Individual project (thesis project)
8 months (September 2021 - May 2022)
My undergrad thesis paper was interestingly one of the most unconventional projects that I've worked on.
The idea for this project began in a Google-sponsored class about artistic approaches to speculative design and futures thinking. I left this course with thought-provoking art projects about digital belonging, deep questions, and most importantly, an large collection of half-analyzed research data on how memes can affect one's sense of social belonging.
I used this research data as a launch pad for my thesis project, which became a curation of data, insights, and recommendations that live within a thesis paper. (But of course it's a carefully designed and highly readable artifact!)
The project aims to answer this guiding question:
I initially thought that this project might culminate in an innovative design solution, but quickly realized that I was researching a vast and complex systemic issue on digital culture. I decided that the most meaningful way to present the topic was through a thesis paper that offered nuanced research recommendations instead of a single high-fidelity solution. Ultimately, I created a highly readable artifact to hold the details and results of the project, accompanied by a small interactive exhibit and infographics.Full thesis paper
I created a categorization of the different social groups that harmful memes affect and wrote deep dives into the definitions, examples, and effects of each category.
I also built a collection of diagrams to map out the different aspects of meme-sharing systems. A key diagram is a stakeholder map of how harmful "memetic incidents" are created.
Finally, I made set of recommendations that act as springboards for deeper discussions, research, and application. Here is a summarized version of the recommendations:
Watch my thesis presentation!
I began this project with a general survey (with 103 respondents) that aimed to discover user behaviors and motivations around meme sharing, if and how memes are used as a tool for building belonging, and determining a target audience for interviewing. This survey was conducted in collaboration with a team at the onset of this project.
The survey was distributed by sharing and re-sharing links through friends, family, and other connections, as well as via posters with QR codes throughout California College of the Arts’ campus and several San Francisco neighborhoods.
You can view the full data for the survey in my thesis paper.
Most participants reported that they usually share memes with friends and close friends within a private social circle.
Most participants reported that they mainly share memes to build rapport and express humor.
Around 50% of participants attributed expressing humor as the main motivation for sharing memes and around 17% of participants reported that they mainly share memes to build rapport.
Participant responses to "Why do you share memes?"
Many participants expressed that sharing memes boosts their feelings of social validity and helps them feel like part of a group.
Around 45% of participants reported that they sometimes feel social validation when sharing or using memes and around 25% of participants expressed that they always or often feel social validation through memes. Additionally, 36% of participants wrote that they feel social validity when they feel part of a group.
Participant responses to "Do you feel socially validated when using or understanding memes?"
The findings from these initial explorations determined the target audience for this project:
This group was found to be in between people who hate or actively avoid memes and avid meme sharers. This audience is open to consuming and receiving memes and casually participates in meme sharing. Using these findings, I created a persona as a representation of the target group.
These initial explorations uncovered that memes are often used as vessels for attaining a sense of belonging, and simultaneously, exclusivity. Additionally, the viral nature of these internet artifacts allows both a meme’s reach and longevity to be unpredictable. This creates a highly influential yet erratic tool that could be harnessed by anyone– many times unintentionally.
A meme’s unpredictable nature is synonymous with its viral nature. When someone sends a meme of an inside joke into a group chat, they rely on recipients who “get it” to react or respond to feel like a valuable member of that group. This creates momentary joy and confidence for the sender, as well as an opportunity for the receivers to re-share the meme or an iteration of it to a similar audience. When this pattern is repeated, memes make their way back and forth between private chats to public social media platforms at viral speeds.
Memes that become viral are oftentimes harmless or at worst an inconsiderate joke, but they can sometimes be deeply harmful to individuals, groups, or even a country’s political system.
To learn more about how individuals use and are affected by this system, I conducted qualitative, semi-structured interviews with participants who were part of the target audience.
Similar to the general survey, the screener survey was distributed through friends, family, and other connections, as well as through posters throughout the California College of the Arts campus. A total of 54 participants responded to the survey and 6 participants who passed the screener test opted in for interviewing.
You can view the screener test and its results, the interview guide, and the interview analysis and synthesis in my thesis paper.
Building trust, intimacy, and friendship are the main motivators for sharing memes.
Most interviewees believe that context is important when sharing memes in general, but don't always practice it when they share memes themselves.
I synthesized my research findings into 3 final artifacts:
Both primary and secondary research revealed that sharing, receiving, and consuming memes can indeed cause unintentionally harmful chain reactions. As a result, a collection of unintentional memetic incidents was categorized to illustrate the effects of harmful memes on their stakeholders and inform recommendations of intervention and mitigation. The categorization is organized into incidents that affect individuals, social and cultural groups, and macro-environments.
