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Memes in Action:

A New Way to Communicate Complex Ideas 

MAY 2021

The term “meme” has been adapted to disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, folklore, and linguistics.

In addition to viral images on the internet and videos on Youtube and Tik Tok, memes can manifest in different forms at different times. Regardless of how they manifest, they have the ability to be a critical element in communication and an important representation of society. Memes can be used to communicate humour, satire, ideas, religiosity, politics, and more. They have the potential to be an incredibly rich source of information, discourse, knowledge-sharing, and online community-building. But while they can sensationalize, they can also oversimplify and distort messages as well. In balancing these uses and shortcomings, there still remains the fact that they are used as a widespread communication tool, despite not being the best method of doing so. 

Organizations such as the Mosaic Institute, as a think-and-do tank which values dialogue as a problem-solving mechanism, benefit from a greater acknowledgement of memes as an underrated method of communication. This paper does not argue that memes should be used to communicate or that they are better and more effective mechanisms for communicating. Rather, using literature on the topic, this publication sees that in order to gain a better understanding of our society, our youth, and a whole generation of social ideas, memes need to be taken more seriously as a communicative mechanism.


Mduduzi Mhlanga,

UofMosaic Fellow

Cohort: 2019-2021

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What are Memes?

Beyond a funny image you see on your Instagram page or twitter feed, memes mean so much more. For the purposes of this article, I define “internet” memes as “highly visual and emotive forms of online communication employing popular culture images with succinct messages to communicate” (Bellar et al., 2013). But in their original meaning, Richard Dawkins described memes as the small cultural units transmitted from person to person through copying or imitation (Gal et al., 2016). This was meant to describe movements across and among gene pools, but even with a rudimentary lens, this definition is applicable to images on Instagram and videos on TikTok.


Memes are shared, person to person, and can be copied or reshaped. A similar argument is seen among scholars who consider memes similar to folklore.


A defining characteristic of folklore is that it is a cultural form passed on from person to person.  Folklore is known for its informality, variability, and for having no defined “correct” version (McNeill, 2017). Just like folklore, memes have the ability to evolve as they can be shared with or without adaptation. McNeill argues that “internet memes are inherently folkloristic, in that a traditional form gets adapted to new communicative contexts over and over again” (McNeill, 2017). In a similar vein then, memes can be considered a sort of social artifact, informing us about the social behaviour of the groups that present it, but also those that reproduce and transform it (Wiggins and Bowers, 2015). Memes can be seen as having far greater importance and significance to our culture as a society than meets the eye. 

What is their impact, what is their significance?

While an early form of internet memes was the emoticon (J), modern internet memes are far more complicated (Aguilar et al., 2017). They can be considered to now be “multi-participant creative expressions through which cultural and political identities are communicated and negotiated” (Shifman, 2013). In addition to politics, some have analyzed memes’ involvement in forming religious identity. They can help people express their religiosity in everyday life, some use them to express beliefs they otherwise might not express, and some use memes to promote religion or criticize it (Aguilar et al., 2017).

Continuing to look at how memes work broadly, some scholars have examined how internet memes can create membership-based distinctions in online communities. By using memes to communicate, they become a sort of cultural capital with online communities, those who use them in accordance with the unspoken rules of the community are legitimized and supported (Nissenbaum and Shifman, 2017). In other words, if members use the wrong memes or use them in the wrong way, they are silenced or ousted from the community. This sense of community can also manifest through the interpretation of the meme.

Some understand memes to be tantamount to speech acts so long as both sender and receiver of the meme both understand its non-verbal message (Grundlingh, 2018). Memes can express an emotion, reaction, idea, opposition, and more. And in their interpretation, the process can be seen as one of signification, meaning the receiver has an interpretive response to the message. These items can hold a message that is “more complex than just a simple image being sent from one individual to another” (Grundlingh, 2018). And so, the ability to “get” the meme will reflect intersections of gender, class, and race on different levels (kanai, 2016). Understanding memes to some extent means connecting it’s unsaid meaning to the interpreter’s own lived experiences. And hence, “getting” the meme, means making a connection between its meaning and the interpreter’s experiences.


