Could memes be an effective way to communicate climate change?

Memes are an interesting aspect of Internet culture. The term meme originates from Richard Dawkins in his book ‘the selfish gene’ who argued that memes were culture that is transmitted ‘brain to brain’. This was heavily contested for two key reasons. Firstly, there are issues with defining what a meme is. Secondly, we do not study culture by focusing on a single ideas, but instead culture is studied on a broader scale as ideas do not exist in isolation.

However, the term meme has been appropriated for use to describe the viral sharing of information. As a result a meme can be either a video or image that has had viral success. A popular series of memes are cat based. Below is two cat memes. The first is a variation of the ‘If I fits I sit’ meme that emerged in 2011. The second is a video meme called ‘Nyan Cat’ also from 2011 which has had at the time of writing 119,811,155 views on Youtube.

if its not for sits

These examples highlight an important issue with whether it is possible for memes to spread information about environmental issues. Internet culture is very fast moving and a key aspect of the success of an meme is a requirement that the meme is general enough to be used in a variety of ways or mutated to be used with other memes. This means novelty is an important aspect in the spread of memes. Another core aspect is that memes are often spread for entertainment or because the meme  represents a personal belief or identity.

The sharing of memes for entertainment and identity can be seen in the Brony subculture. This is the mostly male adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that emerged over 4 years ago originally on a website called 4chan. Pony memes became so popular on 4chan (reaching over 6000 posts per day) that they introduced new rules which led to the deletion and banning of pony memes. This was eventually reversed by 4chan with the creation of a pony board /MLP/.

However, pony memes have proved to have high survivability within Internet culture. At the time of writing the website has an image gallery of over 207 thousand pony images (far larger than any other meme image gallery on the website). This is due to the memes being created for both entertainment and also it is mutated to be used with other memes. For example the creation of pony versions of popular memes like ‘Its dangerous to go alone take this’

Due to memes being shared for entertainment it does call into question the ability for memes to be used to communicate serious issues such as climate change. While there are environmental memes shared they don’t often leave the environmental networks to be seen by a wider audience. There has been two examples I have seen that has managed to get a wider audience and both have been examples of culture jamming. Culture jamming is when you take a corporate or governmental message and subvert it.

The first example is from Greenpeace. This video was used to get people to sign up to a petition to pressure Lego to end a partnership deal with Shell. This was highly successful. The emotionally powerful video uses a depressing version of the upbeat song ‘Everything is awesome’ from the highly successful Lego movie. The success was due to the subversion of a popular song from the successful movie. This video has been viewed over 7 million times.

The second example this time aims to increase awareness of the use of palm oil in Doritos. This video is designed as a parody of adverts with a nice sharp twist ending. This has been viewed over 2 million times. However, the impact of this video is questionable. The video is funny and as a result could have been shared for the entertainment value rather than the serious environmental message that it aims to give to the viewer.

In conclusion, while there are occasional environmental memes that achieve wide viral success it is questionable the impact they have on the user. In particular, the palm oil example may simply be a success due to the entertaining nature of the video. Even then compared to other viral videos such as ‘Nyan cat’ the viewer count is relatively tiny.

The ability of memes to spread environmental information will be explored in more depth in my through a series of focus groups as part of my PhD. I plan to produce a journal article on this subject, but I will make a blog post about my findings when I have completed transcription and analysis eventually. However, the ability for memes to be an effective way to communicate climate change does seem to be very questionable.


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