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.

Unsurprisingly, plenty of memes were made out of this

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.”

Bad. Ass.

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.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST.

Most commented

46 comments

Show oldest | newest first

    • Pedro says:

      07:05am | 28/09/12

      WTF is a meme? Why did I never read this word in a newspaper article before 2011? Is it a facebook gen thing? And i have never ever heard this word spoken? “Hey Thommo, did you see that meme on Obama. Hilar, man. Totes.” Does it mean parody. I could google but I’m too lazy.
      BTW, in the name of accuracy in journalism, I think the “wooden chair” was made of wood and metal.

    • iansand says:

      08:09am | 28/09/12

      Meme is a meme.

    • Null and Void says:

      08:23am | 28/09/12

      I can haz cheezburger. Look it up. You people are so far behind, they’ve been going strong on the interwebs since at least 2005.

    • steve says:

      09:46am | 28/09/12

      A meme is to culture as a gene is to biology.  It’s a term coined by Richard Dawkins to explain how culture propagates.

      However it has been bastardised by young people on the internet to mean picture with a funny caption.

    • Rebecca says:

      10:54am | 28/09/12

      Meme refers to anything (an idea, behaviour, etc.) that is spread quickly throughout social culture, and the term was around long before the internet.
      It’s become a popular term recently because the internet allows memes to move and grow across a wider audience in a shorter space of time.

    • Reneel says:

      11:13am | 28/09/12

      I get a good laugh out of meme’s, especially the ones on FB about the town I grew up in, and live in. Classic.
      But is it pronounced ‘me me’ or ‘meem’ ??
      Or is it just an online thing to never be spoken aloud?

    • Admiral Ackbar says:

      01:31pm | 28/09/12

      You probably missed it due to the fact that 95 per cent of them just aren’t funny.

    • steve says:

      02:11pm | 28/09/12

      @Reneel it’s pronounced meem.

    • Inky says:

      02:26pm | 28/09/12

      Bold words from someone who uses Ackbar as their handle.

      knowyourmeme.com

      Learn.

    • Troy Flynn says:

      02:37pm | 28/09/12

      Doesn’t it mean to copy someone’s actions, like the Tim Tebow, getting down on one knee head bowed in prayer or Kobe Bryant “Faith Hilling” which apparently means grabbing your shirt in the nipple area and pulling it forward as if to make out you have breasts.

    • TChong says:

      07:14am | 28/09/12

      How funny was Dirty Harry ?
      The guy who lost 2012 for the Repubs.
      His stand-up routine was the turning point of the Republican campaign.
      After his antics, the “Beltway"commentariat wouldnt take the Repubs campaign seriosly, and with hindsight, who can blame them. ?
      Dan- dont be too concerned about those nurses.
      Unless the tweeter/ blogger gave the pts name, and location,  “Sally"and her bedpan could be anywhere.
      Also , while it may pain the ego of many to know, the truth is the average nurse, or carpenter, or copper, or teacher, or office worker, journalist etc, etc, etc ,dont give a rats about the general public, once away from the work area.
      Thats human nature
      . ( so, very good chance that “Sally” will remain anomynous, because, who cares?)

    • Craig says:

      07:28am | 28/09/12

      Disingenuous or naive article. Memes have been a feature of politics for centuries. Think I the classic anti-soviet and anti-American posters of the 1960s, think of the political cartoons in newspapers of the 19th and early 20th centuries (when newspapers still had readers), or the handbills and posters of the 18th century. Shakespeare’s famous lines, or the poetry we now call ‘nursery rhymes’ prior to that (for example remember who was ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ and who led all those soldiers who could not repair Humpty Dumpty). Getting the children of the world all chanting the same anti-government statements is a huge meme coup!

      Historians have traced memes back to Ancient Greece, Egypt under the Pharoahs and China’s first dynasty.

      The concept of an idea formulated in an easily spreadable way is as old as human history.

      Certainly we now have more options and faster distribution systems, but the Internet only amplifies memes, it did not create them. We simply have billions of people with the education and tools to create and distribute them.

