Like many Americans, I have begun paying a lot closer attention to “the news” online in the run-up to the election this week. I have chosen to visit The Guardian (US. Edition) as a primary news site, since they are globally known as a credible news source and run articles ASIDE FROM ELECTION NEWS, which is a bit of a breather from US – based news organizations. Even their view of our election offers some deeper articles about the tides that effect both sides and all constituencies here, which is refreshing and gets me to think….always a good thing!
They published an article this past week entitled “Meme warfare: how the power of mass replication has poisoned the US election.” In this article Douglas Haddow writes a bit about the evolution of memes on the Internet and how they have evolved. He notes that they can be fun, stupid and/or infuriating. What they are NOT is helpful in developing debate or conversation. Here is his definition of memes (so we can all know what exactly we’re thinking about here…):
“Memes – from the Greek for “that which is imitated” – were once defined as being self-replicating units of culture. This included anything that could be learned, remembered and spread from one brain to another, such as the concept of god all the way to the popular Budweiser “ Wazzup” catchphrase.
Through the Internet the idea moved from the conceptual sphere into the viscous reality of data and pixels, transforming it into something more traceable: a segment of media that is copied rapidly. This includes images, text, video, a combination of all three and sometimes real-world actions.”
The fun ones are just that…they tickle our funny-bone, tying a non-sequitur-like comment or quote to a photo or GIF that tweaks our sensibilities and gives us a mental breather from whatever we were just focused upon. The stupid ones can also be funny, since they can take the non-sequitur aspect of the quote and the photo and push them so far that they fall outside the boundaries of figuring out what the relationship between the two is. Either that, or they are so obvious that we flick past the meme with a “Well, Duh!” thought and forget them.
The infuriating memes are the ones that Haddow focuses in on, especially in the realm of what’s happened during the current US election season (which seems like it has been going on for decades, frankly……). The popularity of these memes is a factor of how extreme the perspective is in relation to the opinion being expressed.
To give an imaginary example, what if there is a soft drink called “Ralph’s Soda.” Ralph’s has been around for about 45 years and has pretty good market. However, there have been studies that seem to show that drinking a study liquid diet of Ralph’s over a period of years will accelerate hair loss in men and women. Other studies show nothing of the sort. For some reason, someone with an anti-Ralph’s bent creates a meme showing a woman who not only lost her hair but is starting to lose some skin in the bad-looking, affected areas. Along with this horrible photo, they include a quote from a pro-Ralph’s study that says “No proof that Ralph’s has any negative affect on consumers.” Now, compare an anti-Ralph’s meme that shows a avuncular older gentleman who has lost most of his hair, smiling with a bottle of Ralph’s in his hand. The quote over the photo says, “Hair loss? Well, maybe, but I love Ralph’s anyway!”
If you are virulently anti-Ralph, which are you going to re-post, adding a negative comment and making sure all of your friends see it? Probably the first one….it is the most extreme and visceral, and, whether the photo is genuine or not, expresses your outrage.
The pro-Ralph’s folks will likely retaliate with a more aggressive meme of their own, and then we are “off to the races.” Sigh…
Now, where is the opportunity for discussion here? There isn’t one. The so-called “discussion” consists of lobbing these media hand grenades at each other, seeing who can get the most followers on their side. Ralph’s is stuck in the middle trying to salvage their brand AND understand their customers’ concerns without shutting them down.
So this powerful tool is shutting down conversation, the ability to come to understanding, and come to a common working goal of a great product and consumer safety.
The meaning for your business? The true challenge and opportunity of investing in tools for conversation. If you find some content you have created takes off and your VACC (Visitors/Audience/Customers/Community) start sharing and amplifying it aggressively, be grateful! That doesn’t happen very often. However, take this opportunity to understand WHY it took off (what resonated so much with this audience that the virility took place?) and what the sentiment(s) are surrounding it? Take a very active role in the discussion taking place AND do what you can to maintain it as a discussion, and not a shouting match.
Keep the conversation flowing. It is both the right thing and the human thing to do.