Instagram is a social media tool for sharing images and short videos. To find relevant posts on Instagram, I used the #gmrecall. About 650 posts were returned in my search. While the activity related to the recall was less than on other social networks such as Twitter, I found the results intriguing.
The Instagram posts include photos of recalls notices, key rings, or images of cars that are or were recalled. A few Instagram posts include screenshots of articles related to the recall. Both of these categories also described many Tweets with #gmrecall. I was surprised, though, to find that memes were one of the largest categories of Instagram posts. Unless using a third-party app, photographs in Instagram can only be reposted by saving an image and posting it as though it is a new photograph. Consequently, it is interesting to see that some memes appear a handful of times.
A meme, a is “phenomenon of content or concepts that spread rapidly among Internet users. It alludes to a theory by Dawkin (2006) who postulates memes as a cultural analogon of genes in order to explain how rumors, catch-phrases, melodies, or fashion trends replicate through a population.” In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins (2006) wrote that “memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by … a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”
Although memes can be ideas, tunes, catchphrases, or images (Gleick, 2011), most commonly, memes are associated with an image over which creators fix a usually humorous or satirical caption, typically using the Impact font. Meme generators (e.g., http://memegenerator.net/) abound online. Some popular memes use the photo of Hillary Clinton looking at her cell phone, Grumpy Cat, squinty-eyed Fry from Futurama, Morpheous from The Matrix, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, Ned Stark from Game of Thrones, “the Most Interesting Man in the World,” and “success kid” as depicted below:
When Dawkins was asked how he felt about his term being appropriated to describe viral internet phenomenons, he replied, “In the original introduction to the word meme in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, I did actually use the metaphor of a virus. So when anybody talks about something going viral on the internet, that is exactly what a meme is and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that” (Solon, 2013).
As a form of humor, memes can provide a window to social life, since humor is contextual. Tavory (2014) notes that humor telegraphs how we experience – and expect others to experience – everyday life. Humor can also provide a means for social identification and integration since people derive a sense of community from the shared experience represented in jokes (Hall & Keeter, 1993). Often, a shared background is necessary for someone to understand humor since humor is embedded, interactive, and referential (Fine & de Soucey, 2005): embedded in a particular community, interactive in that it invites a response, and referential in that it assumes that the creator and recipient share an identify and store of experiences that allows the humor to be correctly interpreted.
Hall and Ketter (1993) also observe that topical humor raises collective consciousness and at times provides supervision or resistance to the dominant culture while gallows humor can provide relief for individuals in difficult situations, such as homicide detectives or doctors, as a way to distance themselves from the pain and death that is all too omnipresent. Fine and de Soucey’s (2005) use two ethnographic accounts to illustrate humor as a group regulation. In particular, they observe smoothing, in which humor is used to sideline conflict between group members; sharing, which provides the sense of community mentioned by Hall and Keeter (1993); separating, in which the shared understanding of humor in a group provides a boundary with outsiders; and securing, or using humor to transmit group norm and subtlely rebuke members who defy them.
Memes about the GM recall reflect these forms and functions of culture. Bauckhage (2011), who modeled meme transmission, concluded that memes typically spread through well-defined communities and social networks reflecting Hall and Keeter’s (1993) observation that humor provides cohesion within groups as well as Fine and de Soucey’s (2005) observation that humor separates one group from another. It is likely that these memes traveled as he described. Some are clearly positioned for General Motors owners, Ford owners, and even meme creators. Additionally, they assume a shared common knowledge. Part of the humor from memes comes from pairing the image with captions. If an observer doesn’t know about Fry from Futurama or Bobby from King of the Hill, he or she will not fully understand the humor. These memes also serve to raise collective consciousness by spreading word about the recall, attempt to regulate GM by positioning it as the source of humor, and distancing humor participants from the tragic reality of the deaths and injuries caused by the faulty ignition switch.
I’ve collected some representative recall memes below. As you can see, the format and often the images, conform to meme norms. How many of them do you “get”?
Bauckhage, C. (2011). Insights into internet memes. Paper presented at the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, Barcelona, Spain.
Dawkins, R. (2006). The selfish gene (30th anniversary ed.). [Kindle edition]. humoOxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Fine, G. A., & de Soucey, M. (2005). Joking cultures: Humor themes as social regulation in group life. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 18(1), 1-22.
Gleick, J. (2011, May). What defines a meme? Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/what-defines-a-meme-1904778/?story=fullstory&page=2
Hall, S., & Keeter, L. (1993). Toward an understanding of humor as popular culture in American society. Journal of American Culture, 16(2), 1-6.
Solon, O. (2013). Richard Dawkins on the internet’s hikacking of the word ‘meme’. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-06/20/richard-dawkins-memes
Tavory, I. (2014). The situations of culture: humor and the limits of measurability. Theory & Society, 43(3/4), 275-289. doi: 10.1007/s11186-014-9222-7