      Sure we called some memes ‘propaganda’ where it had the goal of influencing someone’s views’, but it is all the same concept - a contagious vehicle for a particular concept or idea.

    • Esteban says:

      07:28am | 28/09/12

      Image macros aren’t memes.

      They are ‘jokes’ for the mentally incapacitated…

    • steve says:

      09:49am | 28/09/12

      Image macros are a form of meme.  But describing them as memes isn’t very useful.  It’s like me describing what I’m typing this on as an object.

    • Joan says:

      07:29am | 28/09/12

      Shit Gillard said ~There will be no carbon tax under the Government I lead.

    • Tim says:

      07:48am | 28/09/12

      Why am I not surprised that Joan doesn’t know what a meme is.

    • TChong says:

      08:03am | 28/09/12

      “shit Gillard said”
      @ only 7:29 AM. !
      Rather early in the morning for your potty mouth,,isnt it Joan ?  wink

    • Joan says:

      08:31am | 28/09/12

      Hey Tim and TCHong ’ Excuse me but who wrote `‘shit Tony Abbott says’ ???.I`m just following Daniel take on meme.  Good to read article before you start throwing stones
      In fact this quote is a good example of meme still alive today especially if directed to video of Gillard - it gets a life as soon as carbon pricing/tax discussed   and for revealing Gillard character and value of her promises

    • Tim says:

      08:56am | 28/09/12

      Joan,
      Daniel didn’t write that bit.

      It was an off the cuff example from the academic, and you know that academics don’t meme for shiz.

    • Joan says:

      10:03am | 28/09/12

      Tim: David may have not have originated it but he chose it for use here. -  tells you what Davids intentions are here- million and one examples to pick from but he choses that one. That`s meme and person for you - you pick and chose and pass it on.

    • Mahhrat says:

      07:45am | 28/09/12

      Two things:

      1) - They’re a form of political speech.  Are we seriously going to discuss limiting that?

      2) - IP of the person and how it’s used.  You’re a public figure if you’re a politician, so you’re fair game.

      Memes are a tool, just like newspaper, my screwdriver, or a pushbike.  It’s how they’re used that matters.

      There will always be idiots who misuse these things - hell, most of them are in Canberra as we speak, enjoying Foie Gras and laughing at that Eastwood meme.  That doesn’t mean they’re bad.

      We have so much information to process, memes were inevitable.  The best part of them is, the more “officials” try to use them, the more they’ll get the piss taken by the true users - Joe and Joanne Public.

    • Furry Jesus says:

      09:15am | 28/09/12

      Enjoying Foie Gras in Canberra? That’s so 70s. Nobody eats pate anymore, particularly in Canberra where people tend to pursue healthier lifestyles. And likely to balk at eating foie gras simply because it involves force-feeding geese.

      But perhaps you were just trying to be metaphorical in your lame stereotyping of Canberra residents. Cheap shot. 0-

    • Joan says:

      07:52am | 28/09/12

      Shit - Gillard should come clean about the 2010 coup. Why did she prepare an acceptance speech weeks before 24 June 2010???

    • iansand says:

      08:13am | 28/09/12

      Is mindless drivel on the Punch a meme?  There seems to be a lot of it.

    • Pedro says:

      09:38am | 28/09/12

      WTF has this got to dow ith memes?
      Can we have one forum where these mindless political apparachiks (sp?) can stop spouting mindless drivel.
      Joan - you, my dear, are the antithesis of intellectualism. You are like a python or a cobra or an octopus squeezing the life out of The Punch (with apologies to Tony Abbott). Please go to a different forum. This one is about memes - whatever they are.

    • PsychoHyena says:

      10:17am | 28/09/12

      @iansand, it’s okay, Joan is just trying to give her life relevance and wants to be known for “creating a meme”.

    • Gianna says:

      02:03pm | 28/09/12

      @Pedro
      Yet you’re entitled to,  and happy to perpetuate the ‘Abbott punch ‘meme?

    • fml says:

      09:02am | 28/09/12

      Cracked.com!

