MEMEs – The Mind-Viruses of Cultural Change

Keep Calm and Meme On - blue background, white text Keep Calm meme

If you recognise the style of this image and phrase, you’ve been infected by a meme-virus!

‘Meme’ is a term coined by English biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He defined ‘memes’ as self-replicating ideas or cultural DNA – beliefs and actions that infect human consciousness, and are transmitted from mind to mind.

Dawkins sought to show that just as genes are the biological code carriers of DNA which carry our physical selves for replication, memes are the equivalent in terms of transmitting culture.

There is now an established body of science around memes, called memetics:

Meme: an information pattern, held in an individual’s memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual’s memory.

Memetics: the theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes

To create some context around this abstract concept, here are some examples:

‘Computer Says No’ – this deadpan phrase from the TV series Little Britain became a meme for people who are frustrated when confronted with the indifference of electronic technology and the power it has over our lives.

‘Not Happy Jan!’ – a classic ad campaign for the Australian Yellow Pages in 2006, this meme is still used today to express displeasure.

‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – a motivational poster produced in 1939 at the start of the Second World War by the British government, it was intended to raise public morale following anticipated attacks on major cities.

The Nigerian dude who keeps telling you he has a large sum of money he needs moved, and can give you a tidy commission if only you can provide him with your bank details.

The seemingly endless list of movie catchphrases from ‘Bond, James Bond’ to ‘Say hello to my little friend’ to ‘He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy!’ to ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat’.

All memes.

But memes are not just catchphrases and advertising slogans. There are now a slew of meme-making websites where people can create memes for online sharing, using their own images and phrases, using images that have already become memes, or a mashup of both – they include Meme Center, Generator Meme, and Keep-Calm-O-Matic where you can create your very own ‘Keep Calm’ meme (there are over 5,800,000 memes out there that have been generated by this site alone).

Anyone can make internet memes, which both democratises the possibility of creating one, and also explains the variety in design quality, spelling, grammar and attempts at humour.

But memes aren’t just funny, cute or shocking content shared on social media and the internet, and they aren’t the preserve of the entertainment and advertising industry.

Memes are also social norms, habits, songs/ melodies, stories, skills, art, gestures, fashion trends – any type of information pattern that can be transmitted from one person to another.

The spread of Nazism and Christianity are also examples of memes at work, as is any other -ism (Marxism, Taoisim, Feminism). The Mexican Wave. The Sign of the Horns. The Yin-Yang symbol.

Someone, somewhere, started all of them – one person. And they spread, and stuck.

What is it about memes that makes them travel across space and time, infecting minds across language barriers?

Knowing that the sharing of cat pictures on social media is a meme in and of itself, and knowing that banking and finance tend to be topics that make people’s eyes glaze over, Positive Money hilariously combined a cutesy cat picture with a message about an aspect of banking:

picture of a cute ginger kitten sitting up on its hind paws, doe-eyed caption 'Fractional Reserve Banking Makes Cats Sad'

Did it work to get people fired up about fractional reserve banking? Probably not. But then its not designed to reach the already engaged.

The key question is, was it shared by money and finance-types in places where others not already exposed to this idea might see it and either smile, or goo-goo at the cat? Did it cause anyone to Google ‘fractional reserve banking’ or visit Positive Money’s site?

For those new to the concept of fractional reserve banking (and why would they care?), the kitty picture is more likely to work as a way to spark curiosity than a written article – in fact there’s a theory on this phenomenon called the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.

Memes and Sustainability

What about sustainability memes?

A well-known ‘green’ meme is the Mobius loop, which will be recognised by most people as the universal symbol that something is recyclable:

mobius loop - recycling symbol, three green arrows chasing each other

How can the success of this, and other memes, be identified and harnessed for other sustainability-related initiatives?

On his blog at Terra Infirma, sustainability expert Gareth Kane examines the meme-phenomenon of Movember and offers up some reasons why it has succeeded – fun, novelty, peer pressure, relevance and great branding – and why most sustainability initiatives do not:

In comparison, most sustainability engagement programmes are, at best, like one of those multitudinous nude charity calendars – hackneyed, clichéd and unoriginal. They’re produced with the best of intentions, but the world yawns.

If you want to get a sustainability meme running in your organisation, you could do worse than use Movember as a yardstick.

San Francisco consultancy DarwinSF is undertaking some work on how memetics can be applied to climate science, with partner Joe Brewer – who has a background in cognitive linguistics (how language relates to conceptualisation) – noting:

Global warming is a meme. No-one experiences it directly. They experience it through perception. The science is pointing out a very real empirical phenomenon, but the only way people can experience it as stories and ideas in their lives.

