Decoding the spread of memes in time of coronavirus: From dispelling the sense to doom to providing 'edutainment'
Memes are thriving during the pandemic. Billions of people stuck at home, with access to the internet and more time than usual on their hands, means more meme-time.
Memes are thriving during the pandemic. Billions of people stuck at home, with access to the internet and more time than usual on their hands, means more meme-time. Coronavirus Memes, a subreddit that was created on 22 January has 84,000 members. The community’s description says, “Getting a laugh out of the coronavirus while we still can, and spreading happiness in a time of distress.” That sums up what memes are trying to do in these times. And now, having carefully gone through many of them across Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, here’s a pie chart that summarises the main themes memes are addressing:
The overwhelming majority of them are about our lives at home — what we are up to, trying to work from home, getting bored, overeating and maybe getting into arguments with the people we are living with. The ones about overeating and coming out looking fat once the lockdown is over, really affected me. I looked through tonnes of home workout videos and have now finalised a 40-minute daily workout and am counting calories on Yazio. Secretly, I’m hoping I can do one of those before and after videos after 90 days of exercising at home. Last week, I also slept through half of a two-hour work call. Once you turn your camera off and the microphone is on mute, it’s like you can go wild and nobody would know. It’s a theme that coronavirus memes capture quite accurately.
I’m ignoring the memes about toilet paper in my sample because they are not relevant to India. Had I included them, they would come a close second to our quarantine-life memes. Sure, the ones about Prime Minister Modi and politicians in general pop-up frequently when a leader makes a statement or when something appears on the news; but the main source of all this meme-creativity is coming from personal experience. And if you look at the ones which are most popular, for example, #GharbaithoIndia has 17.8 billion views on TikTok; they are what you would classify as “edutainment”. Telling people to stay at home, talking about the terrible consequences, all while trying to get you to laugh. With thousands of likes and comments, seems like they are effective.
While on Twitter, Instagram and Reddit, images from pop-culture with some text on them is the standard format; on TikTok, it’s preset Bollywood dialogues that people lip-sync to. For me, a meme for a long time was a jpeg. What kind of videos count as memes and what features do they need to have to qualify took a little research. When you hear something through the grapevine, don’t know the exact source, but understand the theme and then change the context and add your message — you have a meme. By this definition, the millions of funny videos on TikTok that appropriate pop-culture themes for their own usage, make the cut. Recording people walking on the street and then saying “Aye yeede! Tere baap ki shaadi hai kya?” with hashtags like # Coronavirus #stayathome and singing “Aaj chill karo gharpe, bahar nahi jaane, family ke saath time hai bitane, kabhi khana banana, music bajana ya TikTok pe funny sa video banane” are the two most popular background scores on these TikTok videos.
A study from Colorado State University says that the combination of politics with pop culture makes memes entertaining. They can be very effectively used to inform, change perceptions and attitudes and build trust. They have serious and different effects on viewers because memes involve “decoding”. What one person may take away, maybe completely different from another’s interpretation, often reinforcing one’s own beliefs.
For those who make memes, seeing their creations gain traction must provide a sense of validation. And even for the ones who just share memes they found funny, there is a feeling of being part of a larger discussion. A stake in a public discussion, a voice. In countries, with autocratic regimes, they often serve as a medium of dissent. When used to make a comment about government policy, the economy or society — they become a memorable part of protests. And it’s small bits like this, casual talk in the public domain about subjects — important or trivial — that begin to form the public dialogue.
Also, our idea of what is public participation has tremendously changed since the internet came around. You don’t have to file a PIL or an RTI application to be considered an active participant in your democracy. Everything that you do on social media counts. Hashtag activism deserves credit and making memes and posting them on social media can be compared to making a physical poster and putting it up in popular parts of the city. Just that when you are doing it online, it’s legal, at least for now.
In a world where all your online activity is recorded, memes also provide an option of anonymity. We don’t know who makes them and how they spread so soon. What you say on Twitter and Facebook can still be held against you. But with a meme, you could get away. And it’s not just us, who are having fun with them. Brands and police departments are using them effectively to get their message across.
The overall feeling after going through hundreds of memes online is that, at home, most of us are struggling with the same things. We are doing a lot of chores, trying to stay focused on work and watching way too much Netflix. And of course there are memes about the lockdown lasting forever, with time travellers suggesting this is just the beginning, but there isn’t an overwhelming sense of doom. You come away thinking things will get better and we are all in this together, even though not a single meme explicitly says that.
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