What makes a meme

Despite Obama's hard sell, "Romnesia" fell flat, while "Big Bird" took off. What distinguishes one from the other?

Published October 28, 2012 3:00PM (EDT)

     (Richard Termine)
(Richard Termine)

This piece originally appeared in The New Inquiry.

Biden-laughs and Ryan-abs, Big Birds and binders and bayonets: There is something fascinating when an event as stodgily ceremonial as the presidential campaign is run through the lulz-filter of social media, secreting a hallucination of phrases and images and videos and, of course, gifs. An army is at the ready to spin off a gag at every turn, to propagate the joke to maximum scope; digital arpeggiations of candidate goofs and campaign blunders are transmitted from host to host through a mere caress of the touch-sensitive screen. Watching debates with that second screen of fast-moving social media streams and text-input boxes begging our thoughts has positioned many of us as hunters for the most shareable, memeiest content, ready to pounce at something, anything, and in the process, changing the overall narrative of an event. We’ve developed a kind of meme literacy, a habit of intuiting in real time the potential virality of a speech act — to hear retweets inside words.

The New Inquiry

Retweets, reposts, reblogs, repins, and remixes lead to reporting. The Meme Election 2012 isn’t just a matter of what’s found in some sticky gif’d-out corner of Tumblr; it also dominates everyday Facebook feeds and news blogs. And because journalists are disproportionally connected digitally, popular memes also burrow into mainstream-media narratives as a measure of what has captured people’s attention. Whether you watched the conventions and debates on one screen or three, there’s a good chance you encountered discussion of Internet memes afterward.

The definition of meme can be debated, but the short of it is that a meme is a unit of culture, a parallel to the biological gene in Richard Dawkins’s original coinage. Many have since adapted the term to describe how cultural products pass virally from person to person by multiplying themselves throughout the social body. Technically, any shared image is a meme regardless of how viral it has become, but when we saymeme, we generally mean a successful one.

It’s that success of memes in influencing the political narrative that has garnered so much attention this election cycle. Memes themselves have become a meme. As Amanda Hess said,

"the trajectory of U.S. election coverage is unmoored from campaign headquarters and D.C. bureaus and placed into the hands of the loudest crowds and their swiftest microbloggers."

Hess also noted that it is difficult for the candidates to manufacture virality. Instead, meme politics often actively resist the campaigns’ intentions. The memes that proliferate, on and offline, are not what any of the campaigns planned. Obama gave “Romnesia” a hard sell but failed to spark a fire. Perhaps the most successful intentional meme was Obama’s reference of “bayonets” in the final debate, though even this did not proliferate like the others. Instead, after major political events, what goes most viral are not the zingers carefully constructed by teams of hired writers. Mitt Romney likely had no clue that “Big Bird” or “binders” would not only get attention but would generate Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers, Tumblrs with thousands of reblogs, and countless Facebook updates, as well as dominate the blogosphere and mainstream political reporting the next morning. When Clint Eastwood made a speech to an invisible Obama in an empty chair, it was not Obama’s advisers that created the @invisibleobama Twitter account or the Eastwooding performative Internet meme.

Campaigns can’t plan memes. Instead, the campaigns can merely react to them. Savvy staffers quickly jump in as a meme begins to go viral and try to capture the moment with an image. For instance, Obama’s team quickly tweeted in response to Eastwood, “This chair is taken,” which has been retweeted more than 50,000 times. Or, as is increasingly popular, campaigns will buy a Twitter hashtag, as the Democratic Party did when they paid to promote #malarkey after the vice presidential debate. By joining in, campaigns can reinforce memes favorable to their candidate, attempt to look “with it” by being aware of the meme economy, and reassert their own traditional influence over the political narrative — influence that memes, even if just for an instant, threaten.