Darwin SF’s report ‘Global Warming is A Virus!’ – which merits a separate blog post itself – is available as a slideshare presentation.

Secrets of Meme Success

one match igniting the first in a row

The transmission power of ‘Not Happy, Jan’ is such that the comments on the YouTube vid for the ad include one from someone unaware of the origins of the phrase: ‘…so thaaaaaat’s where it came from!’ and: ‘Indelibly etched into the minds of many Australians.’

Another commenter asks:

How did this ad become so legendary? People are STILL saying the famous ‘Not happy Jan!’ all the time!

Good question!

Memetics is far from an exact science, and although the internet is full of advice on ‘how to create a viral video/campaign’ and the like, if there was a formula to it, it would be being used by everyone.

To some extent it can be designed, but even good design is no guarantee, and much of it is pure luck.

Here are some good rules of thumb:

  • make it short – there’s increasing amount of everything out there competing for the same allocation of time and attention
  • keep it simple – the more complex it is, the more work the brain has to do to process the unfamiliar
  • make the message matter
  • make it memorable by using metaphor, repetition
  • create an emotional impact – for sustainability, sticking mostly with positive (humour, awe) rather than negative (shocking, disgusting) triggers
  • make it shareable content – people share things with others because they want them to have the same experience
  • design an experience – take the audience on a journey, tell them a story

In my view, one of the best example of meme-success for sustainability is The Story of Stuff Project series of videos presented by Annie Leonard, and produced by Free Range Studios.

Commencing with the original documentary in 2007, this series continues to have a huge impact, having been incorporated into school curricula and corporate sustainability trainings; seen in over 228 countries; translated into at least 15 languages; and viewed by over 12 million people. And it reflects the majority of the points listed above.

Think about what you share, online or offline – why? This will give you some insights into how to approach your change work.

If you want your ideas or behaviours to ignite and to spread, consider how you can meme all the things!

meme all the things character

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The Art of Change

quote, white capital letters on black background 'the most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire'

Quote by Ferdinand Foch

If civil rights activist Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat for a white passenger, and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech were defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, what have been the cultural touchstones of the sustainability movement?

Not conferences or treaties, but films, speeches, songs, stories, inciting events – something that lights the fires of passion within a group of people committed to a cause?

Right.

Aside from the Academy Award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth finally bringing the issue of climate change into the mainstream over five years ago, it’s hard to think of many (if any).

But do we need them? After all, we do have our overwhelming scientific evidence, reams of data and information, on how we are undermining ecosystems and communities with our current modus operandi. A rational response to such information would be to act on it.

Yet it seems the more scientific research, data and information we amass on the ecological and social crises characterised as the sustainability challenge, the less we seem to make any systematic headway on responding to what it is telling us.

Is it because its too complex?

Is it because it does not move us?

Is it because we’re appealing to the brain, yet the values in people’s hearts may not align with the incoming information?

It’s likely to be a combination of all three – people switch off because mentally processing data is extra work in a world overloaded with visual and sonic information and daily work and family demands; it doesn’t create a shift because its appealing to the rational part of the brain; and it may often be clashing with other deeply held values.

It’s also because we’ve diminished and devalued the role of the arts.

anonymous man in suit holding up black banner (covers his face) with white caps text: I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free. I have bills just like you. Thank you for understanding.'

Bill McKibben, American environmentalist and author, noted:

What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art. We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?

Has the green/sustainability movement lost its way in the left brain, hamstrung itself with science, neutered itself with numbers?

In his essay, The Quants and The Poets, Dark Mountain Project director Paul Kingsnorth took aim at the over-reliance on numbers and the near-absence of narrative, stories and attention paid to worldviews:

…the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers. Its single-minded obsession with climate change, and its insistence on seeing this as an engineering challenge which must be overcome with technological solutions guided by the neutral gaze of Science, has forced it into a ghetto from which it may never escape. Most greens in the mainstream now spend their time arguing about whether they prefer windfarms to wave machines or nuclear power to carbon sequestration. They offer up remarkably confident predictions of what will happen if we do or don’t do this or that, all based on mind-numbing numbers cherry-picked from this or that ‘study’ as if the world were a giant spreadsheet which only needs to be balanced correctly…

