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Texts from Hillary. Big bird. Relatable Romney. Binders full of women. What do these phrases coined from the 2012 Presidential election all have in common? They were all made into memes that went viral.

Internet memes have just recently skyrocketed to popularity on an array of topics, forums, social networking sites, and in various forms— from something as silly as Grumpy Cat (shout out to Professor Kreiss for getting this reference) to something as serious and controversial as memes on social issues. The point being, since memes have become an almost all-encompassing form of communicating and sharing information online, they have, of course, became an interesting piece in the political communication puzzle.

Internet memes are phenomena that rapidly gain popularity or notoriety online. Often, modifications or spoofs add to the profile of the original idea, turning it into a phenomenon that transgresses social and cultural boundaries—and adds a humorous component, which makes the meme all the more likeable. In their basic form, Internet memes propagate amongst people through email, instant messaging, forums, blogs, or social networking sites. Content-wise, they usually consist of offbeat news, websites, catch phrases, images, or video clips. Put more simply, Internet memes are inside jokes or pieces of hip underground knowledge that many people are in on. (Bauckhage)

Given the growing interest in Internet memes, there is surprisingly little scientific and academic research on them so far. (Bauckhage) However, if they continue to gain significance like they have, especially on social networking sites and Pinterest, more research will surely come to follow.

Political memes, the ones I am most notably interested in for this blog post, have been used in campaigns as attempts to create an image of trendiness or shape opinion, especially among youth, who are most active on such social networks. They create an image of trendiness while also adding a spin of trivia or frivolity rather than for information. (Bauckhage)

One of the most widely circulated memes from 2012 was the back of Obama seated in the Presidential chair with the tagline “This seat’s taken.” The meme was sent by @barackobama after Clint Eastwood’s improvised remarks at the Republican National Convention addressed an “empty chair”, referring to an invisible President Barack Obama. While the meme doesn’t contain any new, particularly exciting, or informative text, the punch line in conjunction with the picture grew to rapid fame. The meme received 62,729 retweets and 24,977 favorites on Twitter, making it the most retweeted individual tweet of the GOP convention…and it didn’t even come from a Republican. (Heron 2012) This was just on Twitter. On Facebook, the same meme received approximately 100,000 likes, over 10,000 shares, and 5,000 comments.

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Political journalists have long relied on sound bites and candid shots to skewer candidates’ positions and personas. Starting after the first televised debate in 1960, commentators pushed the narrative that JFK’s easy screen presence gave him the edge over the non-made-up, nervous Richard Nixon. Certainly the way we interact and interpret memes has transformed with time and technology, but this 2012 presidential election is the first where the true essence of an Internet meme – “a repeating, morphing, crowd-sourced play off some minute detail” – has taken forefront of a campaign conversation.

Some of the memes, like the “texts from Hillary,” have remained in the territory of an inside joke, but others, like the “this seat’s taken” example, have became top-level campaign messages. Another form of this is the “You didn’t build that” meme: an edited phrase from an Obama rally that portrayed the president as anti-business. Local reports and media didn’t seem to pay any attention to the phrase until people online began sharing it amongst themselves. Of course, the Romney campaign snatched it up quickly after it was field-tested, and “We Built It” became the Republican National Convention’s catchphrase. By this time, the media ended up covering those 4 little words from Obama’s mouth for months. (Hess 2012)

While these memes are certainly changing the way in which we politically converse, do they really sway voters? The verdict seems to be no. The people live-tweeting and creating these memes are unlikely to be impartial spectators. They had largely made up their minds already. Most of the time, the things that go viral are being spread amongst a base of people who are already rock solid in who they would cast their vote for rather than converting swing voters.

Ultimately, this means we’re regurgitating inane coverage to highly polarized segments of the electorate. (Hess 2012) While this is certainly true, it at least keeps the political conversation flowing, and may even lead others to follow suit to keep up with events such as debates, rallies, etcetera so that they may be part of the political banter too. I personally feel as if the profligation of memes has enriched the conversation and is a way for people to connect politically, even if they are among polarized audiences. It shows people are at least interested in being politically attentive enough to pass on the meme to his or her followers, and at a base level, makes the political process that much more fun. The opportunity to be light-hearted in politics is few and far between. Political Internet memes at least add a splash of fun to a process that may seem mundane and add some humor to an American institution known for being austere and stiff. So, I say continue to bring on the laughs.

References:

Bauckhage, Christian. “Insights into Internet Memes.” International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. 5. Bonn, Germany: Web. 1 Jan.

Hess, Amanda. “Binders full of Big Bird: The risk & benefits of reporting on memes.” Poynter.org. 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.

Heron, Liz. “Obama’s ‘This Seat’s Taken’ Tops Tampa Tweets .” Washington Wire. The Wall Street Journal, 3 Sept. 2012. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.

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