Meme-Making for Digital Literacy

Curator's Note

Because it’s so easy to create memes, many people have experienced the mix of pleasure, transgression and creativity that results when creating them. But can meme-making be used as an instructional strategy to support advancing the digital and media literacy competencies of young people? Can such work be contextualized in relation to a public health initiative? In this two-session program I developed at Portsmouth High School in Rhode Island, students first charted the scope and diversity of their social media networks and talked about the concept of virality. Students generated a list of factors that might cause a message to “go viral,” recognizing that humor, edginess, relevance to pop culture, inspirational and transgressive messages all may make a meme more “spreadable.” Then students, who had previously completed schoolwork on substance abuse prevention worked individually or with a partner to create memes. They worked under deadline pressure and were encouraged to simply play and experiment with an online meme generator. Finally, students did some personal reflection on the memes created by members of the class. Which ones would they share and why? Which ones would they not share and why? High school students learned about social media and explored the concept of virality in the context of substance abuse prevention by making memes for public health. Instructors described their feelings of anxiety about the balance between play and learning that the activity engendered; they were also relieved and thrilled to listen to students’ thoughtful reflections on which memes they would and would not share. I wonder: Does meme-making for public health encourage metacognition about online sharing decisions? Might it promote important conversations about virality and transgression in digital culture? Might it even make public health topics and issues perceived to be more cool?


I believe meme making could be a worthwhile exercise in a communications class to examine why and how certain memes are more successful than others. For instance, I find that nowadays, the absurder the meme the more popular it is (vs a few years ago, when memes mostly had a distinct punchline or alluded to a particular reference). So, would students find a meme funny that makes a specific reference to a joke or that is just absurd and nonsensical, and therefore funny? Are memes that are embedded in a social discourse (e.g. politics or pop culture) more successful than those that are devoid of any deeper context? And what does that say about contemporary humor, use of social media, or communication in general? If I were a comm instructor, I'd try it out!

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