Memes – the moral police of the internet in the time of Covid-19

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Author: Daniel Miller, UCL. He is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (‘ASSA’) team.

Fieldsite: Cuan (pseudonym), a small town on the east coast of Ireland, with a population of around 10,000. Research on smartphones with a focus upon the older population.

The title of this contribution comes from one of the conclusions of the Why We Post study of global social media. Memes are one of the conspicuous novelties of social media, but what do they actually do, apart from make people laugh at kittens? The Why We Post project found that in many regions memes are used to establish a particular form of morality[i], a morality that is central to anthropology as a discipline, known as the normative – meaning that which people regard as appropriate as against inappropriate behaviour. Memes are both a product of, and in one way an antidote to, social media, which stands for the transience of the contemporary world, things changing and spreading at great speed. Under such conditions, it is hard to know and achieve consensus around proper behaviour, such as what is appropriate and inappropriate to post on social media. Memes turn out to be a quick and effective means for creating moral consensus by sharing one’s values with others.

The idea this fortnight was to consider how people source and share information about COVID-19. This turned out to be a clear example of this general observation about memes. It is no surprise to see memes taking centre stage, because the people I worked with have a strong sense of their responsibilities as citizens, and in Ireland more generally, I found that developing consensus about morality was of particular importance. It is rare to see such a clear case of everyone coming together to try and establish a new set of codes of behaviour. To this end, we can watch memes taking on this role as the expression of the citizen as moral police. In this case, I have focused on memes on Facebook. Facebook itself was initially dismissed as pandering to the supposedly narcissistic interests of young. Today, it is evolving towards what might always have been its more natural home; a place for sharing values and sociality amongst the less mobile older population.

In this report, a series of memes are presented, all of which were sourced from Facebook accounts of people based in Cuan, which allow us to dig a little deeper and consider how exactly memes achieve their effects.

An exploration of memes on Cuan Facebook

When it comes to simply providing information, the main device used is simple, clear but ideally also clever visualisation. Clarity is the main point of this Irish language meme about handwashing and a meme outlining the varieties of Coronavirus.

A clear visual outline may also be employed to try and make the primary textual message stand out and be actually read as in this meme.

There are alternative ways of gaining attention and making a point. If the primary intention is to use text in order to shock, or show poignancy then this may be conveyed precisely by having the meme consist of pure text, stripped of visual augmentation as here.

Sometimes the message remains largely textual, but a visual element is used to help emphasise the main point or analogy as here.

Since anyone can create the textual message, people seem more impressed if an ingenious use of the visual has in a way made the textual mainly redundant, and the message therefore more effective as in this instance. There is at least a hint of people being impressed by the artisanship behind the best memes.

The underlying suggestion that we pay attention or remember messages when the visual dominates the textual is the precise point being made by the following meme.

Again, in this meme, the intention is simply to make the textual also visual.

Most of the memes being shared on Facebook in Cuan are not simply information about the virus, but are intended to enforce obedience to new rules about social distancing and social isolation. Apart from memes people were sharing images, for example, of large groups in parks, and expressing their discgust. In a short time what was previously good social behaviour needed to be re-thought as anti-social behaviour, and this community wanted to play its part. As in many other instances memes using pets and other animals play a significant role.

Once again, clever and inventive visual jokes are also favoured, where the visual does most of the work.

With jokes, as also with serious memes the visual may also simply illustrate the main point of the textual message, as in these two memes.

Or the visual may simply help bring out an essentially textual joke, in this case referring to wider moral issues raised by Covid-19.

It is quite common for a meme to simply be a coloured rectangle containing a textual joke. In this case, one meme read simply:

Apparently the Cheltenham races are being re-named  “Only fools and Horses” 😂😂😂

A final genre is where the visual material re-configures the original meaning of the text which is what makes the meme funny.

Two Conclusions

1) Mostly, memes can be divided into the more serious and the jokes. Although there is considerable overlap, the evidence suggests that when memes are simply conveying information, such as the nature of COVID-19, they tend to the more serious genre. When, however, they are trying to cajole the population into more appropriate action and police our values, they mainly use humour. This was already true of offline behaviour, where, in this largely egalitarian society, Irish people use banter, insult and humour when they are trying to persuade people. I observed this often, for example, when, for example, a chairperson tries to control a committee. This is likely to be the case in many societies. The material also confirms the general finding that memes represent the moral police of the internet.

2) We think of a meme as a combination of text and visual elements which can easily be shared. Looking more closely, however, there are many ways in which text and visual forms can be juxtaposed. If the text is clever enough or funny or shocking enough in its own right, then it may be presented alone, but often the point of the meme is to find an ingenious form of visualisation that either makes the textual point more striking, or makes the text redundant, because visualisation may be seen as the more effective way of rendering the message clear and memorable as an image. Or, as in the final meme, the joke is based on the relationship between the two.

[i] Miller, D. et al. How the World Changed Social Media. London: UCL Press p. 170-4. For a wider discussion of the sharing and consequences of memes see Shifman, L. (2015) Memes in Digital Culture. MIT Press