The power of the meme

Although memes are a useful way to parody politics, they often lose track of what’s at stake.

Mitt Romney Prepares For Final Presidential Debate On Monday
Mitt Romney's 'binders full of women' gaffe at the last debate quickly turned into a popular meme [GALLO/GETTY]

I am sitting in the public library in Saint Louis, Missouri, reading memes and reading articles about memes. This is the “Meme Election“, reporters say, in which Big Bird, bayonets, and binders of women are reshaping the national narrative and changing the power dynamics of our electorate. Experts interviewed on NPR describe memes as a “participatory form of campaigning”, in which gifs “created by average people” trump and subvert the propaganda of candidates. “The endless riffing of the true internet meme – a repeating, morphing, crowd-sourced play off some minute detail – has taken hold of the campaign conversation,” writes journalist Amanda Hess.  

As I sit in the library, reading about the empowerment of the masses through memes on my smartphone, a line starts to form at the front desk. This is the line to use a library computer, the only source of internet access for a significant part of the Saint Louis population. For the locals in line, a half hour of library computer use is the only way they can check email, print documents, or apply for jobs. They are the 47 per cent who cannot track the subversion of the 47 per cent narrative online. They are the 23 per cent of Missourians who lack regular internet access, who live outside the meme.

Memes are defined as units of culture which spread virally through commentary, imitations and parody. As Hess noted, they are “crowd-sourced” – but the question is whose culture, whose crowd? Memes rely on constant awareness and participation. Internet access is the bare minimum required to understand memes – one must also possess a level of technological and political literacy that many people do not have the time or resources to cultivate. Moreover, they may lack the desire. In an election year, memes can be self-defeating – less an assertion of political power than an avowal of the pointlessness of politics.

Memes tell us more about the people creating and spreading them than they do about the topics they address. They thrive on networks like Twitter, used by less than 16 per cent of the population but by most journalists. This has led to a proliferation of articles on topics such as Paul Ryan’s abs, Joe Biden’s laugh, and Clint Eastwood’s empty chair, their political significance decreed by their ability to prompt widespread mockery. It has also led to a number of articles noting how memes trivialise politics and distract from a serious conversation about the issues.

But this is only partly true. Memes do not distract so much from a serious conversation about the issues so much as affirm that a serious conversation about the issues is something we have long stopped having.

Although memes can frame a political narrative a certain way, they often result in us losing sight of what’s important

Overly attached memes

The crowd that creates memes differs from the crowd lining up to use the public library computers. They are wealthier, better educated, more technologically adept. But they too contend with political and economic powerlessness.

Memes create the illusion of participation in a political system from which people feel increasingly alienated, a system run on wealth that is incomprehensible to a normal person. Memes “shape politics” by shaping the mainstream media, an institution which – like the economy, like higher education – has collapsed over the past decade. Desperate for relevance, reporters scoop up memes, so much cheaper (in every way) than facts.

Memes compensate for real reporting while assuaging the ego of the viewer, who gets to see her “contribution” to the “conversation” on TV. This creates a precipitous hierarchy, where the meme – while touted as powerful – is elevated to importance through its circulation by the media, whose own power has dwindled. The entrance of a meme into mainstream media is both a triumph and the termination of its relevance. Ripped from its natural environment, filmed on a sad-sack CNN report, a meme is no longer a critique of power but a symptom of its own decline.

Internet memes gained popularity in the previous decade, during an era when Bush administration officials bragged that they had transcended the “reality-based community” and “truthiness” went from the Colbert Report to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. As facts lost currency, satire became the most effective form of political critique, because it was one of the only ways to acknowledge a broken system while still participating in it.

Memes are an extension of this mindset, but the structuring of mainstream media coverage around memes – to the deficit of other issues – raises serious problems in an election year. The bemused mindset of an online elite has become a stand-in for what “the people” are thinking.

Binders full of memes

Missouri is rarely meme-worthy. Our greatest claim to fame is a senatorial candidate who believes in “legitimate rape“. We are not a swing state, we are not a coastal state, we are a comparatively poor state in the middle of the country. To live in a state like Missouri is to forever be outside the national interest. But in a “meme election”, Missouri’s fate is emblematic of America’s. Few are interested in Missouri’s issues because few are interested in issues – at least the long-standing, tedious, complex issues that structure our daily lives.

I will be out of the country on Election Day, so last week, I voted by absentee ballot. In addition to selecting candidates, Saint Louis residents are asked to vote on a number of initiatives. As I read the ballot, I was struck by the unwieldiness of the language, the detail of the proposals, the sheer number of issues I was being asked to contemplate. It was a far cry from the fast-moving slogans and images to which I had become accustomed during the election season.

This is the power of the meme – the power to make us forget. We forget about the tedium of political battles hard-won, about the bureaucracy that fences us in, about the grim reality of those left out. I like internet memes – I post them, I share them, I laugh at them. They are an outlet and a catharsis. They can stimulate discussion, but as with any debate within a self-selecting audience, their political transmutability is limited.

In January, I might have a senator who said that women who are raped cannot get pregnant if the rape was legitimate, because the female body has a way of shutting it down. I might have to raise my daughter with this man as our senator. My worries are bigger than “binders full of women“. So are America’s. Online, we post, we mock, we click “like”. But in the voter booth, on the streets, in the schools, our problems go on and on.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.