Documenting a ‘viral’ pandemic: Why memes are the most apt way to communicate about Covid-19
If you are reading this post, you are likely familiar with the Covid-19 memes that have spread across the internet faster than the virus itself. Maybe a family member posts them to Facebook or sends them via WhatsApp – you may have even seen them on the BBC.
Jokes about a horrific pandemic may appear grim, but in the modern world of digital communication, memes are much more than jokes. They serve essential functions of communication, political participation, laughter, and community, which are even more important during a global crisis of this scale. In the time of Covid-19, meme popularity appears to be increasing. They are reaching a larger audience, and appearing in previously meme-avoidant spaces, such as the mainstream media. A search for ‘coronavirus’ on the meme database KnowYourMeme turns up 307 related entries, and a further 198 for ‘covid-19.’
Why is this happening now? Are we all just spending too much time online? In writing my master’s dissertation on political memes of Covid-19, I have encountered many perspectives on the social and communicative functions of memes. In this post, I will highlight the three functions that I believe make memes the ideal way to communicate about Covid-19: as expressions of intersubjectivity, disaster jokes, and political commentary.
First, an introduction to the perspective of memes as social semiotic artifacts.
Memes often appear to take on a life of their own – and indeed, when biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme,’ he used it to compare cultural trends to the self-replicating gene in a sort of metaphor. Of course, memes do not create or replicate themselves; they are designed, made, and spread by humans.
Drawing attention to the human agency involved in meme-creation helps us understand them as multimodal signs – deliberate orchestrations of communicative, or semiotic, resources (image, writing, sound, gesture, and color) that represent the meme-creator’s interests. The field of social semiotics gives us the tools to unpack the ‘true’ meaning of a meme, as intended by the individual who created it. If this communicative intent is understood and recontextualized by many other people, the more quickly a meme ‘goes viral.’ The ‘social’ in social semiotics reminds us that signs are made in a specific sociocultural context: analyzing memes involves understanding the time and place in which they were made, as well as any original texts it draws from or remixes. The global experience of the coronavirus may make some memes more accessible outside of their specific context, and explain their viral spread.
1. Sharing the same experience: Memes are expressions of intersubjectivity
The social power of memes as a communicative tool is dependent on intersubjectivity, a concept from the social sciences describing the sharing of experience by two or more individuals. Many memes focus on “shared sentiments about life’s small daily annoyances,” with an intended audience “whose lifestyles and expectations may be similar.” The Covid-19 pandemic quickly and widely introduced major lifestyle changes across the globe. These changes – working from home, frustrations with Zoom calls, panic-buying toilet paper, social distancing, wearing masks – are all frequent subjects of coronavirus memes. Memes help answer the question: How do we all individually understand a joint experience?
One consequence of Covid-19 lockdown is, of course, more time spent socializing online. Forums like Reddit and 4chan are known for being sites of meme creation, but memes have become a social organizing tool on more mainstream social networks like Facebook. In search of digital replacements for their offline social groups, many people joined online communities like the Facebook group ‘Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens,’ which had 780,000 members at the time of writing. Creating, sharing, and commenting on memes is a useful way to express specific feelings about the coronavirus while engaging in digital social contact.
Fig. 4 addresses the intersubjective experience of the mass shift to online meetings. The juxtaposed images of a disheveled and well-groomed terrier illustrate the socially-constructed expectations about one’s physical appearance for an audio-only Zoom meeting versus a video call.
2. Laughter as a coping mechanism: Memes as intertextual ‘disaster jokes’
Memes are often referred to as internet ‘jokes,’ and with good reason – most contain an element of humorous irony or parody. Is it appropriate to make jokes about a disease that has killed so many people and wreaked so much havoc? While the coronavirus is a new situation, this question has been asked and answered many times before – laughter is a perfectly normal coping mechanism in a time of crisis.
