Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Do Memes Matter?

After every presidential debate -- hell, after nearly every major event -- we have memes going viral on the Internet.  Last night's debate is no exception, especially based on the "binders full of women" line from Mitt Romney.

Which begs the question -- do memes matter?

A meme, according to that source of all info (wikipedia), is "an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture."  Here's a Politico story on the memes about women binders.  You've probably seen them on Facebook and Twitter already (the Bill Clinton one, damn funny).  I'm not going to repeat them here.  Instead, I go back to the question above.

Yes, memes are funny.  But do they matter?

As far as I can tell, in my cursory search, there are almost no studies on whether political memes influence opinion.  I'll try a more in-depth search later, but we're probably stuck relying on the larger base of research on the effects of political humor -- specifically on political satire.  The guidance there is slim because memes are so ephemeral, so easily laughed at and forgotten.  Yes, so are Stewart and Colbert, but to me the masters of political and news satire are more substantive, more long-lasting, and therefore the effects we know about humor (it persuades, some) are of little use when talking about memes.

Here's my theory.

If a meme reinforces widely held beliefs about a candidate, then it's likely to have some small effect.  The "binders full of women," that doesn't really fit Romney.  If Bill Clinton had said it in, say, 1996 -- oh hell yes, an effect.  No, for a meme to work about Romney, it'd probably need to be about money.  If he'd said something about binders full of cash, then the memes might have influenced some undecided voters, or pushed the mildly decided just a bit more to Obama.

If I come across a meme study or two, I'll post them here and discuss further.  Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy the memes.


bethany said...

I suspect, as you say, they function to build in-group cohesion, and sometimes to reinforce a common-sense notion about a candidate if it resonates with an opinion about that person already in the culture.
"You didn't build that" might be a good example, it meme-ified and had an effect because the belief that Obama doesn't appreciate small business owners or whatever was already out there. Same story with a bunch of Mitt's gaffes that suggest he's out of touch because he's so rich -- "$10,00 bet" "borrow money from your parents" etc

Hollander said...

If you're an Obama fan, you really would've loved to have the $10,000 bet thing come up in last night's debate. The meme now would be deadly to Romney. Okay, maybe not deadly, but more harmful than the memes out today about binding women.