- Meme CharacteristicsBeyond their capacity for reach, an Internet meme’s success is due to additional factors.
The success of an Internet meme relies on emotional contagion. If memes, or the message they represent, provoke an emotion, they are more likely to be shared.24 They are encoded with visual cues that tie to emotional and long-term memory, and when combined with cultural events and personal identity, the emotional reaction drives engagement, contagion, and success. Personal connection is key to engagement and they serve as pivotal links between the personal and the political.25 Engagement can take the form of liking, sharing, retweeting, creating a variation of your own, and/or taking part in off-line action. Memes most likely to be shared provoke emotions such as anger, anxiety, or humor.26
Kramera found evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks27 and Bond found evidence to support contagion of political affect as well.28 The effect of social transmission on real-world voting was greater than the direct effect of the messages themselves, and nearly all the transmission occurred between “close friends” who were more likely to have a face-to-face relationship. These results suggest that a personal connection is key for spreading messaging online and affecting real-world behavior in human social networks.
While debate ensues about the virtues of technology as it relates to human interaction, use of the Internet and social media platforms has been shown to strengthen personal connections as well as enable new ones otherwise not possible, due to time, distance, lack of information, etc.29 Smart phones, networked social apps such as Strava, social media and other social technology extends our circles of trust and empowers us to interact with others like never before.30
An Internet meme’s embedded visual cues are key as well. Our brains are hard-wired to process visual information faster and more efficiently than text.31 40% of the nerve fibers to our brain are connected to the retina, and we process visual content 60,000 times faster.32 Images are processed by long-term memory, where it is retained and remembered and most importantly, they cause a stronger emotional reaction, because visual memory is encoded in the same area where emotions are processed. Visual stimuli and emotional response are easily linked and is proven to drive decision-making behavior.33
Not only are emotions responsible for sharing content, but emotional affect is contagious as well.34 We mimic others’ emotions that we are around, due to a cluster of cells in our brains called mirror neurons.35 They are responsible for this emotional mimicry and cause us to feel and act the way we see others feeling and acting either online or in person. People catch feelings in the same way that they catch a cold, acting as conduits for the transmission, within and between networked groups.36
Huntington’s 2017 study found that memes carry affect and emotion which influence political cognition, evaluation and decision-making. Because memes are visual and intertextual, their effect depends on personal interpretation of the arguments embedded within them. Comments discourse associated with memes also help support how viewers rated its effectiveness.37 In fact, the study of memes and their associated popularity, predicts political discourse before it enters the consciousness of the public sphere.38