Politicians have always looked for a way to express complex messages in as brief and compact a way as possible. During the television era, it was the sound bite. During the Internet era, it is the meme.
As the recent breakout success of the “Texts From Hillary” Tumblr — complete with Hillary's hilarious wink-wink, knowing response — highlighted to the Washington elite this week, the meme is the new currency of choice on the Web, the easiest and cheapest way to break through the clutter that litters the path to achieving Internet superstardom. The Hillary meme generated over 83,000 Facebook shares and 45,000 Tumblr followers , according to “Texts From Hillary” Tumblr creators Adam Smith and Stacy Lambe. Oh, and don’t forget the torrent of media attention.
It was really only a matter of time before the Hillary Clinton meme crossed over into the political realm. Even more than it used to be, the Web is almost entirely about generating buzz and making things go viral. Sites such as Buzzfeed seem to have reduced the cult of the viral to a simple science. There are entire sites that are nothing more than giant meme repositories. The most successful memes involve celebrities such as Ryan Gosling or, of course, cats — although Lolcats seem almost vintage by now. Memes are also platform-agnostic. While Tumblr is an easy platform for generating and distributing memes, Pinterest’s viral nature and exploding user base give it the potential to become a fertile breeding ground for future memes.
Wherever you go on the Web, these simple memes seem to have a complex power: to infect your mind and propel you to share them with others. Richard Dawkins first wrote about memes back in 1976 in his groundbreaking book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was looking for a way to express the concept that certain ideas and cultural phenomena — like snippets from songs and little jingles from advertisements — seem to infect your mind and replicate like genes. But here’s the scariest part: Dawkins suggests that these memes are actually in control, using humans simply as meme-replication machines.
In other words, you don’t create the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist creates you.
If you’re a politician, this means you can’t create a viral meme, but you can seed the Internet with the right type of material. Peppering the Tumblr with humor and Internet lingo is a good start, you also need to include enough celebrity appeal to make it fun for as many people as possible. For example, the Clinton meme’s power rested in its ability to break down a somewhat complex idea — that Clinton is a cool, calculating politician just biding her time until her next big political move — and express it in a way that embraced the zeitgeist of the texting digerati. In response to Zuckerberg's (fake) text to Clinton about Instagram (”Guess What I Just Bought?”), she coolly fires off, “A shirt with a big-boy collar?”
After “Texts From Hillary” and now “Super Cory Booker” what’s next? Memes on Health-care Reform? Memes on Government Budgets featuring, yes, Ryan Gosling? Is it really such a long way from The Business Cat meme to a meme featuring Bernanke and monetary policy? That’s the power of the meme — to take a topic, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, and turn it into a one-click publishing phenomenon complete with shiny unicorns and rainbows.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful."
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