This story first appeared in The Gavel's Spring 2019 print magazine.
When I was 16, I toured NYU. I spoke to a lot of colorful and highly eccentric people that day, but the most memorable was a then-sophomore at the School of Individualized Study who proudly proclaimed his major: Memes.
Then something strange happened. My friends started to make memes I didn’t quite get. They were about Hegelian dialectics, Derridean deconstruction, or other lofty topics incomprehensible to high schoolers (maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt these 16-year-olds had read The Phenomenology of Spirit).
My classmates eventually started ironically lionizing Marx, Lenin, and the Russian Revolution. It went so far that the winning design for our “Class of 2017” t-shirt commemorated the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Ironically, the administration made us choose the runner-up, a crown above the word “EL17E” (elite).
I use the word ‘ironically’ hesitantly because many of those same friends now write very publicly and very unironically about the merits of anarcho-communism, labeling themselves ‘AnComs.’
Who can really blame them? To a 16-year-old, the appeal of these memes and the corresponding ideology is clear: it’s rebellious, gives them a community, and lets them don the pretense of intellectual sophistication without doing any work. In other words, a perfect storm for teenagers without any real economic consequences to policies engendered by their beliefs.
Regardless of the origin of memes, the cultural shift toward socialism has become clear. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) reported 5,000 new members entering 2017. Following the election of Donald Trump, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) gained 13,000 new members. The Democratic party itself seems generationally split between those advocating for more leftist policies and candidates (read: Bernie Sanders). Even establishment candidates like Elizabeth Warren are leaning more left because of Sanders and his supporters, many of whom are members of the CPUSA and DSA.
So are memes reactions to contemporary culture and rhetoric, or are they a reflection of subconscious national sentiments?
They’re both. And it’s been happening for half a millennium.
Communications professor Marcus Breen pinpoints the Protestant Reformation as the first instance of mass communication being used to promote radical ideology.
“A central feature of [Martin Luther’s] intervention in Catholic belief was that it followed the invention of the printing press, the rise of mass communication, and European literacy. With a popular vehicle for enunciating new ideas to ‘the masses’ and people learning to read and write for themselves (instead of relying on priests), ideology shifted to individual self management. Soon after, scientific means of thinking about oneself as an individual gave rise to the Enlightenment.”
While we can partially attribute our veneration for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to a rudimentary form of social media, it’s important to note that “media always plays a part in popular revolts, but not always for progressive ends.”
In September 2016, Pepe the Frog was added to the Anti-Defamation League’s list of hate symbols. The cartoon frog had been widely spread sporting klan robes, a Hitler mustache, and swastikas. This happening two months before Donald Trump’s election is no coincidence—his vitriolic campaign empowered those with latent racist and white supremacist tendencies.
Memes effectively legitimized their beliefs and brought white supremacy back to the cultural forefront. All of this contributed to the election of someone openly endorsed by David Duke (former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) and who has repeatedly failed to condemn white supremacy.
“Memes are a marker of identity, for better or worse,” said Peter Zogby, MCAS ‘21, an editor of The New England Classic. “Someone can relate to a group of people in a way that’s not just funny, but also incredibly specific to a certain part of the population. It doubles down on cultural relevance.”
It’s true that there are instances where good can come from meme culture. A few years ago, the song “We Are Number One” from the children’s show LazyTown gained popularity online. When it was revealed that Stefán Karl Stefánsson, the song’s star, was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, a GoFundMe was started to help pay his living costs. Stefansson passed away around a year later, but is still remembered warmly in the community of Gen Z humorists.
But these moments are the exception. Memes do little to combat our increasing tendency towards online life, encouraging a shift away from tangible reality. Online, we often get not only polarization, but factionalization among different ideological groups.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (‘TERFs’) have splintered off from mainstream feminists. Democratic Socialists, usually the farthest left group in the mainstream, receive the ire of AnComs, Stalinists (yes, they’re still around), and Neo-marxists for not being radical enough.
“Social media feeds the needs of class and race interests, and likely won’t change in the foreseeable future,” said Breen. “Requests for Americans to ‘get along despite their differences’ are appeals to a sentimental social consensus, which reveal a lack of knowledge or understanding of the new ideological frames which communication reinforces.”
Take the multi-axis political compass, a popular meme format that reinforces the outdatedness of the right/left political dichotomy. Political identity is becoming more nuanced: there is support for despotic authoritarians on the left, anarchists on the right, and everything in between.
The identity-driven nature of memes renders them a powerful marketing tool. It’s a new type of advertisement that at best effectively reaches Gen Z and millennials, and at worst offers a glimpse into the twisted perceptions of how advertisers think they should market to “the young folk.”
Earlier this year, a conspiracy arose around the Netflix film Bird Box, as it was rumored that the sudden boom of Twitter memes using images and concepts from the film had been paid for by Netflix as an unconventional marketing strategy. Some appeared on existing meme pages, but other viral tweets popped up on newly created accounts with only one or two tweets. It worked, and Bird Box became one of Netflix’s most-watched films.
But there are dangers in using advertising techniques in the political sphere.
“The devastating aspect of memes and internet culture is that the techniques used to market products as lifestyle and consumer items have been adapted for personalization campaigns across the spectrum of social life,” said Breen.
So what’s the responsible way to use this bottled lightning? According to Zogby, “It can be harnessed for the right reasons... young people working in media have a duty to reclaim internet culture, and it can certainly be done. We just have to start drawing thick lines between what is and isn’t acceptable.”
The best and worst thing about memes is that because they’re so incredibly specialized, amorphous, and dynamic, no one can ever really master them. Marketing teams can run calculations to come up with the best meme to sell a movie, but it won’t beat something made by a bored, stoned 16-year-old. But memes do have educational and philanthropic value, and, in level-headed contexts, can promote critical thinking.
And Breen stays optimistic.
“Many people now can communicate with each other directly,” he said, “Lives are enriched, politics are heightened and exciting, full of opportunities for creative action directed at addressing the excesses of capitalism and the limits of liberal democratic systems of government.”