The past U.S. elections season was exciting for social scientists for many reasons, but none so much for the web theorist crowd as the amazing proliferation of election memes. In his essay “Speaking in Memes”, Nathan Jurgenson aptly dissects the phenomenon and its various facets: why and how election memes become viral, whether this virality is subject to campaign control, and how audiences and media conjure meaning by rebroadcasting and reporting these memes. There are many things I would love to further discuss in Jurgenson’s essay, but I will latch on to the issue of meme longevity and the possible reasons for some memes surviving far longer than most. I will also attempt to speculate about factors that afford memes the power to shift shape and adapt to new contexts, and about how and why their meaning might be transformed by the public in the process.
It is useful to look at election memes (U.S. ones and those found in other political arenas) as cases that quickly go viral, yet some fizzle out, and others persist. Of those that survive longer, some do so because they gain a sort of meta meaning, a new applicability to existing contexts (‘47%’ has gone through many, many iterations); others last because they’re universally understandable and are reflective of a shared moral or emotional experience (‘binders full of women’ owes some of its success to the fact that so many are exasperated with the exact sentiment it addresses). At least in some cases, though, political memes continue to live on and transform due not to passionate persuasions, but as an expression of a profound disillusionment on the part of the public – disillusionment with the government, the politics and the notion of democracy and nation-building in general. While this does not necessarily hold true for all kinds of democracies, post-Soviet countries like Ukraine and Russia (which are variously dubbed “developing democracies” and “failed states” in Western analytical reports), offer evidence of meme longevity through political disillusionment.
The Cyrillic part of the web is fascinating to me as a bilingual researcher, as it often picks up the most popular English-language memes and translates/adapts them in ingenious ways. But it also generates its own memes, and then the question is: do these native memes follow the same laws of growth, distribution and success (expressed through virality, fecundity, longevity and a number of other indicators)? Given the same social media and digital affordances, how do political memes in Ukraine and Russia achieve longevity? And how much control do political forces and governments have over those memes?
An example of a long-lasting meme from Ukrainian elections that I have been observing is the Ukrainian word “покращення” (pokrAschennya, or, literally, “improvement”), which was adopted by Internet users from a campaign slogan of the currently ruling Party of Regions and then adapted to be used, often ironically or satirically, as social commentary in many different contexts. The word was very quickly ripped out of its original context (praise of and reassurance from the ruling party) and flooded the social web in the form of multiple tweets posted on Twitter with the #покращення (#improvement) hashtag, as well as in photoshopped images on Facebook/Twitter.
The story of the meme is a traditional one: the initial slogan was “Покращення життя вже сьогодні!” (“Improvement of your life today!”), which the then-Presidential candidate Victor Yanukovych and Party of Regions actively used during the 2010 Presidential election campaign in Ukraine. The slogan was eventually whittled down by social media users to a single word – “покращення” (“improvement”) – which came to be associated online (and offline) with the campaign, and later, with Yanukovych’s (controversial) victory in the election, as well as with the agenda, promises and actions of the ruling Party of Regions and the President himself.
Even the initial slogan met with critical reaction and a healthy dose of cynicism from the public (at least the part of the public who dislike the ruling party). This is due to a large extent to the general dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation in the country. Ukraine has struggled with democratic development, obstructed by its Soviet past, and current widespread corruption and internal power struggles in the government have not endeared people to the ruling party. In short, announcing “improvement” when obviously no such thing is happening was not the brightest idea. People found even more pleasure in subverting a unit of political propaganda that was so blatantly false. This automatic desire to subvert any attempt by the ruling power to make a slogan go viral means that, as Sarah Kendzior puts it, “memes can be self-defeating – less an assertion of political power than an avowal of the pointlessness of politics”. By using the slogan and the word in ironic contexts, the public was essentially commenting on the uselessness of political games and acknowledging that the electoral campaign was simply a Potyomkin village of a democratic process.
The slogan quickly turned into a meme online, generating multiple photoshopped images on Facebook and various blogs, as well as a popular Cyrillic hashtag on Twitter. Most of the early social media content surrounding the “improvement” slogan in 2010 was based directly on the political video ad or on the billboards displaying the party’s slogan all over the country. What is interesting, however, is how broadly it has since spread and mutated to encompass the spectrum of issues that Ukrainian citizens choose to perceive as “political” in some way and worthy of social commentary. The “покращення” (“improvement”) meme continues to thrive as a kind of tool to evaluate the government, the social institutions and the public themselves. It is still sometimes used to make a genuinely positive comment on reality (when something does indeed improve), but is much more often subverted by the meme-carriers to reflect their ironic or satirical attitude to whatever they are commenting on. Most often, when there is said to be “improvement”, it means there is none, or things have actually gotten worse.
