Memeback: exploring memes as a feedback mechanism

tl;dr — can memes be considered a unit of cultural feedback?

[Rise of the meme machine]

Asha: So what in the world is a meme?

Joselyn: Well, the original meme-queen is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who drew a parallel between memes as a unit of cultural transmission and genes as a unit of biological process. Dawkins believes that memes can be found in the form of “melodies, catch-phrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches”. (To learn more, I highly recommend this primer on the concept of memes.)

Asha: Okay, so something like hula-hooping or the word “groovy” could be considered a meme from the ’70s — trends basically?

Joselyn: That is one way to think about memes, although one important part of memes is that they have some element of “virality” or ability to be replicated as they spread from person to person. Memetics purists would probably have many other and more varied examples. What we’re interested in for this post though is a slightly more specific version of memes — Internet memes, which take the form of image macros — basically an image with associated text on top.

Asha: Yes! Image macros. Okay, I immediately think of lolcats:

Joselyn: Yes! Those are one example of a genre of Internet memes — although, if I’m honest lolcats are a little dated at this point. I’m much more into bouffant hair memes, wholesome dog memes, and other niche groups, but that’s a post for another day. The main thing you’ve probably already noticed about Internet memes is that their usage has exploded in the last ten to fifteen years. You see memes on Twitter, Facebook, and tons of other social channels, as well as in physical spaces.


[Shut up and take my memes!]

Asha: When Joselyn and I first started talking about memes, I immediately thought about my experience working at Google and Google’s Meme Generator tool, which was my introduction to the Internet meme. While I can’t share too much about the tool (you can *ahem* Google it if you want more information) here’s a quote from Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Feinberg’s How Google Works:

In October 2010, a couple of Google engineers named Colin McMillen and Jonathan Feinberg launched an internal site called Memegen, which lets Googlers create memes — pithy captions matched to images — and vote on each other’s creations. Memegen created a new way for Googlers to have fun while commenting acerbically on the state of the company. In the fine tradition of Tom Lehrer and Jon Stewart, Memegen can be very funny while cutting to the heart of controversies within the company.

Joselyn: I have been involved in meme communities for a long time, and had done research on meme-creators (another future post — hold me to it if you want to learn more!). But at the time we started chatting about this idea of feedback I had also been looking at the Carnegie Mellon Memes for Spicy Teens Facebook group. The memes there were an interesting mix of random, fun but also critical. Some posts almost seemed richer than formal course evaluations.

Part of the reason we really latched on to the concept of memes as feedback was also this hunch we both had that it may be easier for people to express complex or difficult feedback using humor. Our hypothesis remains that memes could be one way of greasing the wheels for difficult and/or complicated critique. (You can see some threads of this reflected in the BBC article here).


[It’s meme-ing time]

Asha: With this idea of memes as feedback (memeback?) we decided to do a quick prototype to see what questions and other ideas we could unearth. Here’s what we did:

  • We built two “meme walls” in separate spaces, using existing large whiteboards, one in the Human Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) space and one in the Master’s of Human Computer Interaction (MHCI) offce
  • We provided prompts for each wall (“HCII is so…”) and (“MHCI is so…”)
  • We supplied materials for meme making as well as templates
  • We left the walls up for two weeks and sent two email reminders during that time

Joselyn, what did we find….

Joselyn: Drumroll please!

Well, we found some super interesting themes in the 80 memes that were created:

Emotions: Memes mentioned impostor syndrome, anxiety and stress as well as joy.
Insights: Other memes critiqued specific aspects of class instruction and content
Relationships: Yet more memes provided feedback on existing power dynamics

We also noticed that on some walls, there were original memes, that someone (or multiple people?) had printed out! This was very exciting to us — the people took on the means (memes?) of production!.


[Go forth and meme]

Asha: It was really thrilling to see the memes rolling in, and to see other people reading the walls too. But where should we go from here?

Joselyn: Well, I think we can say that the memes provided us with some feedback on the culture of the HCII and the MHCI program. But it also left us with more questions:

Bias: Who carries the risk associated with making a public meme?
Bias: Are certain groups of people more likely to make a meme? If so, how do we account for that? How can we remove barriers to participation?
Authorship: How does the meaning of the feedback change depending on the information you can guess about the likely author?
Association: Do memes imply a shared point of view? If you see a meme do you assume it’s an individual or a group’s opinion?
Association: How widespread/generalizable is meme feedback? (we didn’t implement an up/down-voting mechanism, but this would be an interesting future exploration)

We’ll be thinking about these questions and more, but we encourage you to try this out in your workplace/lab/school/secret laboratory/treehouse/etc. to see what you find out. And then please come back and let us know!


Bits and Giggles is a design research series featuring conversations between Carnegie Mellon University Human-Computer Interaction researchers Asha Toulmin and Joselyn McDonald.