Memeology Festival 08. Beneficent Memes

“Kindness isn’t part of anyone’s nature. You have to make yourself do it, like sit-ups.”

– Garrison Keillor

To meme is to engage creatively with a popular (and therefore recognizable) cultural artifact. Memes are a mode of participatory culture. They give us a common language from which to act politically. There are different levels of participation, however. Meme-ing is an activity distinct from invoking a meme. Personally, I have never generated a digital meme. That is, I have never taken a popular internet text and changed it in any meaningful way. However, I have relied on memetic communication by invoking existing memes when context calls. Yet I am not convinced that invoking a meme constitutes real political action. By contrast, generating a meme could very well allow individuals to perform and develop political identities for themselves in a public-political space.

This post uses the ALS Ice Bucket challenge as an opportunity to think through the potential political power of “charity memes” and to continue parsing the different levels of meme participation. I recognize that the Ice Bucket Challenge feels like old news in the hurried pace of meme proliferation, but as Jonathan Sterne recently argued, as academics, we should take our time. Ask big, important questions and let ideas transcend examples.

So rather than spending precious word count on whether the Ice Bucket Challenge was even a meme, I’d rather ask questions like: To what extent can imitating performative codes of charity lead to genuine feelings of compassion for our fellow consociates? From this perspective, the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, in terms of reach and replicability, offers a chance to explore the transmission and spread of benevolent behavior online. [1]

Socially Mediated Acts of Kindness

The summer of 2014 found Facebook awash with home videos of people dumping buckets of ice water over their heads in support of the ALS Foundation, an organization dedicated to curing Lou Gehrig’s disease. “The Ice Bucket Challenge,” as it came to be known, operated on a dare. Functioning like a remediation of chain mail, the participant must pour ice water over her head and “publicly” nominate three individuals (via social media) to do the same within 24 hours, lest they are socially shamed into paying $100 to the ALS Foundation. The Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC) inspired over ten times the money raised during the same period last year, something of a surprise, since the videos suggest most people preferred dumping to donating.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of IBC videos. One formula repeats the form and content and the other repeats the form, but not necessarily the content. Following my earlier distinction, the first formula invokes, whereas the second formula memes. To illustrate this point, think of the average IBC video. From video to video, the only differences are the participants and their immediate context. Instead of Kevin on his apartment rooftop, we see Molly in her backyard. Instead of a team of football players we see an a cappella group. The message remains the same: support ALS research. By contrast, some videos use the recognizable form to showcase a different social or political issue, such as Orlando Jones’ bucket of bullets or Matt Damon’s toilet water dump. The disruption draws our attention, asking us to consider an alternative “cause” and see the participant as a political actor. In this way, the meme becomes a vehicle to transform, rather than a vessel to transmit.


Orlando Jones draws attention to Ferguson

The first version of the IBC replicates form and content, spreading a message and raising funds. The second version raises consciousness. To elaborate, I’ll turn to Anthony Giddens’ (1984) vocabulary on human consciousness. As a performative thinker, Giddens believes we draw from taken-for-granted “knowledge” in order to conduct social activities. This idea speaks to the recursive nature of social life—the idea that we do have intentionality, but by invoking established conventions, we unintentionally reproduce dominant social norms. For Giddens, these “reproductions” occur at the level of practical consciousness—relying on near-automatic knowledge of “how to go about” the business of social life. Most IBC videos reflect practical consciousness. A lack of creative adaptation suggests automation and an absence of reflexivity.

Raising Consciousness

Reflexivity, the ability to think about thinking, is what Giddens’ refers to as discursive consciousness. As mentioned, some iterations of the IBC suggest more thoughtful engagement. Matt Damon’s toilet water drew attention to the global water crisis. Orlando Jones’s bullets protested racial violence. And in January 2015, a Syrian man challenged Al Assad to a “snow bucket challenge” to raise awareness of refugees dying in the cold.

So in order for us to actively, and maybe what I mean is consciously, generate benevolent behavior, we need to engage this second level of human consciousness—discursive consciousness. This is not to say that we cannot be altruistic at the practical level—the IBC raised millions of dollars, after all. But ultimately I believe memetic performances at the discursive level are more sophisticated (in terms of critical, creative engagement), and thereby more political in the Arendtian sense. Political action requires an individual to establish a political identity by interacting with diverse individuals in a public setting. If enough people bring their unique political identities to bare, we can achieve the necessary plurality to enrich public deliberation, develop opinions, and make good decisions. [2]

Establishing a political identity involves risk. You must perform words and deeds in public. Nicole Ellison et al. (2013) wrote a neat piece about the costs involved in soliciting help online. The first cost level doesn’t require much effort (or risk). You stay on the same webpage. Using the parlance of FB: “Click ‘like’ in support of…” The second cost level requires you to click an external link. The third and final cost level requires you to do something IRL: “Can someone give me a ride to the airport?” That’s a third level cost because you have to leave your computer screen. Mapping these cost levels onto the IBC example, I am left wondering why they don’t coincide with consciousness levels. Shouldn’t you question the moral argument for action before pouring ice water over your head? What is the relationship between ice water and Lou Gehrig’s disease? Is ALS research notably under-funded? Maybe our capacity for judgment is a causality of high-speed, internet-enabled altruism. In our hurry, we miss the chance to develop discursive consciousness.


[1] I feel compelled to acknowledge the post-humanitarian critique—the idea that charity memes are yet another form of bourgeois e-activism promoting a neoliberal lifestyle of “feel good” altruism.

[2] Plurality refers simultaneously to equality and distinction, to the fact that all human beings belong to the same species yet no two are ever interchangeable since each is endowed with a unique body, biography, and perspective on the world.

The above is part 8 of 8 in a collection on internet memes and viral media compiled for Culture Digitally, based on a pair of panels at the 2014 and 2015 meetings of the International Communication Association. We’ve taken to calling it “The Culture Digitally Festival of Memeology” and will release two entries a week for the next month. We hope you enjoy the show.

– Ryan M. Milner and Jean Burgess, Collection Editors