Memes: The next big thing have finally gone BIG
When actor Clint Eastwood spent a crucial prime-time slot at Republican National Convention berating a wooden chair he pretended Barack Obama was sitting in, there wasn’t a whole lot of need for the Obama presidential campaign to fire back.
It was ridiculous enough. But fire back they did - in a brutally effective fashion.
With an online meme.
The campaign’s Facebook and Twitter accounts posted an image of the President sitting on a chair at the Cabinet table. The accompanying caption? “This seat’s taken.”
The meme was the most retweeted of the Republican National Convention. If you’re not familiar with Twitter, that means it spread around the internet like wildfire.
Memes have gone mainstream over the past few years. See Clinton, Hillary. And while they’ve been around for almost as long as the internet itself, mostly as a way to make pithy statements (with brief text and a recognisable image) on newsgroups and message boards, the rise of social media and viral web hubs like Reddit have thrust them into the everyday interactions of most web users.
It’s a phenomenon that, like trolling, we’ve all only begun to discuss.
On Facebook, there are memes for schools (often accompanied by memes about teachers’ quirks), local areas (“Parramatta memes” or “Sunshine Coast memes”), professions (nurses jibbering about their struggles with their patients), the London Olympics and even about social customs - like “relationship memes”
They’re a great way for people to have fun bonding over similar interests.
But there’s huge potential for blowback. Teachers aren’t particularly happy about what their students are memeing about them (“Shit Mr Smith said”). Mayors are worried about memes reinforcing negative outside perceptions of their local areas (“Only on the Central Coast”. And could nurse meme-makers inadvertently be violating the privacy of their patients (“This is what it’s like replacing Sally’s bedpan”)?
Dealing with these issues is equally tricky as, say, dealing with trolls.
There is what’s called the Streisand effect. Barbra, the singer, tried to shut down a story in the local paper about the location of her holiday house. But her legal threats backfired when the mainstream media started reporting on court proceedings about the story Barbra was trying to shut down. Meaning more people than ever knew where she was holidaying.
That same thing happens all the time whenever someone tries to put the genie back in the bottle online. And there’s no place like politics when it comes to clumsy attempts to silence people.
As the example of President Obama’s campaign shows, memes are moving into the political world. Expect to see more at the next election.
Why? Well, if you were a candidate running for election, why would you waste your money on mail advertising when you could make a viral meme for free?
The only thing that goes viral on paper is anthrax, and that’s never a vote winner.
An academic who has studied social media for years, Associate Professor Axel Bruns at QUT, says it an effective way for campaigns to respond to minor attacks (like Eastwood’s) without elevating them into big issues.
Campaigns can be “cheeky and aggressive” online. But they’re particularly powerful way to reinforce the perceptions people already have, Bruns said.
“If you’ve got a meme that says ‘shit Tony Abbott says’ and it goes viral and other people get involved and add things that sound like things he might say… it reinforces a particular perception,” Mr Bruns said.
However inaccurate they may be, because perception is king when it comes to elections.
In the US, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney went no where in the polls after his party’s nominating convention. Clint Eastwood’s chair rant went viral - and sparked a thousand or more memes. Looking at those memes on Facebook would be the only impression many people formed of Mitt Romney’s election platform.
Who’s to say - memes may have swung the pendulum against Romney in that election.
And they’ll surely have an understated role in our own election next year.
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