This has two further meanings. First, memes are sensitive to the sociocultural environment that they are used in (Shifman, 2013). This means that their appropriateness changes over time and in different environments.


And second, memes can be related to the process of norm formation. Some scholars argue that memes are performative acts where the choice to either engage in or act against their spreading content is a part of norm formation (Gal et al., 2016). These two meanings taken together means that memes can form norms but also reflect the environment those norms manifest in. 


Memes can be incredibly reflective of our society and communicate so much more than just a sad face. Recognizing the important role memes play in our society, some scholars argue for them to be incorporated into early education broadly under the banner of media literacy. Because memes can be such a rich textual resource, particularly in their political potential, students might really benefit from being able to critically analyze them (Elmore and Coleman, 2019). If information spread on social media can impact public discourse and public policy, “scholars have argued that memes should be viewed as powerful, argumentative visual texts worthy of classroom investigation” (Elmore and Coleman, 2019). A political meme may appear simple or brief, but they can encompass a lot of rich discourse like gun control, immigration policy, and more.

Memes in Action

To solidify everything said to this point, this paper turns to look at memes in action, scholars have examined the myriad of ways they have interacted with us as a society, particularly in historic moments. Take for example a viral 2010 YouTube video called “It Gets Better,” responding to the large numbers of suicide among gay teens suffering from homophobic bullying. It contained a gay couple sharing how things “got better” for them. They quickly received video responses also uploaded online, but those responses were mostly uniform (Gal et al., 2016). For instance, these videos were devoid of marginalized populations (in terms of age and ethnic groups), thereby unintentionally excluding these populations in this critical conversation. 


In 2011, a group of students at the UC Davis campus in the United States were pepper-sprayed by campus police while protesting tuition hikes and police aggression. The spraying was done in an extremely casual manner, compared to spraying weeds in a garden instead of innocent young people peacefully protesting (Bayerl and Stoynov, 2016). This meme was transformed to rally public opinion. The image of the pepper-spray cop was used with cultural and political icons such as the statue of liberty and bill of rights, to explicate what they saw as a problem between police and citizens.  


In the Occupy Wallstreet movement, the memes transformed the meaning of “occupy” from military occupation to a democratic movement (Hristova, 2014). Moreover, the movement was extremely open, allowing it to be remixed in its meaning and transmission. The movement itself became a meme. Occupy Sesame Street became a trendy topic on twitter; there was outrage over the fact that 99% of cookies were consumed by 1% of the monsters on PBS, according to one tweet (Hristova, 2014). Occupy North pole similarly cared about the uneven distribution of cookies between Santa and the bottom 99% of elves. What was initially a movement about major wealth inequality in America became a source of comedy, undoubtedly its meaning being lost within the meme-ification process.

Memes' Weaknesses in Communication

Communication about complicated global issues become easier through memes, which provide an easily sharable and simplified method of communication (Nissenbaum and Shifman, 2017). And being simplified, they can also attract new individuals to the conversation. But this also means that memes can make complex issues much simpler (992). This means facts and evidence being unessential. Many see memes as a dead end to discourse and debate: “They rarely spark a debate or facilitate communication between sharers and receivers” (Board, 2020). This is because they have a very short shelf life, become easily viral and equally easily forgotten; and secondly, because they are usually charged with sarcastic, satirical, or ironic emotion, making substantive discourse difficult.

Important objects can also become meme-ified. Iconic photographs with significant political meaning have experienced this, for instance. The Chinese protestor standing in front of tanks in Tianamen Square, the drowned Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, and more (Boudana, 2017). While these images have traditionally become culturally salient through news media and television, they can also become recycled on the internet and have their meanings changed (1212). When this process happens, the significance of the image can become diluted (Boudana, 2017). And this paper finds that important photographs’ political and ethical significance can often be lost once meme-ified on the internet (Boudana, 2017). 

