Sometimes a LOLcat is just a humorous comment on life. Other times, there is a specific social, political, or cultural message behind it. Take the Grumpy Cat protest poster on the right. The description on Flickr explains that the image is from “the ‘Freedom not Fear’ protest rally against global internet surveillance at 7.9.2013 in Berlin, Germany.”
This Grumpy Cat poster is part of a presentation I will give at the Computers and Writing Conference in East Lansing, Michigan this summer. To provide some background, the proposal for my session, “Making Memes that Work for Change,” explains:
Political messages in the news and on social media timelines frequently borrow from the strategies of familiar Internet memes, like the captioned images we see on Facebook and Twitter. The rhetorical choice of memes for these political messages enables their authors to respond pointedly to issues that affect them, for as Limor Shifman (2014) explains in Memes in Digital Culture, “[P]olitical memes are about making a point—participating in a normative debate about how the world should look and the best way to get there” (121). In short, political memes work to persuade, to engage, and to move the public to action, all as the authors work to communicate their views of the possibilities for the future.
In the case of this Grumpy Cat poster, a well-known Internet meme (Grumpy Cat) is used to communicate the protesters’ dissatisfaction with Internet surveillance. To kick off my presentation, I will ask participants to try the following scavenger hunt activity that I use with students, using the Grumpy Cat as inspiration. The goal is to provide a quick introduction to the political moves that are used in these memes and build a collection to use as the class (or presentation) explores deeper issues.
I’ve included details in this activity to avoid potential problems that can arise when students examine memes. First, I suggested five specific kinds of memes that students should find to keep them from searching endlessly. They need to find five, so they have to use their time wisely.
Second, I provided standards for the images and language that are acceptable. I want to avoid some of the gruesome memes I have seen, but I did not want to censor topics. For example, there are some graphic abortion memes that I find unacceptable for the classroom. I want to avoid anything of this sort that might trigger students. The movie rating system has always worked well for me. I do make sure that everyone is familiar with the system, as there are occasionally international students who are used to different ratings standards.
Finally, I don’t want to force students to approach topics from any particular stance. They should be free to share any position: pro, con, or somewhere in between. That said, there are some topics that are not appropriate. Students usually understand that things like hate speech are off limits, but my reference to the Virginia Tech Principles of Community reminds them.
I did not include details on how the memes will be shared in the activity. The particular class circumstances and resources determine what will work best. Options I have used include the following:
- Share the memes in a discussion forum, especially if students are doing the activity for homework.
- Post the images in a collaborative Google Document or Slides file, which is useful for small group work (give each group its own document).
- Paste the images in an online white board, like Padlet or Note.ly, which is fun for real-time, whole-group discussion.
- Email the memes to you (the teacher) and then choose those to share in class, which allows you to review the images beforehand.
- Enter the link to and name/title of each meme in a Google Form, which will create a list of the memes that you can use later in the course.
Once the memes are collected, you can use them to discuss argument and persuasion, the underlying political messages, symbolism, language strategies, and visual rhetoric. They also provide the background knowledge for a meme-making assignment—and I will share resources for making memes next week, so be sure to come back! Meanwhile, if you have a suggestion or reaction to today’s post, please leave me a comment below.
Credit: Grumpy Cat by Frerk Meyer on Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0).