But nearly any attempt on the part of the campaigns to manufacture virality fails. The memorable memes are those that seem to authentically emerge from the bottom up, their very spontaneity serving as evidence of something genuine. When Obama mentioned Big Bird in the second debate, it fell flat. Another round of Sesame Street images didn’t go reviral, and new hashtags didn’t begin to retrend. The idea of something going reviral is almost a self-contradiction.

Analyses of memes that examine their specific content at face value often miss that virtually all election-related memes are inherently a critique of the election in general. In a moment where trust and favorability in politics is near an all-time low, the political statements we make about the presidential election increasingly need to account for the absurdity of the process, from the behavior of the campaigns themselves to the mainstream coverage of them. One of the most common narratives about presidential conventions, commercials, and debates is what silly performances they are. We all know that style is as important as substance, that the “winner” of a debate isn’t the one with the strongest logic, and that both candidates are telling such a slanted story that accepting anything uttered as fact is a sure sign of naiveté. Presidential “debates” are rightly mocked as mere recital of many scripted mini-speeches rather than the back-and-forth exchange of ideas the term debate should conjure.

Because of this frustration, many stand ready to find any bit of authenticity, any deviation from the script and scream it to the crowd, hashtag and all. Romney’s Big Bird statement was surely prepared with one meaning in mind, but the digitally connected masses instantly saw another story, that Big Bird has potential to transcend the script. To simply repeat the top-down narratives provided by the campaigns would be to accept the idea that the campaigns aren’t theater. Memes inject some authenticity into a political process seen as problematically overperformed.

That’s not to say that there are not serious political positions at stake in the memes — “Big Bird LOL” did lead to an important discussion about the funding of public television. But it remains significant that memes cast these issues within a sarcastic rebuttal of the performativity of modern political discourse itself. Consuming, liking, and sharing election memes places politics at an ironic distance (as Dave Perry tweeted me), making a political statement while simultaneously mocking the political process. In this way, political memes say more about the people sharing them than they do about any specific campaign issue; the meme is personal is political.

This memeified election thus marks a clash between exemplars of the top-down and the bottom-up: a Presidential race filled with official campaign releases and big-media discourse vs. social media. Presidential politics have long seemed too distant, a contest in which any individual voter has little say — especially if one doesn’t live in a swing state. That democracy-defining act of user-generated content — voting — is rigidly delimited and bureaucratic, but above all, it feels inconsequential. In contrast, social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter have deeply infiltrated our culture exactly because they provide voice. The Meme Election allows for cathartic release in response to a political system that has made us feel as if we don’t matter. More than just a voting booth, we have social media to vote viral, everyday, making us at least feel a bit more significant. Posting a funny “women in a binder” photo If you are reading this long after the 2012 election and do not know what “women in a binder” means, that’s exactly the point.to our Facebook wall the day after the debate can make us feel like we are participating in something bigger on our own accord.

If memes are about rejecting a passive consumption of the election, they are equally about asserting individual autonomy in choosing what to share and repositioning a major news event as a statement about ourselves. The meme serves as an antidote to an electoral process that increasingly sits out of place in a society that demands more agency, more personalization, more individual voice. A new flavor of an old treat, memes allow the individual to put the political process to work in the construction and maintenance of our own identities.

That memes are not centrally conceived and controlled means that when we share them, we share them as autonomous actors declaring what we think is creative or funny, not what the campaigns or traditional mainstream media outlets think matters. Malcolm Harris makes a similar point in his provocative discussion of how the Web was used strategically as a protest tool during Occupy Wall Street.

"As long as reporting’s framed as a rumour, then it can only be false if the rumour fails to resonate. As long as people repeat it, the rumour becomes a self-fulfilling story …

The rumour offered something a band-confirmed appearance wouldn’t have: an event, something that might or might not happen."

What is essential here is that what goes viral isn’t what is most accurate but rather the sort of information individuals to want to be a part of — that demonstrates we are in the know and offers us the best opportunities to add our own two cents along the way in comments and likes. Look: I know about the Binders Full of Women Tumblr! I found the funniest Big Bird captioned photo! I have just the best GIF of Biden laughing you’d ever want to see!


