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Social Media Memetics: To Meme or Not To Meme?

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consutlant
posted Thursday Oct 16, 2014 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consutlant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

You can read my full bio at http://www.BoBennett.com.

We have all seen them.  Images with superimposed text created to elicit a strong emotional reaction that have an underlying message—usually political in nature.  They are hugely popular and a heck of a lot more contagious than Ebola.  They are social media memes

Memetics is the societal equivalent of biological Darwinian evolution.  It is the theory that "ideas use people" to replicate and spread (Wang & Wood, 2011).  Given the stiff competition for attention in social media, social media memes have "evolved" to appeal to the more primal emotional brain than the cognitively expensive rational brain.  Anthropomorphically speaking, in order to achieve their ultimate goal of replication, social media memes feed on our irrationality.  As one who values reason and rationality, should you participate in the spread of memes? And how should you respond to memes that just cry for a response?

The Structure of a Social Media Meme

The social media meme is quite simple.  It contains an image with text on top of the image—as part of the image itself (superimposed).  The more effective memes have images that elicit a strong emotional response, even if the images are essentially unrelated to the message.  Favorites include animals, babies, children, "hot" women, mutilated bodies, and photoshopped images creating something unexpected.  Images that elicit an empathetic response do exceptionally well. The goal of the image is to not only get one's attention, but associate a feeling with the message.  When one's emotional and rational brain are in conflict, the emotional brain often wins.

The second part of the social media meme is the message.  Short messages that flow are far more effective than longer ones that cannot be read in just a few seconds.  This need for brevity and simplicity leads to numerous fallacies.  It would be a stretch to refer to a meme as an argument, however, arguments are generally implied.  Here are just some common characteristics of messages that comprise social media memes:

  • The use of absolutes (e.g., "Never before in history have people been so afraid to stand up against absurdity for fear of being labeld a racist, a homophobe, or a bigot."*)
  • Stereotyping. (e.g., "Dear Atheist,..."*)
  • Strawman argument (e.g., "Why do you care if I pray to Him?"*)
  • Rhetorical devices. (e.g., "Kids curse in school like sailors yet no one bats and eye."* [exaggeration and absoultes])

* Thank you "Right Wing News"

The most successful memes are not those that are the most true, contain the best arguments, have the most universal agreement, not even the ones that are the most humorous or entertaining—they are simply the ones that are most effective at replicating.  Despite the need for accuracy or truth, memes are very effective at changing minds and altering public opinion (Adamic, Lento, Adar, & Ng, 2014).

To Meme or Not To Meme?

As we have seen, social media memetics is not about initiating rational discourse by presenting a cogent argument; it is about attempting to change the way someone feels about an issue, or about validation of one's existing beliefs, by the most effective means.  However, if we value reason and rationality, are social media memes the epitome of irrationality or a legitimate persuasion tool? Do the means justify the end?  Memes can be very effective but at what cost? I don't mean to imply a false dichotomy; it is possible to create memes void of the negative characteristics generally associated with memes, but getting into the "meme business" can put one on a very slippery slope when the spreading of the meme comes at the expense of the intellectual and factual quality of the meme.

This is judgment call that those who value reason need to carefully consider.

Responding to Memes

Initially, one might think that a rational, well articulated response would be most effective.  However, in the world of social media memetics, we are dealing with people who clearly find the intellectually void simplicity of memes persuasive and/or cognitively soothing.  The most effective response might be one that plays by their rules.  Don't worry about logical fallacies, bad arguments, stereotyping, using absolutes, exaggerating, excessive use of rhetorical devices, or even writing things that aren't true—as long as your response contains humor and or sarcasm. The point of the response is not to make a valid counter argument, but to use the same linguistic toolkit to turn their meme into a mere setup for your punchline.

It is disturbing to think that serious social issues are strongly influenced by social media memes, but perhaps this is a reality of the world in which we now live.  We can certainly expend the effort to critically evaluate these memes that show up in our timelines—even those which support our existing views, but we can't ignore the impact of them.  Are social media memes a necessary evil that we must embrace, or should we stick to our rational and cogent arguments, even if they might be less effective? Perhaps, as usual, the solution lies somewhere in the middle.


Adamic, L. A., Lento, T. M., Adar, E., & Ng, P. C. (2014). Information evolution in social networks. arXiv:1402.6792 [physics]. Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/1402.6792
Wang, L., & Wood, B. C. (2011). An epidemiological approach to model the viral propagation of memes. Applied Mathematical Modelling, 35(11), 5442–5447. doi:10.1016/j.apm.2011.04.035

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