I constructed and posted a rather provocative meme the other day.
The meme had an image. It was graphic, shocking and sad. A photo of a starving child.
I shared the meme publicly on Twitter and privately with some of my colleagues, family and friends through email and Facebook. The meme resonated in different ways with different people. Responses came quickly, both publicly and privately. Some found the meme thought-provoking and effective:
“I don’t see anything wrong with it. There is a very real human cost to the delay of Golden Rice and some people need to be strongly reminded of that. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words.”
“I don’t see how using existing images without turning profit is wrong. Because it makes [people] uneasy to see what is daily life for half the world?”
Others, however, were shocked and offended:
“The photo was horrifying. It eclipsed the message. I didn’t see it. What did it say?”
“I saw your meme and it kind of bothered me. I agree with so much of what you have to say, but I don’t think anyone should use the specter of poverty to make a point.”
“I’m concerned with the objectification of poor people by first world people. I don’t care what the message is. [The meme] is offensive and exploitive to people who don’t have voices.”
“I’m personally not a fan of using these types of images for anything but e.g. specifically raising starvation awareness. If anyone can misconstrue the message, they will play the exploitation card.”
“It is shocking, sad and evocative. In the worst case it is a polar equivalent to the visuals used by the anti-biotech interests.”
Humans think in pictures. While words can go in one ear and out the other, images ‘stick.’ This is why memes are such effective visual communication tools in this day and age of decreasing attention spans. Memes come in the form of images or short videos and they can spread rapidly via the Internet. We see memes cycling through our social media feeds every day.
I learned a few things about memes through this interesting exercise:
- These kind of communication tools can be effective, if properly executed.
- Proper execution requires a pre-emptive well-thought-out overarching strategy with defined goals.
- Each individual meme needs to be structured around a well-articulated message.
- That message has to be paired with an appropriate image.
- If the image and message don’t connect in a meaningful way or if the image is “over the top” meaning may be lost.
Where do we draw those lines? What is “over the top”? Did I use rhetoric and an emotionally-charged image to frame an ethical issue with my meme? Am I just another example where ideology led a good person with good intentions to do a wicked thing?
Communicating in this information-rich world is tough. To make our communications more effective, (and I quote Made To Stick (by Heath and Heath)), “…we need to shift our thinking from What information do I need to convey? to What questions do I want my audience to ask?” For any idea (or message) to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity. Humans are hard-wired to feel things for people, not abstract objects or ideas.
In my blog post of October 28th, I stated that there is no room in well-executed science for provocateurs. But is there room for a shocking and confrontational blend of images and rhetoric in order to draw First World attention to some of the world’s most dire problems, like hunger? As Steve Savage says in his blog post, Counting the Cost of the Anti-GMO Movement:
“There is a long growing list of environmental and health improvements that “could have been” if the anti-GMO movement hadn’t been so effective… Some are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.”
Memes (highly controversial and inaccurate ones) continue to be an important tool in the anti-GMO toolbox. In response to that argument, my very good colleague and friend said:
“Cami, why sink to their level? We are smarter than that!” And another said:
“If this meme were to factor into the GMO debate, I think it would derail the discussion completely and not help the cause at all.”
Good points. Both of them. As is this comment by a Twitter friend:
“We need to respond to human suffering with compassion. Memes designed to prove the meme-makers point are not very compassionate.”
Are those of us that are trying to mitigate some of the damage done by the anti-GMO movement – those of us that want to see some the great technologies that we have in the First World move to where they are most needed in the Third World – being exploitative if we use these kind of memes to communicate our messages? If there are ’boundaries’ that we need to adhere to, what are they? And how can we advocate for things like Golden Rice without using images of children?Epilogue: I admit, the meme was shocking. A disturbing image combined with a provocative message. I shared it to provoke ‘raw’ responses. And I got them. Most responses were highly critical. More than half that voiced opposition to the meme were close friends and family members. It would be fair to assume that they were shocked that I constructed it and I shared it as much as they were by the meme itself. For the record, if this meme had crossed my desktop I probably would never have shared it. I generally share ones with images of the Dos Equis Man with taglines about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Anyway, this was an interesting exercise and I am grateful for all of you that chimed in. Your feedback was supportive, critical, sometimes loud, often emotionally-charged – but always very insightful.Thank-you.