      Kwality.

    • Tubesteak says:

      10:56am | 28/09/12

      Totes

    • T-rev says:

      11:32am | 28/09/12

      Cracked.com

      Funniest website on the interweb by a country mile…

    • Admiral Ackbar says:

      01:55pm | 28/09/12

      Stories by Cody or Brockway are pure gold. Cracked funnies ftw, nothing comes close. Strangely enough this includes people making up things for seemingly retarded cats to say.

    • Inky says:

      02:06pm | 28/09/12

      blocked at work for reason: tasteless.

      Makes me laugh every time, that. Since when has a supposed lack of taste been grounds for filtering…

    • Lord Blackadder says:

      08:50am | 28/09/12

      “Meme” was a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” (1976). It was described by Dawkins as an idea or behaviour that spreads from one person to another within their culture. These can be transmitted through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, etc., with the Internet being the latest means of transmission. Memes are not new, the method of transmitting them has merely evolved.

    • MD says:

      09:07am | 28/09/12

      Image macros are NOT necessarily memes. They can become them, but 99.99% of people use the word incorrectly.

    • steve says:

      09:58am | 28/09/12

      The concept of Image macros as a whole is a meme.  Though each image macro itself isn’t necessarily a meme.

    • Furry Jesus says:

      09:14am | 28/09/12

      Richard Dawkins’ use of the concept of the meme in social contexts is recent and well-expounded. Go to the master.

    • SydneyGirl says:

      10:41am | 28/09/12

      Today tumblr has been having fun with the Netanyahu red line cartoon bomb.

      Go Bibi awesome presentation skillz!

      Not that the Ahmed bloke lacks them.

    • Baloo says:

      11:24am | 28/09/12

      I’m getting pretty annoyed at the tech section of News.com.au
      All they seem to do now is write stories about funny things they saw on Reddit, usually it’s about 4 paragraphs worth of writing when all they are trying to say is “LAWLS LOOK AT THIS CAT :D!!”

      I want to read about interesting new discoveries and inventions.

    • Inky says:

      02:03pm | 28/09/12

      “I want to read about interesting new discoveries and inventions. “

      In Australia?

    • Ohcomeon says:

      03:30pm | 28/09/12

      Ive recently realised that 90% of every item from news.com.au that isnt local news, I had already heard from reddit, sometimes months ago.

      Remember when reporters used to go out and get stories?

    • pussed off in grafton says:

      04:44pm | 28/09/12

      There’s a cat that roams around my building and it never does anything clever, funny or even stupid.

      Loser!

      What’s a meme again?

    • PsychoHyena says:

      03:49pm | 28/09/12

      I think Gina is a meme, isn’t she?

    • Swamp Thing says:

      06:10pm | 28/09/12

      Lets just have live coverage of convicted criminals fighting to the death with sharp objects. Compelling viewing…. I would totally go for the collecters ed on blu-ray.

 

Facebook Recommendations

Read all about it

Punch live

Up to the minute Twitter chatter

Recent posts

The latest and greatest

The Punch is moving house

The Punch is moving house

Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…

Nosebleed Section

choice ringside rantings

From: Hasbro, go straight to gaol, do not pass go

Tim says:

They should update other things in the game too. Instead of a get out of jail free card, they should have a Dodgy Lawyer card that not only gets you out of jail straight away but also gives you a fat payout in compensation for daring to arrest you in the first place. Instead of getting a hotel when you… [read more]

From: A guide to summer festivals especially if you wouldn’t go

Kel says:

If you want a festival for older people or for families alike, get amongst the respectable punters at Bluesfest. A truly amazing festival experience to be had of ALL AGES. And all the young "festivalgoers" usually write themselves off on the first night, only to never hear from them again the rest of… [read more]

Gentle jabs to the ribs

Superman needs saving

Superman needs saving

Can somebody please save Superman? He seems to be going through a bit of a crisis. Eighteen months ago,… Read more

28 comments

Newsletter

Read all about it

Sign up to the free News.com.au newsletter