The Twitter hashtag was initially used to comment on actions/decisions of President Yanukovich and the ruling Party of Regions. But with the elections over, the meme did not disappear; instead, it found new outlets. I looked at a sample of 260 tweets with the Cyrillic hashtag from May and June 2012 to gauge the kinds of contexts in which people were still using the #improvement hashtag. Remember, the meme first appeared in December 2010 (!), and the hashtag is still used regularly to comment upon current events. In 2012, Twitter users applied the hashtag to a wider scope of contexts to comment on local officials and affairs, police force, businesses, urban planning, and an even broader spectrum of situations, completely unrelated to politics. These were often cases where something had changed but the effectiveness of change was doubtful. The meme then began to be applied in more personal contexts: its use broadened from general comments on politicians, police, public transit to personal comments about today’s traffic on the road, video games, broken appliances, soccer match results, a new version of iPad firmware released or Google changing Google Places to Google Local in Android firmware. The meme was there to add additional color to the tweeter’s words and to place the assertion/observation within a familiar context for other users. The meme applications went from specific words/actions by certain political persons to broader social commentary on how society functions to personal, apolitical, everyday life observations.
Here are three very different examples of tweets with the #покращення (#improvement) hashtag from my sample (translated into English, of course):
— Ilia Sukhodolskiy (@iliasunset) June 9, 2012
[Translation: Only in Ukraine do we have hipster policemen: they shoot “get the look” photos with their iPad. #хипстер #hipster #пакращення #improvement]
[Translation: On the way to work saw a pregnant woman by the side of the road handing out window installation flyers in the heat. #improvement]
[Translation: http://t.co/YYvVkVUq Ukrainian App Store will open in June #habr #improvement]
Some users were so engaged with the meme that they further transformed and subverted it, like one Facebook user who started a Facebook page called Church of Improvement Witnesses (Церковь Свидетелей Покращення, a reference to Jehovah’s Witnesses, https://www.facebook.com/svideteli.pokrashenia/info) which essentially became a running collection of gags, photoshopped and real images from the web and links to various content which fans of the page deemed worthy to be branded “improvement”. Again, the page was started on February 29, 2012 – more than a year after the meme was born – and is still going strong.
There could be several reasons as to why this meme (and some other subverted campaign slogans from the same period to a lesser extent) are still so popular and have become part of mainstream symbolic vocabulary in Ukraine. For one, President Yanukovich and his party are still in power. Corruption is still rife and the disenchantment with government, parliament and any other power structures in society is still there. According to a recent Chatnam House report, civil society in Ukraine “remains weak as citizens have little capacity to influence political developments”. For the disparate members of society, even the most active ones, proliferating political memes may create an illusion that they’re participating in a broken political system “from which people feel increasingly alienated, a system run on wealth that is incomprehensible to a normal person”. Possibly, this particular meme simply fits very well with the cynicism and helplessness the public feels and supplies people with a handy, concise vessel to express their irony towards politicians’ promises and the quality of life. This expression of disenchantment through “[c]onsuming, liking, and sharing election memes”, as Jurgenson says, “places politics at an ironic distance […] making a political statement while simultaneously mocking the political process”.
But it’s interesting how the meme has transformed and is now used in completely apolitical situations as well, prolonging its shelf life, possibly because it is such good shorthand for describing a larger, more complicated set of multiple contexts beyond the political discourse. In other words, here the meme has become reusable, flexible and is able to gain slightly different meanings depending on the context in which it is used, while still being transparent enough for people to understand the suggested meaning behind it. The meme has folded seamlessly into the common language, has transcended the realms of Twitter and Facebook to be heard from the mouths of people who rarely even go online (only around 45% of Ukrainian population regularly go online), if at all, and yet have somehow caught the new, viral meaning of this word and adopted it as a useful ironic frame for their reality and their disenchantment with it. This fluidity of ideas in the digital and the physical dimensions is consistent with the augmented reality concept, suggested by Jurgenson: a meme is able to exist in the augmented reality, both offline and online; it can originate from an offline idea, proliferate online and flood our consciousness on all levels. Because of this pervasiveness, Jenny Davis calls memes “the predominant and logical form of myth in an augmented society”, as afforded by modern technology.
Just as myths are reflections of the times and communities they originate in, memes are indicative of the people who make them go viral, subvert them and make them last longer. In the case of the #improvement meme, as in the cases of some of the U.S. election memes, what goes viral and what sticks the longest reflects who people are and what they think about, and how they think about it. The long-living Ukrainian meme is entrenched in, broadened through and fed by the disenfranchisement of the nation’s people, who are increasingly finding that performing political participation through satirical subversion of campaign slogans is one of the only ways to express political critique, because it is, in the words of Sarah Kendzior, “one of the only ways to acknowledge a broken system while still participating in it” in some way that they can justify.
Tanya Lokot subverts memes and expresses her disenchantment on Twitter at @tanyalokot.