- An element of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.
- An image, video, etc. that is passed electronically from one Internet user to another.
When the 2012 presidential election season began, it didn’t promise to be the most entertaining of battles. Between the thoughtfully meticulous Barack Obama, the business-savvy Mitt Romney and the grim reality of the country’s present state, the race for the White House seemed like a straightforward and serious affair. HA
Turns out, when it comes to memorable quotes and absurd gaffes, this was the election season to end ’em all. Neither candidate was safe from having their less-than-ideal words immortalized by everyone from talking heads to web-savvy college kids. The Tumblr memes, Facebook pages, YouTube videos and fake Twitter accounts that resulted in their missteps have been the most creative and powerful ones that we’ve ever seen.
But the age-old-question-I-ask-every-week resurfaces yet again.
What does it mean to the future of politics and communication?
The answer is…mixed.
Official academics and unofficial academics agree that the influence of online political humor is strong, but it remains to be seen if its persuasive component is as strong to sway voter attitudes. The academics and myself included are focused on specifically the young voter crowd.
Jocy C. Baumgartner conducted an interesting research project on the effect of political humor online on young voters after the 2004 election. Her results were mixed when she found that exposure to a two and a half minute clip parodying President George W. Bush yeileded in raised evaluations of him in interest but also a negative evaluation of political institutions. The sample was taken out of a online university crowd and Baumgartner included in her analysis that because most youths are online her sample should not be generalized for the age group – though the data is still valid.
In search of some more quantitative research on memes in the recent election I realized I’ll have to wait or…conduct my own very small sample. Which I did.
Disclaimer: I have never formally conducted a survey and performed a research analysis of findings. That being said, this was fun to do and was educational … Sorta.
1. First definition and example of typical meme
Typical memes use a picture open to interpretation that serves as the basis for captions to capture the message of the picture. Like this
2. My sample: The 15 young people around me in a local crowded café with laptops.
- Approach strangers (be charming and make friends)
- Ask if they are interested in humoring me in a few meme and online political humor questions
- If they complied, ask the following questions:
1. Did you follow coverage of the recent presidential race?
2. Did you find any humor in the coverage?
3. Did you encounter any images, called memes, particularly funny?
4. How would you describe your reaction to them?
5. Did you personally share any images or memes with your social network?
Findings and Analysis:
Of the ten out of fifteen that actually shared their time and thoughts with me –Next time I will use some incentive, like cookies- I found that 10 out of 10 had followed the race quite closely, found humor in the coverage, had seen memes and shared the memes in some form or another. Where the differences struck was around question 4.
Strictly on that question:
6 participants expressed general enjoyment of the spread of memes online and had no complaint.
2 participants found them funny but went into detail how they didn’t care all that much.
2 participants found most memes funny but some offensive and were turned off by some comments.
Memes are fun, funny, meant to critique through humor, and they have been doing all of that about the candidates and their campaigns. Of those coming out of the debates, three big ones seem to be rather negative of Mr. Romney — focusing on his reference to Big Bird in the first debate, his having “binders full of women” in the second debate, and the zinger from Obama about not needing more “horses and bayonets” in the third debate.
If you do not like Romney, then you will find the memes that criticize him as funny and be more likely to spread the meme through your social network, most likely to others who will also find it funny because they share that position toward the candidate. If you like Romney, then most likely you will not like the meme and be unwilling to share it with your social network. Thus, memes are most likely circulating within networks of like-minded individuals; they are not likely to change minds. Their persuasive ability is in the maintenance of a political position, not in the adoption or rejection of one simply because it is unlikely that the memes will breach the barriers into social networks that are opposed to the position that lead to the understanding and spreading of the meme.
While memes have mass appeal within the communities that share them, I do not think they have mass effect on changing people’s minds during a political campaign. Especially not when we have a society as politically polarized as ours currently is.
Which is a shame — everyone should like a good joke.