Is there more to internet memes than meets the eye? The science of these viral mash-ups reveals why they are so effective at spreading ideas and beliefs.
To most of the world they are just amusing pictures of an adorable cartoon bunny sitting beside, or sometimes inexplicably amidst, a bowl of rice. But in China, where these images have been circulating on social media, they carry a deeper, and more serious meaning.
“Rice bunny” (米兔), as this collection of images and emojis are known, emerged in 2018 as part of the global #MeToo movement among women to expose sexual harassment. In China, where state censorship saw hashtags related the campaign being blocked, internet users had to find an alternative to coordinate the movement in their country. Enter the rice bunny. As an image it looks innocuous enough, but when the words for the two seemingly unrelated subjects are said aloud, the true meaning becomes clear – they are pronounced “mi tu”.
Through the use of this translinguistic homophone, women in China were able for a time to share their stories and spread the word about the #MeToo movement within a country that can be highly suspicious of organised social movements.
On the surface, internet memes are a ubiquitous source of light entertainment – a way for people to express themselves through cleverly remixed templates of text, images and videos. They are arguably the wallpaper of our social media feeds and often provide us with a few minutes of idle, amusing fodder for procrastination during our day.
But memes also have a serious side, according to researchers looking at modern forms of communication. They are a language in themselves, with a capacity to transcend cultures and construct collective identities between people. These sharable visual jokes can also be powerful tools for self-expression, connection, social influence and even political subversion.
Internet memes “are one of the clearest manifestations of the fact there is such a thing as digital culture”, says Paolo Gerbaudo, a reader in digital politics and director of the Centre for Digital Culture at Kings College London.
Gerbaudo describes memes as a “sort of a ready-made language with many kinds of stereotypes, symbols, situations. A palette that people can use, much like emojis, in a way, to convey a certain content”.
According to social media site Instagram, at least one million posts mentioning “meme” were shared every day in 2020. But what is it that makes the internet meme so popular and why is it such an effective way of conveying ideas?