These are choice days for memes, which Wikipedia defines as
A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.
The rate at which things spread on the Internet is jaw dropping. Due to multimedia, a meme can be a hyperlink, video, photo, drawing, hashtag, word, audio recording or something that hasn’t been invented yet. And because the Internet is primarily social, it spreads quickly via social networks, blogs, email, news sources or other websites.
In the past few weeks, we’ve had a great one — The Pepper Spray Cop. As you undoubtedly know, Lt. John Pike decided to pepper-spray protesters the Friday before Thanksgiving week. Evident in the original video is his nonchalant sharp-shooting aim and the protestors gentle acquiesence on the University of California at Davis campus. Other videos take issue with the editing and presentation in the original, offering a different POV. Social sharing network reddit is said to have been the cradle for the Pepper Spray Cop meme’s genesis, and much conversation is still going on there, as well as formation of some incredible archives of Pepper Spray Cop Memetic Art.
Whether you agree with the Occupy movement or not, a memetic moment like this makes you sit up and take notice. Here’s a link to a collection of art, videos and parodies curated by Antranik, Anto for short, who says his “main drive for creating and maintaining this blog is for my friends.” It’s a pretty amazing collection. There’s also an interesting collection over at Boingboing.
Mr. Pepper Spray’s popularity is riding the bumper of another powerful meme. This one came in the form of a petition advanced by a 22-year old college grad, Molly Katchpole, who was a force that helped to bring Bank of America to its knees over debit card fees.
Katchpole started her petition on Change.org, She says in this piece for the Guardian UK that as many as 40,000 people signed her petition in one day and ultimately 300,000 people supported her pledge. Brian Moynihan, Bank of America’s CEO, was forced to answer her charges on national television, Katchpole says.
As to the Occupy movement, there’s much intellectual bantering about what it means, whether it will endure and what it could become. In a recent piece on the Pepper Spray Meme, Nieman Journalism Lab wondered: “It will be interesting to see whether the image’s viral life will affect [the] question of “what’s next” for Occupy Wall Street in the world of traditional media.“
We are looking for answers to the wrong question. In my observation, Occupy is unlike anything we’ve seen before because it comes to us during the social blossoming of the Internet.
Occupy is born from the Internet and acts like the Internet. Occupy is the Internet manifest on Main Street. To say Occupy is predominantly social is not to say that it is not serious or powerful. It is to say that “social” is what it is about. It is about having a conversation about what is important, what is essential in our joint public lives.
When two people meet at a cocktail party, our conversation is about understanding what we have in common so we can see whether we have ground to continue the conversation in a personal relationship. With Occupy, ground is assumed because that initial conversation has already occurred online and it is time to move onto the next phase of conversation.
Many on the Occupy frontlines come from a background of economic privilege under stress [you must borrow large sums have a college degree – but there’s no jobs!] they don’t see a way forward that makes sense. They are saying “Let’s get on with it!”as well as “What can we build together?”
Conversations like this are organic and necessary for moving into the Digital Age and they will put stress on old style organizations — note the initial blindness of leadership at Bank of America. Industrial age organizations that resist the evolution to the new social both online and on Main Street will have much to catch up to later.
So rather than resist, it’s best to mind the memes.