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It’s not all Pepes and trollfaces — memes can be a force for good

How the ‘emotional contagion’ of memes makes them the internet’s moral conscience

Illustration by Alex Castro & Keegan Larwin

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Newly single, Jason Donahoe was perusing Tinder for the first time since it started integrating users’ Instagram feeds. Suddenly, he had an idea: follow the Instagram accounts of some of the women he’d been interested in but didn’t match with on the dating service. A few days later, he considered taking it a step further and direct messaging one of the women on Instagram. After all, the new interface of the dating app seemed to encourage users to explore other areas of potential matches’ online lives, so why not take the initiative to reach out?

Before he had a chance, however, he came across the profile of another woman whose Tinder photo spread featured a meme with Parks and Recreation character Jean-Ralphio Saperstein (Ben Schwartz) leaning into the face of Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) with the caption:

hey I saw you on Tinder but we didn’t match so I found your Instagram you’re so beautiful you don’t need to wear all that makeup ahah I bet you get a lot of creepy dm’s but I’m not like all those other guys message me back beautiful btw what’s your snap

“I was like, ‘Oh shit, wow,’” Donahoe says. Seeing his potential jerk move laid out so plainly as a neatly generalized joke, he saw it in a new light. “I knew a) to be aware of that, and b) to cut that shit out … It prompted self-reflection on my part.”

the most successful memes strike a cultural chord and can guide and even influence behavior

Donahoe says memes have resonated with him particularly when they depict a “worse, extreme version” of himself. For Donahoe, the most successful memes are more than just jokes. They “strike a societal, cultural chord” and can be a potent cocktail for self-reflection as tools that can guide and even influence behavior.

In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, the alt-right — a cadre of extremists from the darker corners of the internet who popularized, normalized, and widely disseminated radical white nationalist messages — effectively weaponized memes. By September, the once innocuous comic book character Pepe the Frog, for example, had become so mutated by a small yet powerful subsection of white supremacist 4chan and Reddit users that the Anti-Defamation League labeled the cartoon frog a hate symbol.

This spring, a new study funded by the European Union aimed to determine how influential these memes truly were, particularly in swaying the election. In examining over 160 million images from Twitter, Reddit, 4chan’s Politically Incorrect board (/pol/), and Gab, gathered between July 2016 and July 2017, researchers found that the most popular racist memes existed on fringe political channels like /pol/ and r/The_Donald, with the latter being the most effective at spreading racist memes to both alt-right and traditional websites. These online pockets of hate speech help propagate alt-right memes by co-opting popular themes and images, like Pepe, for instance, by making racist rhetoric accessible and even fun. Memes were the Trojan horse that allowed the out-group to infiltrate and influence the in-group.

Evil Kermit’s popularity may not enable your worst impulses, but it does forgive you for them

This socializing effect isn’t reserved for extremist ideology. You can see it with the Evil Kermit meme, which uses a screenshot from a scene in Muppets Most Wanted, where Kermit comes face to face with his evil doppelgänger, as a template for jokes about the allure of taking the low road. Evil Kermit’s popularity may not enable your worst impulses —overreacting, blowing through your paycheck — but it does forgive you for them because the meme makes otherwise negative behavior both funny and relatable. (Who hasn’t ignored the angel on one shoulder to indulge the devil on the other?)

But just as memes have given white supremacists a platform on Reddit and 4chan to morph and influence perception (take the widely publicized example of Taylor Swift as Nazi meme fodder), some viral images have a subtler way of opening eyes to positive, prosocial behaviors as well.

One 2015 paper published in the journal Human Technology points out how memes “can influence the behavior of the recipient; therefore, examining how memes spread can provide insights into how a culture evolves.” The researchers from Texas A&M University-Commerce discusses how trickle-down memes from more influential members of a group can help lower-level members of a social faction learn group norms to better assimilate.

Memes are incredibly efficient at guiding viewers toward socially acceptable group behavior

“Memes are a reflection of our culture,” says Rosanna Guadagno, a researcher at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University. “They lead us to reexamine some of their own behavior.” In her studies of online culture, Guadagno has found that at the core of meme-sharing is the spread of societal information — whether that message encourages anti-Semitic rhetoric or discourages direct messaging a woman on Instagram.

Because memes exist as part of a social fabric that sheds light on mass behavior and experience — like the popular Twitter account @sosadtoday, where writer Melissa Broder recontextualizes depression into relatable, meme-like tweets — they are incredibly efficient at guiding viewers toward socially acceptable group behavior and away from actions that aren’t. Memes can keep people in check, allowing them to correct behaviors framed as unsavory or distasteful, because the core feature of viral content is its ability to tap into common, relatable emotions or experiences.

In 2013, Guadagno led a study examining what qualities make videos go viral, focusing on memes’ capacity for “emotional contagion.” Researchers found that the greater the videos’ emotional impact on the viewer, the more likely they were to be shared. Videos created by an out-group member — that is, someone who didn’t belong — were more likely to be shared among the group if it was anger-inducing.

