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Advocacy, Viral Videos and Web Memes November 5, 2012

Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Civic Media, Convergence, Journalism, Online Video, Social Media, Web Video, YouTube.
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by Joanne KY Teoh (first published in ThinkBrigade)
Memes aren’t just about extracting a laugh anymore – they make political points too and sway opinion. Once relegated to obscure online communities and subcultures, memes have penetrated the public psyche to become part of Web pop culture.

The US presidential election is fertile ground for spawning Web memes. The TV debates give voters not just a glimpse of the candidates, but fodder to turn political discourse into mimetic entertainment. After two TV debates, “Big Bird” along with “horses and bayonets” have stormed the internet.

“Binders Full of Women” has become an instant internet meme after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s telling remark during a debate with President Barack Obama to demonstrate his past attempts to fight for women’s equality.

Memes predate the internet. They take the form of ideas, images, styles, catchphrases and videos that people find compelling enough to copy and imitate within a culture. The term meme is derived from genetics, describing the evolution of ideas and cultural phenomena by natural selection.

One can even “songify” TV sound bites for the Web. The Gregory Brothers have turned the third presidential TV encounter into a musical meme, with Romney and Obama engaging in a mellifluous battle for votes. The video is part of The New York Times Op-Doc series.

Could a neo-activism driven by viral videos and Web memes save the environment? Would the “songification” and “meme-ification” of abstract policy debates on climate change, melting icecaps and species extinction generate virtual memes, inspire local action, focus global attention and trigger social change?

Environmental memes are in a class of their own. They inform our view of nature – think Gaia, Pachamama and Mother Earth. Today, environmentalists have added viral videos and social media to their arsenal of advocacy and protest tools.

The slick video (below) by Greenpeace that purportedly showed a Royal Dutch Shell event going horribly wrong sparked a media firestorm in June this year:

Another video on The Great Pacific Garbage Patch went viral long before ending plastic pollution in the world’s oceans became one of the top 10 priorities of the Rio+20 conference.

The simple narrative of this video (below) struck a chord, spurring eco-blogs and green groups to tap information from the clip to start campaigns to “Take the Plastic Water Bottle Challenge” and ban plastic bags:

The startling spread of the Kony meme raises interesting questions for the future of green neo-activism online. Kony 2012, the viral campaign against Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, is an infectious idea that transfixed a generation who use Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.

The 30-minute video made by the US-based campaigning group Invisible Children has been lambasted by media scholars for ideological bias and its simplistic portrayal of a complex issue. But this is the way to reach and rouse a generation of multi-screening multi-taskers, native of the visual language of LOL cats.

Complex and multi-faceted, green issues were once given short shrift in mainstream media. But mainstreaming these issues is not enough. We need more green memes that catch fire online and the imagination of youth on the ground.

So-called MemeGenerators are enabling the meme-fication of issues. Properly exploited, memes and viral videos can be passed along via Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter to ignite social change.

If the intentions are good, the simplification of complexity is a powerful narrative tactic to spur web natives to start viral conversations using 140 characters or less. The seminal paper by Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter on the power of “weak ties” in networks posits that links among people who are not closely bonded are critical for spreading ideas and helping groups coalesce for action.

It is premature to assert that the era of network power has arrived. But with one in three people in the world now using the internet, online video could in time reach these folks and prove a game changer. And when mashups of funny online content inspire a flood of parodies, viral videos and internet memes might just save Mother Nature.

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