Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Meme Wars

With Memes the Medium is the Message

We know from 20th Century media guru Marshall McLuhan that "the medium is the message..." [1] The medium that carries the information is its own message. That seems especially true of our 21st Century hyper-connected Internet virtual reality.

I recently read Josh Weltman's book Seducing Strangers, which I highly recommend. [2] In it he makes a fascinating observation, one of many, starting with a term from Aristotle's Rhetoric, "Enthymeme." [3]

He connects the term to Internet "memes" - a word that was originally a play on the term "gene." [4]  A meme is an idea (embodied as a catchphrase, image or the like) which spreads throughout a society in a fashion not unlike the way genes spread through a population.

The point he makes, and the reason for this blog entry, is that there is a certain pattern to the use of Internet Memes that makes them powerful persuasive tools.  "If the first part... confuses, the second part must explain. And if the first part explains, the second part should confuse." [5]

Aristotle's Enthymeme is a logical construct where the "first term" of the syllogism is assumed to be understood by the listener.  The the second and third terms of the argument are more persuasive since the first is already in the minds of the listener.

For Internet image memes this can be generalized to: If the image confuses (or shocks, or astounds or amuses = surprises) then the words should explain; if the image explains, the words should surprise.

To a degree the image above is an example of the process. The retro-image is typical '60s California and carries with it the whole meme complex of California Living.  The words pull it into the present, starting with the current year date and become a warning to those doing business in California that the changing rules will impact them and require attention.

The average attention span of the average Internet user is very short. Just seconds. [6] Notice mainstream TV, for example. The editing cuts (especially for ads) are often the length of a heartbeat, sometimes two or three. Hardly ever more.

Thus the Internet Meme, with its rhetorical tension between image and word, is an ideal tool to get the message through the medium and into the minds of your audience.

Internet communication is becoming a battleground of memes.  My Millennial Connections tell me they call it The Meme Wars. Some of the most popular Facebook groups are built around what are called "Dank Memes" [7] The more dissonance between the image and the words, the better. And so it goes.

If the image astounds, the words explain. If the image explains, the words astound...


[1] - "The medium is the message is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived."

[2] Workman Publishing, 2015 - ISBN 978-0-7611-8495-9 (Co-producer of the TV series, Mad Men)

[3] - "An enthymeme (Greek: ἐνθύμημα, enthumēma) is a rhetorical syllogism ... used in oratorical practice."

[4] - "In 2013 Dawkins characterized an Internet meme as being a meme deliberately altered by human creativity—distinguished from biological genes and Dawkins' pre-Internet concept of a meme which involved mutation by random change and spreading through accurate replication as in Darwinian selection."

[5] Weltman, - see page 25.

[6] - You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish

[7] - Gary Johnson's Dank Meme Stash

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