It is, after all, encoded into the very nature of memes that they are both popular and populist; easy to create, copy and disseminate; and very difficult to filter out or shut down. One question this begs is how far the global infrastructure of meme dissemination helped fuel, for example, the Arab spring, which owed much of its early spread both within and beyond Tunisia to the sharing of protest videos on curated websites outside of the country. Swapping cat photos does not bring down governments, but the sites, habits and systems fostered by meme-sharing do present severe challenges to those wishing to regulate the global information tide.
Pass it on
If this sounds grandiose, it is worth pausing to consider the net’s unique credentials when it comes to mixing banality and brilliance. In internet terms, memes are quite literally better than sex, let alone politics: more popular, more universal, and more widely accepted. We are living in a digital world that attaches deep value to the capacity to share, and to laugh together at almost anything.
Witness the response in January 2012 to the Kremlin’s attempt to smear an opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, by publishing a badly-photoshopped picture of him cosying up to a controversial oligarch. The reaction – more effective than any bland denial – was to release online a succession of images showing Navalny in the company of Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, a cartoon alien, and, most unlikely of all, Vladimir Putin himself.
It is a cheering thought – and one that should remind us what kind of a mirror we are holding up to ourselves in the technologies of the 21st Century. Laughter alone doesn’t topple odious regimes and canny dictators have long understood the usefulness of both bread and circuses. Yet memes, at their best, represent much more than a collective exercise in foolishness or denial.
Like the capacity of human society itself to act, in Dawkins’s terms, as a kind of gene pool for thoughts and belief, we are today the conscious agents of our own delight and distraction in a way never previously possible. And with this comes a new sense of what it means to be part of a truly global human collective, celebrating and rethinking its own nature every day – comic cats, dancing babies, and photoshopped Putins included.
All in all, it is not a fuchur I’m unhappy 2 b part ov.