Are memes the future of news?

Comic-meme creation and consumption has taken internet culture by storm and seems to be only increasing in frequency and engagement. Memes come in all types but in this case ‘LOL cats’ and ‘Rage comics’ are being produced at a rate never seen before.

Ben Huh wants to turn this mechanic into news delivery. In a recent interview the man behind I can haz cheezburger spoke of how he sees ‘meme-mechanics’ as the future of news content distribution.

His argument centers on how subjectivity is king when it comes to content on the internet and a cultural shift is taking place, where once mighty news sources such as CNN & BBC are no longer the custodians of truth. He even went further to say that ‘objective truth’ is a dangerous concept and is just a short skip away from corrupt media censorship:

I think it’s my job as an entrepreneur to create systems and platforms that encourage that kind of creativity in serious content also. That’s what my role is. It’s not about worrying about how do we directly influence. Give people tools to do more.

Huh’s sentiment about providing the “tools for people to do more” and become their own news anchors and content distributors really stood out for me. We all know how often Twitter is the most effective news source, as people live-tweet and tweet pictures directly from the epicenter of events, and this holds tremendous value.

Another factor to consider though is how Wikileaks’ Julian Assange landed himself in hot water for ‘democratising’ the news distribution process and exposing government secrets. I wonder how long the authorities will condone Huh’s vision of news media.

Heres one way Huh’s concept of a ‘meme-based’ news network might work:

US president Barack Obama was recently at the centre of a media storm after declaring his support for gay marriage.

The internet gives people the tools to quickly and creatively comment and share on the issue in a style similar to the way people create LOL cats and rage comics (think predefined symbols and metaphors).

Instead of cutesy cat voices, people create their own “headlines” for the story:

User 001’s caption might, for instance, be: “god hates Obama. (god hates fags)”. User 002 meanwhile might go for something like: “President Barry-Obama-Rama-Gay-Pride! DIVINE! XXXO”. Now user 001 may get 100 000 re-shares, and User 002 may get 200 000 re-shares. Or 50 and one-million.

The point is that people decide which content gains critical mass and which is lost in obscurity. This model, although seemingly uncredible, can give you true insight into the mindset and zeitgeist of the masses. This insight runs deeper than a single news editor’s decision making process or opinion.

One of my heroes is the 1960s media professor Marshall Mcluhan who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. If memes can be considered a ‘medium’ for news delivery, then what characterizes their intrinsic meaning:

  • Frivolity?
  • Creativity?
  • Mass appeal/democracy?
  • Lightness?
  • Subjectivity?

In this case, a meme based mechanism for news content distribution will always favour what is popular, and in that way shows that in our society ‘popularity’ is the ultimate factor in what is deemed right or wrong (scary thought).

Huh firmly maintains that online subjectivity is king. If that is true, then I guess the only objective thing we can cling to is the metrics of the social media. The only thing the online community really respects is massive numbers of hits, views, retweets and likes.

“In this election cycle, people have approached us and said, “You really know how to make this content work for young kids. We’ve got to get these young kids. We want to do all this stuff and make sure we have memes and everything,” and it’s like, maybe not. Maybe stick to what you’re good at, and be open-minded, but don’t force it because it’s not going to feel authentic.”

Giving people the room to be funny, creative, and shocking with their news sources is a double-edged sword, but I can’t help but place my hope in the thought that sanity will prevail within the ‘hive mind’. Do we have to learn to place our trust in society, rather than a few über powerful media barons such as Rupert Murdoch?

Image: Brit



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