What’s in a meme?

Memes are a great way to quickly communicate on social media and if you get them right, they can reach huge audiences through the viral nature of ‘hey guys, look at this!’ sharing activity. But too often I see memes which are complicated and are missing one vital ingredient: a single-minded message.

Here’s an example. This meme is promoting Labor’s asylum seeker policy:


It’s a nice, straight forward list of the various elements of the policy. But what’s missing is a clean, swift, dart-in-the-bullseyes explanation for where Labor stands on asylum seeker policy. This is a communication opportunity gone to waste because as you have probably noticed on your own social media account, it’s rare for people to share memes which don’t quickly convey a ‘value’ message.

To explain this concept better, I will borrow from Drew Westen. Westen is a scholar who has a lot to say about the value of sign-posting communication with values, rather than just relying on dispassionate lists of facts and figures. In Westen’s book The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation he makes his point using this simple example.

Read the following statement:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many… After the procedure is completed, one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated.

If you’re like me, you got to the end of this passage and silently said ‘what the?’ I read it twice and still wasn’t sure what on earth the point of these instructions were. And I definitely did not remember the order of what I was told to do.

Westen says this ‘task isn’t easy. But it’s a lot easier if you’re first given the title: ‘Washing Clothes’’. Light bulb moment anyone? These instructions are all to do with washing clothes. Do you get it now? See why this asylum seeker policy meme is just a list of disparate ‘things’ that aren’t tied together with a single ‘clothes washing’ meaning? No opportunity to communicate should be hung out to dry as a laundry list of statements without delivering a meaningful, value laden message.

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