We live in a remarkably literal-minded and reductionistic culture. I’m struck listening to or reading the news, for example, by how nothing is seen to be ‘real’ unless it is sanctioned by the priesthoods of either Science or Business, and preferably both…which produces an environmental movement made up of frustrated, passionate people who feel obliged to act like speak-your-weight machines just to be heard. If we want to move beyond the futility and despair imposed by the cold narrowness of this worldview, where do we look? What is missing here is stories, and an understanding of the importance of stories in getting to the bottom of what is really going on. Because at root, this whole squabble between worldviews is not about numbers at all – it is about narratives…

These days, the green movement is being taken over by quants. It’s easy to see why. Quants present easy, numbered, labelled arguments which may sometimes require a maths degree but don’t require a rewiring of your worldview or an examination of your narrative. A green quant might be telling you to change your lightbulbs or come out on the streets in favour of a nuclear power plant or a windfarm, but he’s not asking you to examine your values or your society’s underlying mythology. And if you talk to him about this, it is very easy indeed for him to laugh and tell you loftily that this is all very nice but is hardly comparable to the serious business of saving the world one emission at a time.

It’s not that we don’t need our scientists, our ‘quants’, of course we do – but this is only one method of knowing, of being (disclaimer: Crux’s undergraduate degree was in arts, majoring in history and geography – but some of my best friends are scientists). It is also that the arts and sciences are considered ‘separate’ that is part of the problem – because there are many inspiring and beautiful aspects of science and mathematics, just as there is logic and reason to the arts (architecture, Aristotle’s three-act structure of plays and novels).

The issue currently is that public discourse on sustainability, and just about everything else, is now overwhelmingly about numbers and reason. Everything has to have a cost-benefit analysis to be justified. We seem to have lost the capacity to make decisions based on values that are anything other than numbers, particularly dollars.

And if change comes more from the heart than the mind, if we are more receptive to stories than information, to visual communication rather than words and data, what is the role of art, in its broadest sense?

Artist Jay Griffiths put it eloquently in this extract from her essay ‘The Far-Seers of Art’, Climate Change Needs Persuasive Art, Not Propaganda:

The issue of climate change needs persuasion rather than propaganda and art understands the psychology of persuasion. It is hard to allow oneself to be drawn by overt dogma, which is delivered in the daylight areas of the mind.

Art works in the shuttered twilights where darkness bestows a tenderness and protection, a secret place where the psyche feels safe enough to alter. It is always easier to change one’s mind in the dark.

I am far from an expert, an historian, or a sociologist of the arts, but a keen observer of stories and cultural phenomena. Of course art has many manifestations (including one of my favourites, political cartoons, which I have omitted in this post, but may cover separately along with film in a later one) – here are some examples of various forms which have influenced social change, and had an emotional impact on me.

Photography

The power of the still image to capture attention and invite its audience into the story it represents is enormous, particularly if it is unique, compelling, or provocative.

‘The Blue Marble’, the  first clear image of planet earth from space in 1972, became a defining image of the emerging environmental movement in the 1970s:

…the image was seen by many as a depiction of Earth’s frailty, vulnerability, and isolation amid the vast expanse of space. NASA archivist Mike Gentry has speculated that The Blue Marble is the most widely distributed image in human history.

The iconic Pulitzer Prize winning image of nine year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc, taken as she fled naked, screaming and burning down a road in the aftermath of a napalm attack, changed the way the world viewed the Vietnam War – writing in 2ooo, the International Herald Tribune’s Tom Buerkle (my emphasis) said:

For anyone old enough to remember the Vietnam War the photograph of the naked 9-year-old girl running toward a camera screaming in agony as napalm burned her flesh is seared into the consciousness. Her image has become a symbol of war that transcends debate about the rights or wrongs of U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Photographer and artist Chris Jordan’s work in capturing and communicating ‘mass scale’ of the impact of human activity is outstanding. Here at TED, Jordan talks about his work, including discussion of unconscious behaviours, denial and collective impacts:

…as we try to educate ourselves about the enormity of our culture, the information that we have to work with is these gigantic numbers: numbers in the millions, in the hundreds of millions, in the billions and now in the trillions…We can’t make meaning out of these enormous statistics. And so that’s what I’m trying to do with my work, is to take these numbers, these statistics from the raw language of data, and to translate them into a more universal visual language, that can be felt. Because my belief is, if we can feel these issues, if we can feel these things more deeply, then they’ll matter to us more than they do now. And if we can find that, then we’ll be able to find, within each one of us, what it is that we need to find to face the big question, which is: how do we change?

Jordan’s series Running the NumbersRunning the Numbers IIIntolerable Beauty and Midway capture enormous numbers in visual form, and the impacts of our activities that are invisible because they are ‘out there’, as a work of art.

