My intent with this article is to provide a quick, qualitative analysis of the meme. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
When I train military officers on information warfare, I talk about the three S’s of successful memes: simple, sticks, spreads.
A meme needs to be simple. It needs to stick in the hearts and minds of recipients. It needs to spread like a virus and hold its form.
This week I could add “stings.”
Last week was brutal for journalism. BuzzFeed, HuffingtonPost, and others announced layoffs. 1,000 journalists would lose their jobs.
Trolls pounced. They taunted journalists with a meme called #LearnToCode. Even the President rubbed salt in the wound.
This is where we are: Culture wars fought through hashtags. This is an era of memetic warfare, as I’ve been warning for years.
Understanding why #LearnToCode works as a meme is instructive. Let’s take a look.
Why It Worked, Initially
The #LearnToCode meme is simple, sticks, spreads, and stings — sure. But why?
#LearnToCode works because of its cultural resonance in this moment. It’s finely tuned to cultural context, the psychology of its target audience, and timing of delivery.
Think about the context:
- The Covington Catholic episode took place the week before. Many journalists rushed to judge the students. Some taunted and harassed them. Anger toward media hasn’t been as high since the Kavanaugh hearings.
- There’s an ongoing culture war between the grassroots and the media, especially “woke” outlets like HuffPo and BuzzFeed. Mistrust in media has never been so high, and it’s divided along partisan lines. (I view this as a national crisis.)
- There’s a scapegoat dynamic in the Trump world. Journalists are the enemy. Trump’s rhetoric contributes to this. Fake news. Enemy of the people. (We can debate how much of the anger and rhetoric is justified, but the scapegoating phenomenon is objectively true.)
- “Learn to code” is a preexisting meme. It’s already in the lexicon, at least in the troll world. From the trolls’ perspective, media created the meme through patronizing coverage of laid-off people from other industries learning to code.
Now let’s look at the psychology of the targeted audience, journalists:
- Their colleagues just suffered layoffs.
- Structural changes have cut jobs in their industry over time.
- They view themselves as educated, elite protectors of democracy. (To them, being compared to laid-off coal miners and manufacturing employees is insulting.)
There are already in a demoralized state, and last week was particularly demoralizing.
Analysis of Effects
It’s not surprising, then, that the meme would hit a nerve. Here were some of the first-order effects:
- Demoralization, psychological space, and amplification. Journalists fell into the trap set for them: they amplified the meme by reacting publicly on their large platforms. Many were triggered. A few showed signs of psychological break. Some over-analyzed it, reading much more into it than the trolls, I suspect, intended.
- Calls to police abuse on Twitter. A number of journalists at NBC News and elsewhere made pleas to Twitter and Jack Dorsey. Why were they allowing this targeted harassment? In response, Twitter issued a statement and stepped up its abuse monitoring.
- Lulz. Trolls and right-wing Twitter laughed at the strong reaction. Some pointed to the hypocrisy of their reaction to Covington students versus themselves.
- Additional help to laid-off employees. The meme may have provided additional motivation to those helping laid-off journalists. Like this clever tool.
- Media amplification. Media articles amplified the controversies around the meme.
- Attempts to tie it to death threats and extremism. Some reported death threats and vile harassment. A few have attempted to tie the meme, rightly or wrongly, to violence and extremism.
- Ridicule of overreaction. Rightwing media has mostly dismissed what they view as an over-reaction. Christopher Roach lays it out in this Am Greatness piece:
“Learn to code” is today’s equivalent of ‘let them eat cake.’ It’s no less obnoxious and unrealistic when conveyed to out-of-work BuzzFeed and Huffington Post writers than it was when originally thrown at truck drivers, factory workers, and coal miners. But it is so much more deserved.”
Where It Goes From Here
It’s not clear what further effects the meme will have. I see three scenarios:
- It’s possible it will backfire, prompting Twitter to step up its censorship and policing. The attempt to tie it to death threats and extremism may paint the meme with an extremist edge. Journalists may come out as victims.
- Journalists may overreact. They may come out of this looking like privileged crybabies and hypocrites. More segments of the public could pile on as it gets more media amplification. Trolls could press the offensive.
- Most likely, #LearnToCode will fade into the next news cycle. And we’ll look back on it as another ripple in a long-simmering culture war fought through social media.
In the interim, a clash seems to be emerging between the “harassment” narrative from journalists and a “you are overreacting hypocrites” narratives from rightwing Twitter.
The early, “stinging” effectiveness of #LearnToCode is instructive for students of memetics. It shows that memes depend on DEEP understanding of context, timing, and audience. They operate in a dynamic environment. Translating a funny meme into concrete effects is fluid, ongoing, and difficult. First-order effects are only the beginning.