Memes played the role of ‘disaster jokes’ following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers; Giselinde Kuipers writes of digital ‘collages’ of Osama Bin Laden mixed with images from popular culture that “can be interpreted as a joking attempt to put these disasters back to where they usually are, where we feel they belong, and where we want them to stay: into the fictional, pleasurable domain of (American) popular culture.” As Erhan Aslan writes on the Viral Discourse blog, “poking fun at certain aspects of the pandemic through memetic creativity and humor can provide some levity and alleviate anxiety during this troublesome time.”
As multimodal artifacts, meme humor is conveyed through modes other than language – i.e. using image as metaphor for the human experience of being in quarantine, as in Fig. 5: a photo of a sheep with overgrown coat described as “Me, emerging 8 weeks later from quarantine.”
The concept of memes referencing each other or other cultural artifacts is known as intertextuality – how the meaning of one text is shaped by another text. This is similar to the concept of provenance in multimodality, that signs have meaning based on where they are ‘imported’ from and inserted into a new context. These references are socially and culturally specific, but the intersubjectivity of the coronavirus pandemic makes it easier to interpret them.
For example, Fig. 6 uses images from the popular HBO show Game of Thrones, and places them into a popular meme format that labels two contrasting images as “my plans” and “2020,” respectively. The pairing of these images and text compares character Margaery Tyrell’s security in her position as queen, thwarted by the catastrophic explosion of the citadel (with Margaery inside), with the meme-maker’s confidence about their future plans, thwarted by the catastrophic coronavirus outbreak in 2020.
Knowledge of the Game of Thrones characters and plot is helpful for understanding this meme, but its message is such that someone familiar with only the meme structure and the events of 2020 can appreciate the humor in contrasting an innocently smiling woman (my plans) with the catastrophic explosion (2020).
3. Responding to institutional rule: Memes as political commentary
Memes are a powerful tool for political commentary and participation, repeatedly used by people across the political spectrum to legitimize, mock, or respond to an issue or candidate. Because of the expectation that memes will be remixed and manipulated to make a variety of points, they often reflect the polyvocality (many voices) of perspectives on a given issue.
The coronavirus is a public health concern, but it is also political. Governments and institutions at all levels are responsible for imposing lockdown restrictions, expanding health care and research, addressing economic fallout, deciding when to reopen schools, and regulating travel, just to name a few. Inevitably, many governments will and have failed to adequately address the pandemic, while others have handled it well in the eyes of their constituents. No matter the response, people will have something to say – and many of them say it through memes.
Fig. 8 is a humorously intertextual example of a political coronavirus meme, using a popular meme template known as the ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ to mock the UK government’s messaging shift from ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ to ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.’ Though the meme itself does not say anything explicitly judgmental of the government, combined contextual knowledge of ‘Stay alert’ kerfuffle and the Distracted Boyfriend meme reveals that the meme-designer thinks the slogan change was ill-advised.
Affordances, constraints, and future research on Covid-19 memes
Memes provide a rich database of semiotic material that can be used in future research about the changes to the social world during the coronavirus – the goal of the PanMeMic project.
One concept underpinning multimodal social semiotics is the acknowledgment that some resources are more apt than others for making meaning, due to their differing affordances (communicative potentials) and constraints. As semiotic resources, memes are somewhat limited in what they offer for communication. One important affordance of memes is their spreadability – using social media or other digital technology, one meme-maker may quickly share a complex message with a massive network of people. Memes are an accessible and entertaining way to describe specific, but widely-shared sentiments about an unprecedented shared experience.
But they are also limited – an image-text combination that is easy to post on Facebook may not be interpreted as intended by the recipient, without tone of voice, gesture, and other qualities of a joke told in person.
The features I’ve listed here are not the only recognizable effects of coronavirus memes. Future researchers may even be able to make direct connections between the creation of memes and behavior changes that came out of the pandemic, or the use of memes to spread rumors and disinformation that led to more deaths.
For now, it’s perhaps most important to consider the role of memes as artifacts of digital, ‘postmodern folklore’ – millions of little snapshots that capture the public’s very specific thoughts and experiences of an unprecedented global shift. In contrast to newspaper articles and other institutional accounts of the virus, memes are accessible and popular across nations and cultures, providing a more democratic view of the wide range of discourses about life during Covid-19.