Make sure you zoom in, scroll down, read the captions. Here’s a sample of Chris’s work: 

Partial zoom:

Close up:

People are fiends for images – one of the reasons social media sites like Pinterest have exploded is that people love viewing, collecting and sharing images. As a page administrator for a community of over 5,500 people, I can say without doubt that regardless of what thought-provoking questions an admin might ask, or what stories are provided, it is the images that are the most liked, commented on and shared – by a mile.

Sculpture

Jason deCaires Taylor’s Underwater Sculpture is both arresting and stunning in its unexpectedness, and is a surreal insight into what a world reclaimed by water could do to all our human artefacts. Ironically, this image is from a series titled Inertia.

sculpture of man sitting on couch watching TV on the ocean floor

There are a series of these sculptures in various locations around the world, including off the coast of Mexico and Greece.

Poetry

To understand the emotional power of poetry – is there an Australian who is not affected by the strains of Waltzing Matilda, or the lines of Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country? Every culture and nation has its defining poems and songs.

I visited the redwood forests north of San Francisco in 2001 – a memento of my visit was a postcard, with the following poem by Joseph Strauss, Chief Engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge:

Here, sown by the Creator’s hand.
In serried ranks, the Redwoods stand:
No other clime is honored so,
No other lands their glory know.

The greatest of Earth’s living forms,
Tall conquerors that laugh at storms;
Their challenge still unanswered rings,
Through fifty centuries of kings.

The nations that with them were young,
Rich empires, with their forts far-flung,
Lie buried now-their splendor gone:
But these proud monarchs still live on.

So shall they live, when ends our days,
When our crude citadels decay;
For brief the years allotted man,
But infinite perennials’ span.

This is their temple, vaulted high,
And here, we pause with reverent eye,
With silent tongue and awestruck soul;
For here we sense life’s proper goal:

To be like these, straight, true and fine,
to make our world like theirs, a shrine;
Sink down, Oh, traveler, on your knees,
God stands before you in these trees.

I have not yet been to the old growth forests in Tasmania in my own country. But after having been to their equivalent in the States and encountering this poem, when I returned home, I signed up as a member of the Wilderness Society, the largest environmental conservation organisation in Australia. Because I was already involved in various initiatives, it wasn’t as a front-line activist – but it was something.

Every time I read that poem, I am back among the redwoods, getting vertigo on the ground, craning to see where the tops of the trees are.

Music

woody guthrie with guitar graffitied with 'this machine kills fascists'

Image credit

A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.

Joe Hill, labor organiser and songwriter

Just as with poetry, every cultural group has songs which are meaningful and cherished, which endure. Key among these are folk songs, protest songs, songs that tell the stories of people and their lives, their joys, triumphs, struggles and tragedies. In 2010, the New Statesman published a list of Top 20 Political Songs that spanned decades of the 20th century, but which focuses heavily on North American and British artists.

A six part PBS series Get Up, Stand Up traced the history of pop and politics, including the Live Aid concerts of 1985 which were watched by around two billion people in 150 nations around the globe, at the time, 40% of the planet’s population. Widely criticised for failing to solve the ongoing humanitarian crises in Africa (an objective that was never set for, nor possible to achieve as a result of the events), the concerts did act as a massive ‘signal interruption’ and put the issue of Africa on the political agenda. Live Aid co-organiser Bob Geldof:

The point about Live Aid was of course the money, the 30 million. But it galvanised way beyond that. I hadn’t fully anticipated the number of people watching. The number of people watching became a political lobby. Thatcher agreed to put poverty on the G7 agenda, accepting the argument that poverty is a destabilising influence on the global economy.

John Lennon’s classic song Imagine has been included in a wide range of most-influential and greatest-songs-of-all-time lists. Covered by more than 100 artists, this song was listed third in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time:

…22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself. (John’s wife) Ono said Imagine was ‘just what John believed: that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out.’

Lennon’s lyrics had a huge impact on the worldview of people everywhere, including offering a way to think about the world in terms other than the nation-state, and expanding people’s consciousness about who ‘we’ are.

Novels

Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (on my lengthy ‘to read’ list) is often cited as an influential novel about human and societal transformation, as its theme examines cultural mythology and its relationship to ethics and sustainability. Jostein Gaarder’s novel Sophie’s World takes the lead character on a journey of discovery through the history of western philosophy, wrapped up in a mystery story.

