By Ben Valentine
I’ve followed WITNESS’ work for years. They have influenced my own work at The Civic Beat, where we study social change memes in global contexts. I’d met a few members of the WITNESS team at SXSW this year and online via Twitter, and I was honored to be invited to share some more of my research with them.
In my presentation I highlighted examples from Mexico, Azerbaijan, Kenya, China , and Turkey to illustrate how memes have helped to grow a networked populace while increasing public debate and dialogue (see slides 21, 28, 18, 23, 25).
My examples interrogated the false notion that “slacktivism” is simply creative and playful online fun. Rather memes carry an undeniable importance of symbolic action. Memes help communities cultivate storytelling and sharing, and can encourage open dialogue.
One recent example of experimenting with memes for social justice campaigns is the work of Daniel Maree, the founder of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. Maree arguably was the first persons to use the #HoodiesUp tag after the killing of Trayvon Martin.
While impressed by the overwhelming support for Trayvon – the marches, the hashtags, profile picture changes, and more – Maree recognized the need for still more work. He started his own non-profit, which now has over 50,000 members across the US. Maree managed to make hashtags and profile pictures just the first step of a much larger movement.
If there are fundamental themes for social justice memes, the biggest groupings I’ve noticed are those that fight for freedom of expression, counter biased media representation, hold those in power accountable, and possess a love of laughter. I think if organizations are considering a meme campaign, it would be wise to think of how your mission and community might work with these basic themes.
Furthermore, consider how your campaign can customize memes to make them:
- more their own;
- contextualize the meme campaign so it points to deeper actions;
- package the mission into the most easily understandable and recognizable image or hashtag;
- and factoring in how the memes tap into existing communities will be vitally important to a successful campaign.
It’s not as easy as a meme generator would have you believe.
Given WITNESS’s experience with documentation and archiving citizen media, I also shared The Civic Beat’s Sandbox project; our up and coming open collaboration platform for archiving and amplifying memes. With it, we hope to create a community that values and elevates online citizen media as much as we do. I was eager to learn more about WITNESS’s best practices and strategies for archiving citizen media, and more importantly, how they use their archive to create real changes in the communities they work with.
Ben Valentine is a consultant with The Civic Beat as well as a freelance writer. You can follow and talk with him on Twitter @Bennnyv.
Footnote: Featured image from http://blogs.luc.edu/comicrelief/2014/03/21/you-want-social-change-start-laughing/