A Memetic Analysis of #LearnToCode

Jeff Giesea
Jan 29 · 4 min read

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.

Now let’s look at the psychology of the targeted audience, journalists:

  • Their colleagues just suffered layoffs.

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.
  • Lulz. Trolls and right-wing Twitter laughed at the strong reaction. Some pointed to the hypocrisy of their reaction to Covington students versus themselves.
  • 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:

  1. 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.

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.

Take-Aways

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.

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Jeff Giesea

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Media, politics, national security, innovation, personal development. Memetic warfare/info war theorist.