By Joe Ballenger
A meme is an idea that is quickly spread around the Internet by people sharing information. In practice, this can consist of virtually anything you could imagine. Words, poems, short speeches, pictures, and virtually anything that can be shared quickly and easily on platforms like Facebook or Twitter. The basic idea behind a picture meme, such as the ones seen on Facebook, is to pair a quote with a memorable image.
Why Build Memes?
Memes offer a small and easily digestible tidbit of information, and a representable image serves to drive the point home. If the meme strikes a chord with enough people, it can be shared almost endlessly across the Internet. To a blogger, this is a valuable characteristic because a good meme can increase your readership and awareness of your enterprise. To a scientist, it can increase interest in your research amongst the general public.
I feel like no article about building memes would be complete without a prominent discussion of meme building ethics.
* Any meme created should be unambiguously true, because Facebook is already heavily polluted with misinformation spread around by memes.
* Statements should always be presented in context.
* Whenever possible, memes should only be made using Creative Commons images, and the name of the image’s author should be prominently displayed to give the author credit.
* Images from professional photographers should be avoided, because they should have the right to control how their pictures are used.
* If in doubt about the picture’s status, you should email the photographer to ask permission. They’re not under any obligation to grant you permission for use, but merely asking will open a surprising number of doors.
One thing worth mentioning is that the use of copyrighted material is allowed for teaching and criticism, but use for such purposes must be unambiguous. For example, if you’re making a tutorial on how to use Excel, it is acceptable to use Excel’s logo because it’s part of the program. Use of article content in order to criticize an article is OK, so long as the image is a part of the criticism.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding over this concept, so I would like to show a meme where Fair Use is unambiguous. Above (click it for a larger image) is a meme I constructed which criticizes the blogger FoodBabe for trying to scare people about ingredients used in products advertised on her site. I wanted to create it to demonstrate that FoodBabe is not a reputable source when it comes to food safety information, because I am of the opinion that she uses scare tactics to advertise brands on her site.
In this meme, I used text from FoodBabe’s article to show that she criticized food companies for using yeast extract while simultaneously advertising brands which used this ingredient on her site.
* Fair use of FoodBabe’s article is justified because it points out that she made the claim that yeast extract is something her readers should be worried about.
* Use of the images of products on FoodBabe’s website is fair use because it demonstrates that she sells brands that use yeast extract in their products.
* Use of the Simply Organic product logo and ingredient list is justified because the meme also criticizes their partnership with a person who would claim the ingredients they use in their products are unhealthy.
How to build a meme
The first step in building a meme is to find an acceptable picture to go with the meme. This picture should be one that’s engaging and tells a story. For example, I’ve began a campaign called #WaspLove on Twitter which is aimed at giving wasps a more appreciable image in the public eye. A friend of mine recently asked for a picture of him hand-feeding wasps in his backyard to be used for this purpose.
The picture clearly shows a worker Polistes dominula taking a katydid from a human hand without showing aggression, while her colony looks on, unconcerned. This picture shows an interesting interaction between a wasp and a human, and it’s the perfect picture to use for such a campaign.
A meme is always a trade-off between brevity and context, and it’s rare that your meme will tell the whole picture’s story. Unfortunately, the picture is too big to be made into a meme. Instead the central image of interest, the feeding, is good enough to demonstrate my overall point.
A meme does not necessarily need to be as complex as this one, and briefer is almost always better. I usually use shorter statements, and short statements don’t necessarily need as much attention to image composition. However, I like to stick to the rule of thirds whenever I can.
Crediting Posts in Memes
If you’re building a meme to advertise an article, it’s usually not a good idea to copy and paste a full length URL. It’s not possible to install a clickable link on an image posted on Twitter or Facebook, although this is easily done on text accompanying the meme. I don’t count on this text being carried with the meme, and if a meme doesn’t have a link to the accompanying blog post, you risk having your words being taken out of context.
People are more likely to follow a link if they don’t have to do a whole lot of work. I use URL shorteners like Bitly or Owly to create short URLs of my posts, and these can also show you how many people have followed the link to your post. If your meme needs to cite a source, these also work very well for that purpose.
Other Considerations For Meme Building
Since your objective revolves around getting your meme shared, you should always consider your audience. If you’re a part of a Skeptic community, it’s rare that they share memes. Most Skeptics realize that short comments are largely devoid of context and nuance, so memes tend not to be shared based on content alone. My most successful memes have historically involved things that people have found humorous.
The FoodBabe meme above has about 100 shares, and most people shared it because they found the hypocrisy the meme demonstrated to be humorous. My most successful #WaspLove meme probably has a little under half of that, and most found it funny because it described animals people were afraid of in cutesy terms.
Although the above is a broad generalization, it still pays to know your audience. Most of my friends adore Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but I would probably not increase my audience if I built memes based on his quotes because he made his name in a different field of science than the one my friends are interested in. My numbers are also smaller than a lot of meme-related sites because this is something I’ve only started to dabble in; my main canvas is text and not images.
Even if you don’t notice results right away, this is something you should still try. Since I’ve started my #WaspLove project, I have had a fairly large increase in my Twitter followers. Some of these were well-known figures outside the blogosphere, and have opened the doors for social media projects which wouldn’t have been possible before.
Joe Ballenger is an entomologist who specializes in molecular biology and has a thing for wasps. By day, he dreams about having the opportunity to work in pest management research. By night, he loves curling up with a good review paper. Follow him on Twitter at @Stylopidae and at the Biofortified Blog.