Bridging scholarly research and street activism, this analysis shows how memes are so much more than an internet phenomenon.
As an artist, journalist, and technologist (whose “home is wherever the Wi-Fi is”), Mina draws on a wide range of experience, from China to America, in her attempts to show the possibilities and challenges of galvanizing political activism through social media. What is a meme? In its simplest definition, it is “a unit of culture,” a term coined by scientist/author Richard Dawkins in 1976, well before the development of the internet. Originally popularized within the academic world, the notion of memes went viral as internet memes did, whether visual sloganeering, cat videos, or GIFs. They spread quickly and internationally, often defying the understanding of censors, as the author shows in her reportage of Chinese social movements, and adapting to messages well beyond their original intent. “Culture shifts, culture changes, culture is informed by much deeper processes than the internet, but the internet also informs culture,” writes Mina. “Memes come from deep wellsprings in society, and as more of society comes online, more memes of contention and disagreement appear.” Memes shape and shift the popular narrative, as hashtags amplify the power of “Black Lives Matter,” or “Deplorables,” or the crusade for gay marriage, and so often launch countermovements in their wakes. Though the author recognizes that such online activism is often derided as “slacktivism,” she suggests that online activism and physical activism have a synergistic relationship, that “object memes” such as the “pussy hats” in the 2017 Women’s March show a collective power and purpose. Mina is also insightful on those funny cat videos, which showed cat lovers (isolated in a world of dog parks and dog love) that there is a whole community of them on the internet.
In this incisive and illuminating study, the author shows how she appreciates the power of art, the power of the internet, and the intersection of the two.