Because memes tend to touch on a more widely relatable moment or emotion, it’s possible for something innocuous to also act as an oblique, even unintended wake-up call. “If you think [the meme’s message] reflects poorly on the people who engage in that behavior, you’ll choose not to engage in that behavior,” Guadagno explains.

In other words, online jokes can act as guides for a society or group’s larger moral consciousness. “The internet is the modern form of culture,” says Adam Downer, an associate editor at Know Your Meme, the biggest online database and chronicler of meme definition and history. “So when you see memes and jokes and internet stuff enforcing a certain set of social norms, you become aware [of and learn to follow those cultural boundaries].”

Downer says he saw the DM-sliding Jean-Ralphio meme, too, and had the exact same reaction as Donahoe when he first saw the image. “I didn’t know it was weird. Now I don’t do it anymore.”

Years before Jean-Ralphio, there was Scumbag Steve. Another early example of socializing memes, the 2011 image macro of a red-faced young man in baggy clothes and a sideways hat usually included text describing common behaviors of freeloading, degenerate types. “When Scumbag Steve started happening, people started realizing, ‘Maybe this thing I do is kind of scummy,’” says Amanda Brennan, a senior content insights manager at Tumblr who is affectionately known as the resident meme librarian.

The key to this phenomenon, Brennan explains, is the prevalence of more minor behaviors that may be benign enough to not warrant a larger cultural conversation but are widespread or annoying enough to justify telling an online joke.

“In the case of this Tinder thing, someone, somewhere, was like, ‘I’m tired of dudes sliding into my DMs,’” she says. “That’s a hard conversation to have with a general population. It’s one thing to say to your best friend, ‘I’m sick of dudes creeping on me,’ but once you put it into a meme format, you can kind of test the waters. Does everyone feel this way? As more and more people relate… you realize you’re not alone.”

According to John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University and the author of Psychology of the Digital Age, it’s often a meme’s ridiculousness that drives people to use them for reflection. “Memes often carry an idea to an extreme, sometimes in a reductio ad absurdum fashion, which makes them feel even more powerful as a form of social influence,” Suler says, citing a term that refers to rhetorical phrases — “when pigs fly,” for example — that use absurdity to prove a point.

minor behaviors benign enough to not warrant a larger conversation, but annoying enough to justify an online joke

Suler adds that Donahoe’s concern with the Parks and Rec meme comes from his assumption that the meme has already spread widely enough that it has solidified that norm among straight women: “He probably worries that [women have] seen that meme, and so will interpret any guy who DMs her as a creep.”

Memes can also positively inspire tangible changes when it comes to one’s perception of mental health. Embracing the community and ethos of sad memes, like those posted on the popular Instagram account @emotionalclub, help people like Ryan Whitcomb cope with his depression. In almost the same way that Evil Kermit may forgive you for your worst impulses, depression-related memes can keep the definitions and symptoms of depression at the forefront, reminding someone like Whitcomb that their illness is, in fact, an illness.

While memes are hardly a catch-all treatment, sharing photos of out-of-context signs and screenshots with darkly humorous, @sosadtoday-like text that read “Damaged but adorable” or “Please don’t step on me, I’m trying to grow” has helped him become a bit more vulnerable when talking about mental health with friends, in a way that feels productive and uplifting. Memes help normalize mental health struggles more concretely than simply offering momentary comfort, he says.

Memes help normalize mental health struggles more concretely than simply offering momentary comfort

“Discussing depression can be triggering for some people. It can feel like a burden,” Whitcomb says. “So sometimes I feel like bringing up mine might [remind someone of their own] and trigger them. If I can show them something funny, and they think it’s as funny as I do, they probably feel the same way as me, and we didn’t have to potentially go down a road they might not be comfortable going down.”

In other words, memes offer an indirect buffer through which people can approach deeper, emotional ground together without having to divulge anything deep face-to-face, Whitcomb continues. It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by many online. He’ll send them to friends or publicize them on Facebook. (His banner image: a screenshot of Mister Rogers drawing at an easel saying, “I’m not very good at it, but it doesn’t matter.”) It’s a way to communicate “this is how I feel” and take wider society’s temperature on the topic. “It’s easier to be vulnerable in that anonymous [way] because you can still get the positive reactions,” Whitcomb says. “It’s an outlet where you don’t need to be worried about being judged back.”

It all goes back to the way memes subconsciously build community. “Getting” a meme inherently defines you as being a part of a population that follows the social structure enforced by the meme. It’s the same phenomenon that’s driving Nazi memes to the top of fringe message boards. “Fundamentally, we’re all driven to be part of groups,” Guadagno explains. “The thing about memes is, not only do they reflect group values, but there are microcosm group values.”

Sometimes, meme-inspired reflection is even simpler. Donahoe came across an Evil Kermit meme about dropping ice on the floor. Evil Kermit suggests to simply kick it under the fridge. It’s a harmless behavior, but it’s one that made Donahoe more aware of his shared sloth. “I’ve done that so many times,” he says. “It didn’t change the habit, but now I chuckle when I kick ice under the fridge.”