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Question #89980 posted on 07/11/2017 6:26 p.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I was just listening to Season 7, Episode 1 of the podcast. There was some disagreement about the impact memes have the potential to make and it threw me back to an article I read from the Journal of Visual Culture. Aside from being genuinely entertaining, and one of the most interesting things I've read in a long time, it makes some solid points in favor of memes making an impact. Thoughts?

Batman, Pandaman, and the Blindman: A Case Study in Social Change Memes and Internet Censorship in China

Disclaimer: some of the meme content is pretty offensive, thematic but not visual.

-Lizard King


Dear you,

Memes actually remind me a lot of commedia dell'arte, a form of theater that relied on fixed social types, or characters. These were often exaggerations of real people. Because the art form was based on consistent tropes (which I would compare to memes), it was easy for the common people to understand and follow the plot. It was also very easy to use these tropes to tell almost any kind of story or riff of almost any situation, much like memes today.

This art form went on to influence many significant works, which often had political implications. For instance, the character of Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart was influenced by some of these tropes. This opera critiqued the upper class and portrayed the servants as sympathetic main characters, which was revolutionary for the time.

I would tend to agree with the article that memes have more power than you would think. This has actually been portrayed quite well by HBO's Veep (Note: do not watch this if you are uncomfortable with profanity), where memes of the main character, Selina Meyer, have threatened to derail her political career multiple times.

Another example of memes having an influence has been in the rise of the alt-right. I've personally seen a lot of memes that are simply "not politically correct" be used to introduce people to alt-right ideas. As people get more comfortable with them, they often end up more receptive to some of the more extreme ideas than they would have been if they'd been introduced at the outset. (This technique is often called "red pilling" someone and I would NOT recommend googling it).

Memes are very accessible and easy to make, which makes them a more democratic form of self-expression and media than traditional forms of art or communication. However, they are very versatile and have humor built into them, which makes them very effective at satire, which has always been an important and influential form of expression. Because memes typically express themselves in the form of a brief image, they also cater well to our social media, short-attention-span, soundbite culture better than videos or articles.

Finally, because memes appear deceptively simple and insignificant, any attempts to censor memes often comes across as excessively sensitive, punitive, or anti-free-speech. This means that it's very difficult for the powers that be to curb memes without shooting themselves in the foot or provoking a backlash.