THE TERM “MEME” was first used by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, to describe the cultural transmission of ideas, behaviors, styles, and practices. Much like genes replicate and are passed along from organism to organism, Dawkins’ memes travel, via word, gesture, and image through culture by repetition from person to person. Dawkins even used the term “virus” to describe the spread of cultural memes, making the application of the term to our little boxes of macro image and text on social media fitting – particularly the successful ones.
Internet memes are easy to create and even easier to share. On social media, we task them with the transmission of humor, opinions, ideas, and information. They may seem frivolous, but as such an accessible and widely-used form of communication, they may be worth serious thought – particularly those that communicate some point of social or political importance. How does this mode of communication affect what is communicated? How does it impact the viewer and sharer? Is it a neatly-packaged end in itself, or does it result in something beyond itself?
Describing what he sees as the potential power of memes, sociologist Erhardt Graeff says: “A lot of memes act as shibboleths—they indicate that you are part of the in-crowd, you get the joke, you were there when it happened, etc. I think this is the power of the meme speech act. It quickly creates a networked public from its in-group. That feeling of inclusion can inspire further and future discourse.” While he’s careful not to claim that people who create and share memes are necessarily pursuing political or social goals through them, Graeff suggests that memes could serve as the first rung on the “ladder of engagement,” whether they were intended to or not.
Memes garnered serious attention from some journalists and media scholars like Graeff around the 2012 presidential election. One of the more notable and memorable from this time was the “Binders full of women” meme theme, which came into the world about one minute after the phrase left Romney’s mouth during an October debate. Twenty-three-year-old Veronica De Souza jumped to create a Tumblr page devoted to curating and sharing “binder memes,” amassing an audience of meme creators and sharers that multiplied rapidly within hours and days.
De Souza says that the point of the binder memes was to be funny, and nothing more. Whether intentional or not, though, the incessant repetition of Romney’s careless phrase threatened to detract from the point he was making, and in an ironic way. The phrase came out as he was describing the efforts he had gone to as Governor of Massachusetts to collect the resumes of women who were qualified to participate on his cabinet. Yet the “binders” phrase, out of context, conjures an impression of Romney as a man who sees women as objects to be sorted through, organized, and filed away. The popularity of the de-contextualized phrase may have obscured the more important topic of conversation: increasing women’s presence in high-level positions.
However, the viral nature of the meme did spur some journalists to dig into the claim that provided context for the phrase, and to publish articles exposing the fact that Romney did not actually put in the effort to find women for his cabinet that he claimed to. This is an example of a meme serving to further discussion, exerting political power. But did it do so in the way Graeff suggested the meme fosters – by creating a networked public from its in-group? Which is to say, were the meme sharers the ones writing, reading, and discussing those articles? We don’t know. (We can assume that, if they were, it wasn’t many of them. Compare the just over 7,200 “likes” the Boston Phoenix article on Romney’s overstated claim has earned on Facebook over three years, along with an Atlantic article covering the Phoenix piece that has received 4,000 likes, to the 11,000 followers De Souza’s Tumblr page racked up after just one day in existence.)
Another example from the 2012 election worth noting is the “You didn’t build that” meme. Dave Weigel, political reporter for Slate, credits meme creators and sharers with making “You didn’t build that” a thing, which turned out to be so influential in its force of portraying Obama as anti-business that it inspired the catch phrase for the Republican National Convention (“We Built It”). “Local reporters and national reporters thought [the phrase] was pretty minor, or nothing.” Weigel said. Online, however, “people went over the heads of the media and shared it amongst themselves.” The fact that the phrase was completely out of context (and innocuous when in it) didn’t drive down its rhetorical power among the right.
Memes certainly don’t always serve as ladders of engagement, and I think philosopher Martin Heidegger might say that this is because they play the role of shibboleth too well. While Graeff suggests that the creation of an in-crowd could foster conversation among “in”-dividuals, Heidegger highlights how the feeling of inclusion might impede further discourse and understanding instead.
In Being and Time, Heidegger describes, among other things, what he sees as the profound impact of sociality on the individual. “Idle talk” describes not only his idea of how we tend to communicate, but what this mode of communication means for how we orient ourselves (or don’t) toward what we talk about.
“Idle talk” is characterized by “passing the word along”; as the same ideas and opinions are repeated over and over, they take on a perceived rightness, a possibly groundless authority based on strength in numbers, or repetition. Being in an “in-group” can easily lead to the impression that one is “in the know,” and this sense of security is one of the largest impediments to further discourse, as it discourages questioning and challenging what is being talked about.“Binders full of women” and “You didn’t build that” were never significant phrases, but the temptation to attribute importance to them is notable when that’s what millions of other people are talking about.By getting “in” on it, we gain a sense that we’re part of the real conversation, even though we’re not having a conversation at all. Opinions based on what these phrases supposedly imply about their speakers were replicated with the memes themselves.
One thing that can shake us from a false sense of security within a group is disruption from outside. Another problem with the in-group, then, is its protective insularity. If the meme serves rather as an entry point to discussion among members of various groups – if the “binders” crowd and the “build that” crowd talked to each other – we might get to something of actual significance.
I think Graeff is right about the potential for memes – and I’ll add other succinct, shareable speech acts such as tweets – to serve as ladders of engagement. But Heidegger’s suspicion about the temptations of social inclusion are worth heeding as well. The speed and ease with which ideas and opinions are transmitted and repeated today are remarkable, and if we don’t take pause to check and question and challenge and contextualize, this could compromise the quality of our communication and our own understanding of what we’re really passing along.
With only two Republican primary debates under our belt and many more debates, speeches, and campaign rallies to come in the 2016 election, we can expect an onslaught of snarky, out-of-context, and, yes, funny political memes in the very near future. While we get our kicks, we can also harness the potential that Graeff speaks of by using these as conversation starters.