Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Paradox of a Meme: Relatability and Virality (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Ailin (Zhi Wen) Li

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

During the middle stages of identifying and applying different theories to explain the observations I was gathering from the UofT Memes for Edgy Teens (UTMET) group, I found it interesting to consider the memes in UTMET as a form of user-generated or viral marketing. Of course, the idea of memes in advertisement is not new. In fact, marketing officers and advertising agencies have long been attempting to capitalize on the meme as a mechanism for viral marketing. While I was initially able to apply this framework to my project, the idea ultimately did not fit in with the rest of my arguments.

To explain the argument, I use the example of a simple video breaking down the taxonomy of ‘doggos’ made by the flowchart company Lucidchart which gathered over 2 million views ( From this campaign, I noted how, paradoxically, what makes a message viral and effective is some combination of novelty and relatability, which then influence the likelihood of changes in behaviour (such as buying a product). Lucidchart’s advertisement presented a relatable concept, the ‘doggo’ memes, in a novel way by making a ‘taxonomy of doggos’. The novelty was not in the message; most people who liked the ad did so because they are already familiar with doggos. As such, the advertisement was not selling an ideology but a lifestyle (to the extent that we can distinguish these two topics), i.e. how you can enhance your life with better flowcharts. By presenting a new reality, one in which your life with flow charts is better than a life without, the idea of your new life with flowcharts is novel and attractive.

In the context of memes and political mobilization, it seems that memes are inherently unable to spark action; if ideas are too relatable, which memes must inherently be in order to be considered funny, action is disincentivized. Memes seem to lack the element of novelty involved in virality, which sparks changes in behaviour. During my interviews, I have posed the question: “Do you ever feel like you learn anything new or get ‘news’ from looking at memes on UTMET?” Two students from UTSC expressed that they were able to learn about certain events and culture at the St. George campus. However, none of my interviewees have ever said that they feel like memes teach them something new about the student experience. When memes are shocking or creative, it’s not necessarily in their content; there is not much that is shocking about students getting poor grades and little sleep of having poor mental health.

What is entertaining and what people appreciate about memes is the delivery, a combination of images and text that presents well-known ideas in new ways. Memes rarely suggest new realities which can come about as a result of viewing memes, and even more infrequently do they suggest clear actions which can be taken in pursuit of a novel, improved reality. This speculation ultimately did not cohere with my paper, however, as I found a stronger case to be made in regards to the question of empathy in humour, which serves as a roadblock to action.

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