Within this category, the main victim is the “memed” individual. For example, while many people share and create iterations of the overly attached girlfriend meme for various purposes, the subject of the meme, Morris, is constant throughout the meme’s evolutions. This category can be extremely damaging to the victim and those close to them.
Lizzie Velazquez was 17 when a meme that labeled her “the ugliest woman in the world” (Rodriguez, 2017) became viral. Velazquez suffers from a rare congenital disease that prevents her from gaining weight and indirectly became the target of a hurtful body-shaming joke. She responded to the meme in a Facebook post that “at the time you might find it hilarious, but the human in the photo is probably feeling the exact opposite” (Rodriguez, 2017).
Harmful meme of Lizzie Velazquez and her statement.
Remarkably, Velazquez redirected the unwanted attention and bullying that she received into a career of motivational speaking and anti-bullying advocacy (Rodrigues, 2017). However, her admirable success story is not often found in other victims of harmful memetic incidents.
Successful Taiwanese model Heidi Yeh took part in a limited-run print ad for a South Korean plastic surgery company. Similar to Velazquez, Yeh discovered that her photo had become viral. In the ad, Yeh modeled as the mother in a family photo of an attractive couple and their three children, whose eyes were edited to look smaller and noses to look flared. The accompanying copy read “The only thing you’ll have to worry about is how to explain it to the kids” (Perry, 2017).
Harmful meme of Heidi Yeh.
Yeh shared in a BBC interview that as the meme evolved online, a story had been spun that the “husband figured out [the wife] had lied to him about not having plastic surgery done ... [the kids] didn’t look anything like her. Then he sued her and won.” This caused Yeh to lose jobs, sleep, and even trust from her family. The meme had unintentionally escalated into a believable story and both Yeh’s professional and personal life became severely damaged as a result.
In this category, the victim and those close to them are affected by these hurtful memes the most. In contrast, the meme’s initiator often has the most control in these incidents. Whether the initiator created the meme with or without harmful intent toward the meme’s subject, anyone who makes a meme that features another individual should be mindful and cautious about the potential chain reactions that can occur once it’s shared. Furthermore, social media platforms have the rightful authority to and should investigate memes that feature individuals, as this category of memetic chain reactions often begins as an attempt of cyberbullying– and consequently violates many platforms’ policies. Velazquez, who already suffers from bullying in real life, suggested that the memed image of herself might be another incident of bullying (Moisse, 2012). Similarly, Yeh has been in a legal battle with the South Korean plastic surgery company over suspicions of intentional and hurtful online release of the ad (Perry, 2017).
The effects and victims of this category are relatively invisible, as these memes often target and desensitize issues that vulnerable or marginalized groups face. These memes rely on the need to feel belonging, and simultaneously exclusivity, to spread and evolve. This category of memetic chain reactions usually takes place within online communities and targets members of vulnerable communities to feel isolation and shame in their identities.
The infamous booba meme featuring Pepe the frog in a suit with bulging eyes is a popular meme, sticker, and emote used by Twitter, Twitch, and Reddit communities alike. The meme began after appearing next to a comment under a photo of actress Elizabeth Olsen that misspelled “boobs” with “booba” and is now widely accepted as an appropriate “reaction to images of large-breasted females” (Philip, n.d.). The meme quickly gained popularity in the male-dominated gaming community and using the meme became a marker of belonging in a like-minded group that normalizes the objectification of women. As a result, many female streamers face ongoing harassment and sexual comments. Popular Twitch streamer PaladinAmber expressed on her live stream after receiving multiple unsolicited flirtatious comments that “I’m not gonna call you. I’m not gonna date you. If you’re on Twitch to find somebody to f**k, the only f**k you’re ever gonna get is if you f**k off! Stop. I’m over it. Enough” (Glaze, 2020).
The booba meme has evolved into a modern, online personification of the male gaze. An analysis of the meme explains that “with this civilized repression [of Pepe dressed in a suit], Pepe had to find a way to express sexuality without being monstrous, and thus, like all civilized men, he became scopophilic” (Thumb, 2021). Booba is one of many memes that act as pillars of demarcating in-groups and out-groups online. To belong to the mainstream gaming community, one must accept and utilize their methods of memetic communication, whether the user understands the repercussions of the memes they share or not.
The victims of these memetic incidents are those who identify with the targeted group and often don’t have a platform like PaladinAmber to speak out for themselves. Many participants in the qualitative interviews expressed that they’ve come across many memes that target their identities and that the high saturation of memetic content often desensitizes the issues that affect them.
