglophoneCrisis highlighted the nation’s English-speaking citizens who have long been marginalised and discriminated against by the Francophone-dominated federal government. What differentiates this more recent hashtag activism is a lack of leadership – in the best possible way – as no one person can be incarcerated to stop a movement. Historian and human rights activist Stephen Ellis might say this is grounded in the phenomenon of Africa’s ‘pavement radio’, a widespread oral discussion of current affairs that can’t be controlled by “any identifiable individual, institution, or group of people.” As well as making people aware of indigenous issues, this information can be disseminated fast through memes and hashtags and can influence global media discourse in powerful ways.
Internet culture is moving toward a meme economy
When the Bernie Sanders inauguration meme went viral in January 2021, his team wasted no time in creating and selling a range of the so-called ‘Chairman Sanders’ merchandise, which sold out in minutes and raised $1.8 million for charity. IKEA was also quick off the mark, launching a ‘get the look’ style ad. Acting on viral moments when they’re still blossoming clearly pays off, but with the Nyan Cat GIF now a ‘crypto collectible’ that sold for the equivalent of $600,000, it’s clear that internet culture is gaining monetary value as well social clout. From NBA Top Shot videos to Wizard World games, people are carving out virtual assets they can call their own. And according to a Morning Consult survey, Gen Yers are most likely to engage in collecting, with 23% saying they collect digital assets like NFTs.