In How the World Changed Social Media (2016), Miller et al. describe the results of ethnographies conducted in eight countries, exploring how social media is influenced by, and influences, local culture. Among their findings, they discuss an inherent tension in memes. On the one hand, memes are subversive, appropriating images from other contexts and manipulating them with added text.On the other hand, they often function as "moral memes" that prop up the social order through their content. Consider the many variations of the Kermit/None of My Business meme; as Miller and colleagues point out, the meme is common to many, diverse cultures, but always acts as a moral "police officer," scolding those who stray from social norms.
The #CosbyMeme disaster functioned in a similar way, reflecting the same tension between subversion and order. In an apparent attempt to burnish his image in the midst of a scandel, Bill Cosby asked internet users to create memes meant to be "fun" (if the provided samples were an indication): "Go ahead," read his Twitter request, with a link to a meme generator, "Meme me!" Instead, readers appropriated the images provided, subverting their intended purpose, but reinforcing the social order, chastising Cosby for the crimes he was accused of. the tweet and meme generator were quickly removed.
Last fall, 3.8 million high school students took the PSAT exam (including two of my own kids); many of them rushed home to create PSAT memes, appropriating details from the exam's word problems, despite agreeing not to discuss the exam publicly. Much of the focus was on Herminia, a character from a reading comprehension passage who wrote "seditious" poetry, upsetting her father. The Herminia meme generation was subversive (especially given The College Board's warnings against sharing details), but much of their content foused on criticising Herminia for not pleasing her parents, and thus maintaining the social order. (And, of course, the meme creators themselves were taking the test in hopes of winning a National Merit Scholarship; not exactly the type of kids who seek to upset the social order....)
Can memes change the world? Do they allow us to talk about things we couldn't talk about in straight text? Or do they simply allow us to share a knowing laugh and then get back to our lives?