Participant JQ reported that “memes can perpetuate scarcity or drama, and normalizes it, which is harmful to individuals who feel vulnerable.” The participant shared several examples of memes they found themselves consuming on Instagram (below image) that reinforced feelings of anxiety and scarcity during difficult times.
Memes shared by participant JQ, who describes them as “drama-perpetuating.”
Negative or dramatic memes can be a passing joke to many, but can deeply affect those who might be experiencing periods of vulnerability. Similarly, participant MX stated that “most people share negative feelings as memes because it resonates more easily.” The participant shared a collection of WeChat sticker memes that they commonly use, of which almost all had negative connotations (below image).
Three sticker memes with negative connotations shared by participant MX.
The participant explained that while she and her friends share negative stickers to poke fun at issues they’re facing, these conversations easily turn into satirical jokes or dark humor leaving participant MX feeling desensitized and unmotivated to face these issues.
In this category, those who identify with the targeted group or are feeling mentally vulnerable are most affected by this type of memetic chain reaction. In contrast, those whose values go against the targeted group have control to use these memes to isolate and manipulate victims. Additionally, influencers have control to use their platforms to shed light on these patterns and practices and mitigate the spread of harmful memetic content.
Memes have permeated into so many aspects of online culture and are becoming a shared language and behavior by digital citizens. This category of memetic chain reaction is often large-scale attempts to promote bigotry, violence, misinformation, or propaganda. When successful, these chain reactions can affect the economic, political, cultural, or social landscapes of a society, as well as affect the groups and communities within that society.
An infamous global memetic incident was Pepe’s shift from a funny meme used by small communities to a bizarre alt-right co-optation. In 2005, artist Matt Furie created Pepe the frog as a laid-back and oftentimes stoned character in his comic book Boy’s Club. Subsequently, Pepe grew into a commonly used meme on 4chan to symbolize NEETs, a term meaning “not in education, employment, or training” that describes people who, whether by choice or circumstance, have no ambition to be in school or hold a job (Ifeanyi, 2020). The character eventually went on to become one of the most popular and versatile memes (Know Your Meme, n.d.). As Pepe became more normalized, those who were familiar with its 4chan origins slowly iterated on the meme to be darker and more deviant from its mainstream counterpart.
Deviant and problematic Pepe memes.
As more people began making deviant versions of Pepe, the once easygoing character snowballed into a “terrorist, Nazi, and a skinhead” whose mission is to upend the status quo (Ifeanyi, 2020). In the United States, Pepe soon manifested into a symbol of the alt-right and a cryptic form of communication used by school shooters, Neo-Nazis, and Donald Trump alike.
Fully co-opted and strongly intentional alt-right Pepe memes.
Memetic incidents in this category affect multiple social and cultural groups as well as the macro-landscapes of a society. Pepe’s alt-right “character arc” affected political campaigns, escalated racism and sexism, and enabled herd mentality. Many targeted groups and communities, as well as individuals who identify with them, are most affected by this type of chain reaction the most. Additionally, those who unknowingly participate in sharing these memes are also greatly affected. For example, the Gadsden flag was similarly co-opted by the alt-right as Pepe was. As a result, many people who saw the historical American flag or images of it online held disapproving or frightful feelings towards the flag’s owner or sharer (Walker, 2016). As a result, many individuals and communities who use memetic imagery out of context were viewed as participants and encouragers of harmful memetic chain reactions.
In contrast, true participants and influencers in this category of harmful memetic chain reactions have control over how harmful memetic chain reactions evolve. Most importantly, social media platforms should have the duty to regulate this category of memetic incidents as most memes shared in this manner violate many platforms’ policies.
The categorization of these memetic chain reactions revealed a series of cause-and-effects of meme-sharing. As a result, I created a diagram to illustrate the stakeholders and the roles they consciously or subconsciously play in harmful memetic chain reactions.
This project aims to better understand, categorize, and make aware of how casual meme users are affected by unintentionally harmful memetic chain reactions. Additionally, this topic has revealed itself to be more of a phenomenon of human and societal nature than a specific problem that can be easily solved. As a result, the following recommendations are intended to be springboards for deeper discussions, research, and application.
This was one of the most unpredictable projects I've worked on and it taught me many invaluable lessons on adaptability. As I dived into researching memes as a cultural phenomenon and the systemic issues surrounding it, I redefined my scope and goals multiple times to outline a meaningful and accomplishable project within the expansive topic.
Additionally, trying to make some sense of the intricate web of memetic belonging affirmed my interest in studying systemic problems surrounding interactions in digital culture. I would love to work on more projects like this, or expand further on this topic!
Post-thesis show presentation 🥳