The amount of time we as a society are spending on social media has been increasing at least since 2012. In 2012 we were spending an approximate hour and a half on social media every day (Broadband Search, n.d.). In 2019, this number gradually increased to just over two and a half hours (Broadband Search, n.d.)4. And certainly, online, we are all exposed to these viral images and videos, increasing their significance even more. What this means is that digital literacy and acknowledgement of the importance of memes as communication mechanisms is crucial. We can learn a lot about our societies, about people, and about their worldviews, religiosity, politics, and more. But we can also simplify important issues, for better or for worse, and acknowledgement of when this happens is also relevant to our digital literacy. As we move forward into the future, I am certain we will see many more memes in action and hope we can take them seriously in doing so.


Aguilar, G. K., Campbell, H. A., Stanley, M., & Taylor, E. (2017). Communicating mixed messages about religion through internet memes. Information, Communication & Society, 20(10), 1498–1520. 

Bayerl, P. S., & Stoynov, L. (2016). Revenge by photoshop: Memefying police acts in the public dialogue about injustice. New Media & Society, 18(6), 1006–1026. 

Broadband Search (n.d.). Average Time Spent Daily on Social Media (Latest 2020 Data). 

Board, W. E. (2020). Viral Culture, Memes in Society and Politics: An Interview with Anastasia Denisova. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 15(1), 74–79. 

Boudana, S., Frosh, P., & Cohen, A. A. (2017). Reviving icons to death: When historic photographs become digital memes. Media, Culture & Society, 39(8), 1210–1230. 

Elmore, P. G., & Coleman, J. M. (2019). Middle School Students’ Analysis of Political Memes to Support Critical Media Literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 63(1), 29–40. 

Gal, N., Shifman, L., & Kampf, Z. (2016). “It Gets Better”: Internet memes and the construction of collective identity. New Media & Society, 18(8), 1698–1714. 

Grundlingh, L. (2018). Memes as speech acts. Social Semiotics, 28(2), 147–168. 

Hristova, S. (2014). Visual Memes as Neutralizers of Political Dissent. TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, 12(1), 265–276. 

Kanai, A. (2016). Sociality and Classification: Reading Gender, Race, and Class in a Humorous Meme. Social Media + Society, 2(4), 205630511667288. 

McNeill, L. (2017, December). Lol and the World Lols with You: Memes as Modern Folklore. In Phi Kappa Phi Forum (Vol. 97, No. 4, pp. 18-21). National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal. 

Nissenbaum, A., & Shifman, L. (2017). Internet memes as contested cultural capital: The case of 4chan’s /b/ board. New Media & Society, 19(4), 483–501. 

Nissenbaum, A., & Shifman, L. (2018). Meme Templates as Expressive Repertoires in a Globalizing World: A Cross-Linguistic Study. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 23(5), 294–310. 

Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 18(3), 362–377. 

Wiggins, B. E., & Bowers, G. B. (2015). Memes as genre: A structurational analysis of the memescape. New Media & Society, 17(11), 1886–1906.

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Meet Mduduzi Mhlanga

My name is Mduduzi Mhlanga. I am a Master of Global Affairs candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. 


I joined Mosaic to meet like-minded fellows with an understanding and respect for the role dialogue has in problem-solving and conflict resolution. Along that vein, I also wrote this paper with the hope that I could further substantiate the conversation. One of Mosaic’s key missions is to reduce interpersonal conflict.


My research paper focuses on the role of memes as an important tool for communication and knowledge dissemination. A key takeaway from my research paper is the recognition of how communication is and will be evolving in the digital landscape, and so we must adapt to these new forums to allow important dialogue to occur through Instagram, Facebook, and Tik Tok. Memes are meant to be far more than just humorous, they have the potential to be political, religious, informative, dangerous, undermining, zealous, impactful, and so much more. To begin to fully understand their potential, we first need to understand how they work in action.

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