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Breaking News Memes
How memes help make sense of the news
This week sees the return of Storythings founder Matt Locke. Matt’s previous unpackings include RSA Shorts, We Are The Champions, The World According to Jeff Goldblum and Grand Designs. It’s always good to have Matt back because he’s so much better at this than me.
Over to Matt…
What’s it called?
Breaking News Memes (Meme)
What’s the format?
Sometimes, something happens in the world that is surprising and odd, and doesn’t quite fit into our picture of how the world works. It sticks out, like a protruding splinter or nail in a piece of wood, and catches our attention. Before the internet, we might have mentioned this to a friend in a “how about that thing that happened, eh?” kind of way, shook our heads at the ridiculousness of the world, and then got on with our lives.
But not now. Thanks to the internet, we can now make MEMES.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
There is a particular kind of event that makes good news memes. It has to have a relatable hero/antihero (which is as likely to be an inanimate object as it is a living thing), it can’t be cruel or tragic, and - this is where I think the real magic is - it has to give us a glimpse into a part of the world that few of us will have noticed or understood before. If it’s impossible for half of Twitter to claim expertise in the subject within hours of it breaking, then it can’t become a meme.
Instant Twitter experts and news memes are two sides of the same coin - it’s how we try to understand the world when something weird or odd happens. Years ago, the internet writer Clay Shirky talked about ‘cognitive surplus’ - the benefits we will all reap when we stop being passive consumers of media, and start becoming active participants instead. One end of the spectrum of benefits we get from cognitive surplus is Wikipedia, the biggest, most collaborative pooling of knowledge in human history. At the other end, we get news memes. These are both equally valid ways of trying to understand the world.
A perfect example of a news meme event is happening right now - the ship blocking the Suez canal. Most of us would have heard of the Suez canal, and probably would know that it’s a critical route for international shipping, but that’s about as far as we get. I’ve got quite a few friends who love nerding out on global shipping infrastructure - it’s the kind of thing you get into when you’ve run out of things to learn about computers - but most of us rarely, if ever, give much thought to how global shipping actually works. Did you know that clicking the buy button on Amazon invokes an incredible chain of events that stretches around the world and back again, involving ships the size of the Empire State Building? Well, thanks to the Evergiven, you do now.
Recently, when one of the world’s biggest container ships somehow got stuck at a jaunty angle, blocking the Suez Canal to all shipping, there was a lot of new information coming at us very fast. First of all, the image of the stranded ship was incredible and mildly shocking - like a giant Lego model stacked high with colourful containers, stranded in the middle of the desert. This was quickly followed by our voracious appetite for new information - how did it get stuck there? Is the Suez Canal really that small and shallow? How many ships normally go through the canal in a day? How long will it take to get it moving again? How much is this all going to cost?
First, a few actual experts had their moment in the light, surfacing their knowledge of shipping in breathless Twitter threads, only to be shared and ripped off by arriviste Twitter experts with astonishing speed. Then everyone found Marine Tracker, the Flight Radar for boats, which surfaced lots of cool facts like ships changing their destination data to ward off pirates.
Then, it was time for the memes.
Although the early images of the Evergiven blocking the canal were remarkable from every angle - even from space - the real hero image surfaced a couple of days into the story. The image of a JCB digger, made tiny against the giant prow of the Evergiven, was a perfect symbol of the futility of our efforts against the vastness of the world. And so, it was memed.
In the process of generating memes, we socialised an experience that confused the hell out of us. We learnt a few things, we made it relatable, we made it funny. In short, we used memes like antibodies, firing away at this new, surprising splinter in the world.
In time, the story of the Evergiven blocking the Suez canal will heal into a neat and orderly Wikipedia entry. But until then, we need memes to make sense of it. The first draft of history is now not, as the saying goes, journalism, but memes.
Although the tiny digger/big boat memes have been the most fruitful, my favourite Suez meme is probably Jamie Jones’ Steal His Look. The combination of a glossy fashion mag staple format with a global shipping disaster is totally unexpected, beautifully executed (the wheelie bin stickers are a delightful touch) and completely original. Chapeau!
The breaking news meme is, I think, a vernacular descendant of the political cartoon, a staple of newspapers and magazines for hundreds of years. There are lots of similarities, including the adaption of iconic images, and the labelling of inanimate objects to represent abstract ideas. This political cartoon about the US involvement in the Panama Canal is a good example from 1903, and shows that political cartoons have a similar short shelf life to news memes. Unless you have deep knowledge of the political issues it references, it’s pretty impossible to understand what’s going on.
I’ve recently stopped using Twitter for a bunch of reasons. In leaving I knew there would be a lot of horrible stuff I wouldn’t miss and that the price I’d pay was missing all the good stuff.
It’s remarkable how little I know about this story, let alone how much fun I’ve missed out on. Office Slack plugs a few gaps (like this Littlehampton/Suez tribute Matt posted yesterday), which pushed me to investigate further. But the memes are where the real learning happens as they make complex issues so much fun.
If you have a favourite format that does a brilliant job of making sense of complex issues we’d love to see it unpacked. Do get in touch.
Until next week…