Every day, people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds flood with information from a wide range of sources. Alongside stories of Donald Trump’s rise in national polls, the volatile Chinese stock market and gravitational waves, lurk memes of the Harlem Shake, President Barack Obama’s “Not Bad” face and Grumpy Cat. No matter your social media platform, you have probably seen a meme, or an image of some culturally trending subject with a humorous caption. Memes are becoming more common due to the rise of the social media, popping up in inboxes, college spam, social media and their own websites. At first glance, it looks like there is no commonality between a Philosoraptor meme and that well-written New York Times piece on helicopter parenting. However, memes can and should be viewed as a handy complement to traditional yellow press journalism and as a way to interest people in news.
At its core, journalism is an effort to relay information about relevant issues to the public. Cumulatively, it is a journey in gathering information, layering it in a logically accessible and compelling way and presenting it. Journalists often have trouble increasing readership because of disinterest in news and inaccessibility of articles. On the other hand, memes are notable for being easy to create, understand and transmit. Memes are the fingerprint of culture because they are often created about the most salient issues of the day. Because of that, memes often change as society reacts to unfolding events.
The definition of journalism has expanded over time to encompass everything from documentaries to Pulitzer prize-winning photos to shows like “60 Minutes” and NPR podcasts. Common to all these forms of media is the goal of presenting the news and journalists’ interpretations of it to the public. Memes are not widely regarded as a form of journalism per se, and are often viewed as satire devoid of instructional value. However, memes should be viewed as a newly emerging form of journalism. While memes are not always accurate and often present snippets of information, they incite discussion about crucial political issues and encourage those normally apathetic to the news to do more research. Furthermore, memes can be created by anyone and serve as a democratic way of bringing millions of disinterested people to the conversation. Finally, memes stand out in a cluttered cyberspace because of their brevity and humor.
The presence of memes has been noticeable in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections. Many of the candidates’ supporters create spoof candidate Facebook pages with memes about important campaign events or policies. Among the most prominent pages are Barnie Sandlers, Tad Crude, Macko Rubie, Dolan J. Tramp and Jab Bish. The memes on these pages are often both humorous and rooted in current contentious political debates. Barnie Sandlers’ Facebook page is a good example because of its frequent postings and large range of topics. One of the memes alludes to the high degree of income inequality in the United States. The caption says, “Today the top 400 memers own more than 2.13 trillion memes. More than the bottom 150 memers combined.” The page features memes on everything from marijuana legalization to Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric about minorities to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Like infographics, photography and video, memes should be viewed as a useful complement to press journalism. In 2015, Twitter launched Periscope, a live video-streaming application of news coverage. Facebook recently started its Trending sidebar; users can search for events and see results posted as articles, GIFs and memes. Outlets like FiveThirtyEight and The New York Times post interactive infographics to help users access the information they need. Media outlets have also recognized the importance of memes, with publications like The Huffington Post and Chicago Tribune writing articles on memes like “Damn, Daniel” With the intersection of these trends, it only makes sense that memes today are emerging as a powerful way to get people interested in the world around them.
Sabrina Leung ‘18 is the Digital Editor majoring in International Relations-Political Science with a minor in History. She is best reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @sabrinatzleung on Twitter.