It’s official: political memes have gone mainstream. The latest example of the growing trend of visual political memes is “Texts from Hillary,” a short-lived series of hilarious memes that had the Secretary of State texting all sorts of people, from President Barack Obama to Vogue Editrix Anna Wintour.
In just the span of a week in April, the U.S. Secretary of State went from diplomatic globetrotter to Internet superstar. The popularity of the meme exponentially grew over the course of the week, causing it to go “mainstream” by dominating blogs, print news and watercooler talk.
Published as a Tumblr blog, the memes feature the same picture of Clinton donning sunglasses and looking down at her mobile phone—presumably texting. This image is juxtaposed with other images, ranging from Meryl Streep to Mark Zuckerberg to Joe Biden, each checking in with “Hil” via text. In one meme, President Obama is seen lying on a sofa texting, “Hey Hil, Whatchu doing?” “Running the world,” she snarkily responds.
These memes are not just funny—they are humanizing. And for a woman who has lived under the public scrutiny for decades as First Lady of Arkansas, then the U.S., Senator of New York and now Secretary of State, it portrays her as warm and relatable.
Perhaps the choice to feature Secretary Clinton parallels her high approval ratings, which stood at a respectable 66 percent (USA Today/Gallup) in May, much higher than her former rival President Obama, who as of July 16 stands at 47 percent (Gallup). Talking Points Memo even headlined in April, “Hillary Boomlet Hits New Gear As ‘Texts From Hillary’ Explodes, alluding to her rising popularity with citizens both online and off. What’s more is the fact that Clinton talked back. The two guys who started the Tumblr blog, Stacy and Adam, received a meme submission from Clinton herself. Written in the margin of the printed meme in her handwriting is, “Adam – Thanks for the many LOLZ – Hillary ‘Hillz’.”
President Obama joined in on the fun too, when at the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner held later that April he remarked, “…four years later, [Hillary] won’t stop drunk texting me from Cartegena!”
The denizens of the web are no strangers to the memefication of pop culture and, increasingly, political culture, too. The increased memefication of national politicians across the web has given rise to a new kind of political discourse that exists in the “cracks” of the Internet. Occasionally, like the “Texts from Hillary” meme, they go mainstream.
My own research into visual political memes is based on Dawkins’ (1976) concept of memes as units of cultural transmission, or units of imitation. I married his seminal definition of memetics with Easton’s (1960) definition of politics to create a definition for political memes. I define political memes as units of cultural transmission or imitation that reflects the authoritative allocation of values in a society. This definition serves the study of political memetics well due its inclusiveness and broad interpretation. I used Easton’s definition of politics because it divorces the concept of politics as something exclusive to society and government. In this sense, political memes don’t have to feature elected officials, but could feature memes from the office or at a summer camp.
Visual political memes represent a new way to engage in really complex topics. From U.S. foreign policy to the economic rise of China, discussing major political topics can be overwhelming based on the sheer amount of expertise and detailed knowledge one must know. If the Internet has taught us anything, though, it is that ordinary people can engage in traditionally complex, even elitist, topics through new media tools. Political memes are an example of this through their novelty and near-universal appeal. After a long day at the office or in the classroom, what could be more fun than seeing Obama texting Clinton about something serious?
That the life span of memes is getting shorter and shorter may be an indication of their waning novelty. Or perhaps Internet culture is simply becoming more sophisticated as it regularly inhales and exhales remixed wonderfulness. “Texts from Hillary” could have been long-lasting due to its near-limitless material, but the attention span of the Internet just didn’t afford it time.
As my previous post on visual political memes suggested, the trend is not farcical in the least. In fact, it may be one of the more important developments in the evolution of political communication because it allows an accessible way for ordinary people to engage in politically dense topics.
The real question is whether something as benevolent as Internet memes can win the hearts and minds of the electorate just as much as a fully developed political campaign aims to do. The key difference is that the latter takes a lot more time, people, and money and the former is way more fun.
Andrew Lewandowski is a Georgetown University graduate student in the Communication, Culture & Technology program.