BOB GARFIELD: Political memes, of course, are the inevitable consequence of burgeoning meme culture, a nearly two-decade-long evolution that began with the simple sharing of found internet objects, like, "All your base are belong to us,” a quote from a poorly-translated Japanese arcade game.
MAN: Don’t ask what it means, don’t ask where it came from. Just accept it as one of those things that’s got a lot of people talking. Still confused? Look on the web. It’s everywhere.
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BOB GARFIELD: These days, memes are intricate, incremental allusions to previous iterations of the same image or idea. Something goes viral and then the virus rapidly mutates in sometimes mind-bending ways.
Amanda Hess writes about the internet culture for The New York Times. Amanda, welcome to the big show.
AMANDA HESS: Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Look, I’m a thousand years old.
And I know this conversations places me at risk of, you know, talking about those crazy mop-top kids, but I am astonished by the rapid evolution of this very strange art form. It is an art form, is it not?
AMANDA HESS: As an internet critic for The New York Times, [LAUGHS] I would argue that it is. It just looks a little bit different from what we would generally consider to be a work of art because it’s not created by an auteur or, you know, an individual genius. It’s, instead, created in its connections between people.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me, please, some contemporary examples of these kinds of incremental works of art.
AMANDA HESS: There's one meme that started out as a stock photo of a guy who's walking down the street with his girlfriend and he is looking behind him because he sees an attractive woman pass and the girlfriend is performatively extremely upset. That has become a meme where people put different labels on the different characters. My favorite one would be [LAUGHS] the girlfriend who’s upset is Lot and [LAUGHS] the boyfriend who’s turning around has turned into a pillar of salt.
You get it?
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
AMANDA HESS: That’s my favorite one.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, that’s, that’s good and, and biblical, as well.
AMANDA HESS: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about this building on the previous observations and jokes and references of previous memers, that whole mechanism.
AMANDA HESS: The stock photo, for example, of a guy looking back at a girl is not a meme. It becomes a meme when it changes, when some meme artist changes its context, turns it into a platform for their own commentary. Once a meme gets to a particular point, people aren’t even commenting on the original piece anymore. They’re commenting on a previous version of the meme, so that at the end if you are coming to the meme for the first time, you may not understand it at all.
BOB GARFIELD: It helps to have been in on the joke for a while, so that you can see how the joke evolves.
AMANDA HESS: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: This particular conversation springs out of a discussion on political memes, which use the same techniques and the same technology and networks as cultural memes. Are they the same beast?
AMANDA HESS: I think that our cultural and social values are always embedded in memes. As freewheeling as they seem, they are built on something, and political memes are just targeting that more specifically in service of a particular candidate or often tearing down a particular person. With politics, I think it’s most easily crystallized, like how dangerous that form can actually be because it's all based on sucking up the most attention possible, as opposed to distributing information.
BOB GARFIELD: And I suppose there’s sort of classically a double-edged sword because the same distillation of images that get to the heart of things to satirize also enable you to just vastly oversimplify complex social and political questions, you know, and just turn it into hate speech.
AMANDA HESS: Or turn it into the cult of personality. I find memes about Trump really interesting because, I mean, this might be, itself, a politically-charged [LAUGHS] comparison, but if you compare Vladimir Putin [LAUGHS] to Donald Trump, Putin is someone who has built this image of himself as a kind of strongman, so he does these photo shoots where he's scuba diving or hunting. And Donald Trump is sort of a similar figure, except he doesn’t do that stuff. He has claimed that exercise [LAUGHS] depletes a person’s energy. But his fans on social media will take his image and put them into this strongman context. So you’ll see his head Photoshopped onto the scene from Braveheart. He doesn’t even have to do the work of staging the photo shoot and, like, working out.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, just moving from the ridiculous to the horrifying, it strikes me that the dynamics of meme culture and the dynamics of conspiracy theories are a terribly perfect match.
AMANDA HESS: There is an interesting article in the magazine Dissent this month that suggests that on the internet conspiracy theories have lost the “theory” part. So there's not even the rigor of having to figure out the plausible way in which something has happened. It’s just the suggestion that something is wrong. You see it on the internet but you also see it on Sean Hannity’s show, where he's just asking questions or just saying that something doesn't seem right but is not actually suggesting an answer for why that might be. I think that borrows something from meme culture where the point doesn’t have to have anything to do with fact or reality, it’s what captures a cultural vibe.
BOB GARFIELD: All right now, like much of the digital world, there are dystopian aspects and utopian aspects. I wonder if you think, on balance, this meme culture, political and otherwise, redounds to the benefit of society or is just taking us down a very dangerous path?
AMANDA HESS: People who are making these political memes are participating in their democracy and they’re participating in a way that creates, like, very strong emotional bonds, and I think that’s potentially a good thing. The downside is a lot of these memes are, themselves, very antidemocratic [LAUGHS] in that they’re not based on facts or policies or even values, they’re based on personality and feeling. And that can be a really dangerous thing.
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BOB GARFIELD: Amanda, thank you.
AMANDA HESS: Thanks a lot.
BOB GARFIELD: Amanda Hess writes about internet culture for The New York Times.