On May 2, 2011, President Obama announced to the nation and the world in a late night address that U.S. special forces had successfully captured and killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda. I was watching the president’s speech through a live stream from the WhiteHouse.gov website and, as is the M.O. of Generation Y, was multitasking. Before Obama’s speech was even over, the Internet seemingly exploded with visual political memes. And, more interestingly, people were having substantive conversations about Obama, bin Laden, U.S. foreign policy and the like in the online spaces where there memes were posted.
I thought to myself, is this a new form of political engagement—visual memes? How does a nation of over 300 million citizens talk about such a cardinal event, anyway? More largely, how does the world talk about such an event, one whose implications have played out on the world stage for nearly a decade?
And so I began a project that attempted to better understand how visual memes are used in online spaces to discuss political events. In doing so, I traced the history of memes as modes of cultural imitation through academic literature and attempted to define a political meme. Through a content analysis of nine articles from three online communities (Gawker, Reddit and BoingBoing), I focused on the use of visual political memes created subsequent to Obama’s May 2011 announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death and how they are used in online discourse. Lastly, I synthesized these findings and drew larger conclusions that may help in better understanding how seemingly esoteric online discourses can affect the larger public sphere, especially in the context of politics.
Have cultural memes been reenergized with the advent of the Internet? Does the context a meme exists in play an important role in forming perceptions of politics? Is memetic humor a strategy used to illustrate one’s position regarding a political event or policy? These are some of the basic questions my project explored, which will be published on eM&P in the coming weeks.
Andrew Lewandowski is a Georgetown University graduate student in the Communication, Culture & Technology program.