British author Ben Elton’s satirical novels Stark, Gridlock and This Other Eden encapsulate social and environmental issues in story (warning – links contain plot spoilers). I will always remember the impact of the very last page and line of Stark (which is only achieved if the rest of the book has been read!) – if it is an author’s goal to leave the reader contemplating their book for a long time, Elton succeeded.

Arguably the most powerful meme of recent times is from a novel – the ‘V’ mask used by the Occupy movement. To the uninitiated, it is the ‘Occupy’ mask; to those who recognise it, it is the ‘Guy Fawkes’ mask. Those who are aware of the film ‘V for Vendetta’ know that the mask is worn by the character ‘V’, an anonymous freedom fighter against government tyranny. But the symbolism and history of ‘V’ goes back even further – it comes from a graphic novel written in 1982, set in a dystopian near-future United Kingdom.

If there is one symbol that has created visual consistency for Occupiers across the globe, it is the V mask – although in a twist of irony, it may be to the chagrin of Occupiers protesting corporate influence that Time Warner owns the rights to the image and is paid a licensing fee for the sale of each mask!

Street Art

Street art, incorporating graffiti, culture jamming, subvertising and billboard liberation, is as much art as any other form. The Real Art of Street Art Facebook page which collects and showcases street art from around the world has over 135,000 followers.

Banksy is arguably one of the most famous street artists, and has attracted a cult following for his work, having self-published a number of books of his work, and also had several books written about his work.

graffiti art of beggar holding a sign that says 'keep your coins, I want change'

Image credit

The latest incarnation of street art is ‘Brandalism’ in the UK:

Twenty-six artists, including Montgomery, have now completed the world’s first international collaborative “subvertising” campaign, hijacking 35 billboards across Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and London. They seek “to challenge the destructive impacts of the advertising industry” as well as to tackle its detrimental impact on issues such as body image, consumerism and debt.

Social Media

It’s not only authors, filmmakers, poets and playwrights and elusive street artists who can make a splash with their work – with the rise of social media, anyone can become a content creator, with potential reach of messages limited only by the creativity and ingenuity of the individual in producing something ‘shareable’ that will be shared, Tweeted, reTweeted, pinned over and over on Pinterest and more.

Those with little to no graphic design skill now also have a range of online tools with which they can generate simple images that have the potential to become memes.

Recent meme platforms include What I Reallysomeecards and the hugely popular Keep Calm – the latter derived from a poster produced by the British government at the start of World War II, and intended to bolster morale in the event of wartime disaster or invasion. In 1939 there was only limited distribution, but the poster was rediscovered in 2000 and has found resonance with a 21st century public. An open source site for whoever wishes to create content means that what is created is not always of high quality (eg. spelling errors), but it gives anyone with an idea the opportunity to create – and all posters created are able to be voted on, shaping a ‘top rated’ set.

Meme Generator allows people to use images of ‘characters’ (and you’ll be familiar with many of them, if you’ve spent any time on social media) or their own images, and add their own text, slogans or quotes to create unique messages, often mixing two memes, in this case the V/Occupy meme and ‘Keep Calm’:

mashup of 'keep calm' and V memes - V mask in place of crown at top and text 'keep calm and occupy'

Image credit

Anther approach is to undertake something unique or audacious and document it online – people love to live vicariously through others who dare to do things they themselves do not, like give up their jobs and travel the world. Mark Boyle became ‘The Moneyless Man’ by making a decision, living it and writing about it. Now everyone wants to know the story – why is he doing it? How is he doing it?

Social media pioneer and film exec Chris Adams (whose qualifications include a PhD in poetry) helped create Participant Media – the film company established by e-Bay founder Jeff Skoll. Adams characterises Participant as making $300 million dollar commercials for social issues designed to inspire people to become advocates for social change.

Adams points out that social media is simply the latest incarnation of a storytelling medium – that we used to tell our stories in small groups around the campfire. The internet and social media has expanded our ability to connect with others beyond our physical location, and increased the size of our ‘campfire’.

Billions of people are telling each other stories online right now. That, rather than fanning the flames of polarised debate, is the way to ‘set the human soul on fire’.

While it’s true we can’t all be an astronaut, a war photographer, or an internationally famous musician; while we might not have the clout of a Chris Adams or a Bob Geldof, or have the leeway in our professional lives to do something outrageous, we can all find our own ways that let us ‘interrupt’ the status quo, and convey meaning in ways that touch people emotionally, through story, through the arts, through creative expression.

What poem, song, painting, sculpture, play, film or other piece of artwork has touched or inspired you? How did it change you?

What are the defining stories, songs, poems, films, plays, memes of the sustainability movement for you?

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