The death of a meme is as interesting as its life. The logic of meme virality is rife with internal contradictions. The conditions I’ve outlined for the success of the election-season meme — that it is seen as emerging spontaneously, authentically, from the bottom up, allowing the individual to declare their identity, to participate in a distant system, and to ironically mock the performativity of the political process — are also why they burn out as quick as they burned bright. Like a forest fire, memes use up the fuel that allows them to proliferate.

These graphs of the trending popularity of various memes from the 2012 election show, as you might expect, a steep rise and sudden decline. As election memes become popular, emerging from the bottom up, the campaigns join the party as quickly as they can, yet this accelerates the meme’s death, exhausting its spontaneous, authentic energy. The meme moves inside the mainstream narrative, traditional media, the campaigns themselves. At this moment, sharing those memes no longer demonstrates that you are in the know. Instead, sharing them begins to demonstrate that you are late to the alternative narrative and are a blind trend follower. Hence the decline in meme popularity is precipitous.

As PJ Rey noted, had Obama zinged Romney with Big Bird at the end of the first debate, that moment might have been the most discussed — potentially changing the whole narrative about his performance that night. But by the time Obama referenced Big Bird in the second debate, 13 days after the meme went viral, Big Bird was, in the words of the Portlandia sketch, “over.” Social media was poised to flare at any mention of the “47%” in the first debate, yet Obama ignored the dry kindling and waited two weeks, when much of the phrase’s potential viral energy was exhausted.

These lessons from the 2012 election allow us to reflect on the life cycle of the meme and the ecology of attention in general. “Going viral” can mean short-term attention at the expense oflong-term attention. The term virus is problematic because it references only proliferation, whereas a better epidemiology of the meme would also account for how the rapid explosion of attention might preclude durability. The meme’s very success ends up making it part of the script, and no longer its alternative. We stop retweeting and reblogging a meme when its ability to express a unique authentic identity diminishes into the mere performance of mob conformity.

I wonder if viral success is necessarily such a good thing. Even when attention is desired, can too much be harmful? Might viral success actually portend long-term failure? Viral attention has an ecology; it’s something that can be exhausted. I’m reminded of Jenna Wortham’s story on how massive attention for crowd-funded projects can have the opposite effect of what is intended. As one entrepreneur said, “Going viral was crippling.” Social movements that trade heavily in the meme economy seem to have faced a similar fate. Perhaps Obama’s viral success in 2008 is partly why he cannot generate the same energy in 2012. And the Occupy movement was very successful in getting viral attention: the phrase 99%, the Casually Pepper Spraying Cop, and even the image of the tent as a symbol of what Occupy stood for. However, Occupy seems to have followed the logic of the meme outlined here: burn bright and fast. Of course, there were many reasons why Occupy saw the success it did as well as why it does not garner as much media attention anymore. Exactly opposed to predictions that Occupy could endure on the sustenance of memes, it seems the opposite might be true. Live by the meme and die by the meme.

In any case, is this the new normal for massive cultural events? Traditional media narratives are still overwhelmingly dominant, but the cacophony of voices from the bottom do occasionally congeal into something of a competing narrative, one that is about participation, authenticity, and, of course, about saying something of ourselves as much as it is about the election. Alternatively, we know that memetime runs fast; as important as the memes’ initial proliferation is the declaring of a meme as “over,” clearing the way for the next sensation, Schumpeter-style. Now that memes themselves have achieved meme status this election cycle, will that prompt the next step, an inevitable outcry against the meme itself as “over”?

By Nathan Jurgenson

Nathan Jurgenson is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Maryland who blogs at Cyborgology. Follow him on Twitter @nathanjurgenson

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Big Bird Elections 2012 Joe Biden Memes Paul Ryan Romnesia The New Inquiry