Memes move into the political mainstream

I can haz politics?
Memes are becoming a valid way for politicians to connect to constituents. (Michelle Parise)

They spread. They replicate. They mutate. They're memes – an image, GIF, or video that's passed from person to person on the internet.

Kenyatta Cheese is the co-founder of the website KnowYourMeme. He launched it over a decade ago to create a space to catalogue and document internet memes—many of which, at the time, featured cats.

"On one level a meme is an idea that spreads person to person," Cheese told Spark host Nora Young. "On another level, a meme is the act of spread itself. Meaning, more than it being an egotistical thing, it's this act of trying to find connection with one another."

The thing about memes-–unlike something that just goes viral-–is that their pleasure and power lies in their flexibility. They can endlessly morph to suit different purposes. And it's precisely that kind of customization that is now projecting memes into the political mainstream.

Take newly-elected US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez— "AOC" as she's known on Twitter. She regularly uses memes to connect to her New York City constituents and make political points on social media.

Here is part of Kenyatta Cheese's conversation with Nora Young on how the meme has evolved since its LOLcat beginnings.

You started KnowYourMeme in 2008. Since that time, how have memes evolved?

You now see a more advanced, more complex, better-developed meme ecosystem. Ten years ago, you had small communities where people would come up with an idea or a joke they'd want to share, you'd maybe put it into your small community of friends, and if other people thought it was good, maybe they would make their own versions of it. And so you would see a meme spread just on the sheer power of people sharing peer-to-peer. Since then, we now have an attention economy where companies and actors of all kind want the attention too. Digital media outlets need to report on what what's actually happening in culture, and so memes are definitely part of the mainstream now.

Yeah, I was just going to say that. There was a time when memes were this fringe of internet culture, but now they seem to be part of mainstream discourse.

And you know what's really interesting about that? Once you see it in the mainstream, it makes me realize that cultural propagation in this manner has always existed. Before it was watercooler talk, or it was the off-colour cartoon that somebody would photocopy and hand out to their co-workers. This type of spread has always happened. And in being able to see it happen in the mainstream, all of a sudden it makes you recognize the architecture of the ways this stuff is spreading. All of sudden, you see these pathways that exist between an original idea and how it spreads throughout culture in ways that were hard to see before, when our media was mostly broadcast or news.

One of the things about memes is that they have this ability to morph and change over time as people use them for different purposes, and put them in different contexts. So does it need to have some quality of openness or adaptability to allow it to do that?

Totally! There's a tiny distinction that that folks who pay attention to memes make between memes and virals. 'Viral' is one piece of content that everybody loves and it gets replicated a lot, whereas a meme needs to be open. It needs to be something where, not only can I identify with it and see my own experience in it, but I can actually go in and adjust the text on it. They have to be participatory, otherwise all you're doing is repeating what somebody else is feeling. And that's not the reason why you're experiencing it in the first place. And the reason why we want to put our own mark on that meme is because we are using it for conversation.

The newly-elected U.S. House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines last month when she used a meme to help promote her proposal to increase taxes on the super rich. So what does something like that say about the state of memes in political culture?

I think she's doing an amazing job. Last century, if you wanted to connect with your constituents and connect with people, you would do a fireside chat. Now that space for discourse is social media. When AOC is able to use Twitter to put something out there, it makes sense for the people who need to receive it. These are the fireplaces.

Memes seem to be turning up in politics more and more. I was thinking of the example of Pepe the Frog which was used in a bunch of different contexts before it finally became associated as a symbol of white supremacists. Is this new, that memes are being associated with particular groups of people?

I don't think so. Only because we all look for the things that we identify with, whether it's a book or a certain musician. And if there's any place that's ripe that for an adoption of internet meme culture, it's politics, which is all about identity. Again, before that was done on the street corner or at the community centre. If the internet has replaced that  – and the 21st century version of the pamphlet is the meme – then of course we're going to see proliferation of it.

Many public intellectuals used to pooh-pooh social media, accusing it of being vapid because it was so brief. But now we're seeing Twitter as an undeniably important medium for exchanging political ideas. So do you see memes moving into this arena more?

I think they're already there, and they always have been (whether or not the people who have had power traditionally understood that). When we look at AOC, that's what we see changing. If you want to find a way to authentically connect with a group of people, you have to be where they are. Social media has provided a platform for that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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