Meme Templates: The New Tool for Political Activism

Privacy memes - futurama fry
Recently, my friend Peter Micek of the digital rights organization Access alerted me to how internet privacy activists are using popular memes to get their message across about Data Protection Regulation in the European Union (learn more about this important issue here). At the Privacy Memes Tumblr page, you can view dozens of user-generated one-liners that attempt to inject some accessible humor into a rather dense and complex policy debate. Here’s another entertaining example…

privacymemes1

What struck me about this campaign is not so much the specifics of how it is adopting popular memes for its own purposes, but rather how such efforts exemplify the broader trend of using standardized meme templates as a new form of online political speech. In the past few years, a fairly small repertoire of stock memes (Futurama Fry, Advice Animals, etc.) have emerged as a cultural phenomenon, with their familiar joke set-ups serving as raw materials for a plethora of aspiring internet comedians. Originally popularized on Reddit discussion boards, these memes can now be easily customized by using a variety of sites like Memebase (part of the Cheezburger empire). While the vast majority of this stuff appears to be just for giggles, savvy activists like those above are beginning to latch on to this phenomenon as a means of articulating their political positions in the rapid-fire comedic language of internet culture. Some may view this as perhaps the ultimate dumbing-down of political discourse, but there seems to be a clear strategic value to using humorous pop-culture references as a way of making a message accessible to a broader public (particularly the youth demographic).

I wonder, however, if this stable of meme templates presents new limitations as well as new opportunities. For instance, if you’re not a fan of the sort of male-oriented geeky culture typically referenced in these memes (Futurama, Lord of the Rings, etc.) would the above make much sense to you? Are there any cultural/ideological assumptions or frameworks embedded in these templates, or are they completely adaptable to express any idea imaginable? The very concept of ‘the meme’ seems to be taking on a more and more narrow definition as of late, which is very different from how it was conceived more broadly in the 1990s by authors like Douglas Rushkoff (who was among the first to apply evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins’ original idea of cultural contagion to the context of media-based activism). Although new memes are certainly being generated every day, the increasing dominance of a handful of archetypal characters and images is a development that new media scholars should be attentive to when examining their uses in the political arena.

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One thought on “Meme Templates: The New Tool for Political Activism

  1. I agree that some of the geeky references may be lost on those that do not follow such things as futurama or LOTR. However, there are many memes that have powerful activist properties without the geek influence such as skeptical kid (a child who appears to be living in poverty questions our decadent way of life), and grumpy cat (a cat who appears to be frowning at everything). Memes such as these are available on google images and provide some much needed humor in the arena of political activism.

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