Why the New Yorker is wrong and memes are the best

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A recent New Yorker cartoon from Kim Warp came across my Facebook feed. It captured a sentiment that lots of folks are expressing lately. In it, a man and a woman sit in a coffee shop. The man boasts:

“I do plenty—that meme I posted on Facebook will go a long way toward healing the nation.”

 Credit: Kim Warp, The New Yorker
Credit: Kim Warp, The New Yorker

The sentiment, as best as I can interpret it, is that we should scoff at the people on social media spreading memes with an attitude that they have accomplished something. We should reward and give status to true action in the real world. We should dismiss anything that isn’t tangible and direct as self-congratulatory and falsely giving the appearance of action, when in fact it does little, if anything.

Let’s get something out of the way. If anyone thinks spreading memes on social media is enough to address income inequality, systemic racism, climate change, etc., obviously that is absurd.

But I’ve never actually heard anyone say or even suggest anything like that. Have you?

Generally speaking a meme, according to a quick Google search, is: “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.”

In the context of the internet and social media, a meme is: “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.”

Let’s look at a few just for fun.

So really, a meme could be anything that spreads an idea across a society that questions underlying beliefs and assumptions or suggests new ones. The memes that touch on something essential for our society spread quickly. They spread because they enable us to consider something in a new light, discover hypocrisy, or reveal the unspoken. They spread and in doing so transmit ideas and new possibilities for our world quickly and effectively.

Anyone who says that spreading memes is enough to enact change is crazy, or simply trying to figure out a way not to do the hard work of changing his or her behavior. Obviously. Obviously enough that, in my opinion, the point didn’t really need to be made. But fair enough.

Kim, my problem with your cartoon is that it, at least implicitly, reinforces another far more unhelpful and far more common sentiment: that spreading memes on social media does little, if anything, to help encourage social progress.

That’s equally crazy.

Now, Kim, I don’t think that’s what you meant. It’s hard to imagine that a cartoonist, one posting for the New Yorker no less, would not feel the immense irony of critiquing the usefulness of memes through a cartoon. Clearly, you believe that spreading ideas in a quick and easily digestible manner has power and is a piece of the puzzle of change.

What troubles me is that I think your cartoon provides fodder to those that scoff at the power of memes. I think it provides fodder to people who are looking for an excuse not to speak up and declare their beliefs. I imagine someone reading your cartoon and actually feeling affirmed in her or his belief that they should not share memes, that doing so makes no difference, and that memes should be derided as frivolous.

I actually think we need more memes and we need more people spreading them.

We need to hold in high esteem people who critique beliefs which no longer serve us and who propose new ways of thinking.

Systems thinking teaches us that the destructive behaviors and patterns we see with our eyes are inspired and informed by the hidden “mental models” or beliefs we carry about how the world works. Systems thinking teaches us that if we want to permanently change those behaviors, we must change the underlying mental models that fuel them.

Credit: Escalated Thinking, Northwest Earth Institute
Credit: Escalated Thinking, Northwest Earth Institute

Changing our underlying beliefs is not only helpful to social change, but perhaps the most essential ingredient of lasting progress.

This is exactly what memes strive to do.

Any shred of energy spent discouraging the creation and dissemination of memes is counterproductive. It squashes self-reflection and change. It gives people an excuse to be silent.

Why shame those who are attempting to spread a belief and enact change, even if in a small way? Why not focus our derision on those who remain silent in times of great need?

If we want true progress, we should be encouraging those who are willing to put their name behind their belief and critique the status quo.

We can do this without suggesting that sharing memes on social media is enough. We can do this while holding people accountable for sharing inaccurate or overly simplistic memes. And we can do this without diminishing the folks on the ground who are trying to change policy, build community, and do anything else that is tangible and direct.

It’s all good work.

So, what if someone talks a big game, but their actions and behaviors don’t reflect those beliefs?

Tell them to keep posting. And remind them that true change is when those beliefs blossom into new behaviors.

But don’t shame them for planting the seeds of our next systems.