Meme images as personalized action formats and user-generated tactics

At the first Issue Mapping workshop at Goldsmiths (see workshop report), University of London in May 2012 we focussed within our visual tactics group on the fairly recent phenomenon of adjusted photos and how do they deal with the concepts of issues and action formats. There are several things you can do to an issue:

  • Personification (turn it into a person, for example a celebrity).
  • Montage images or text (mashing the issue up, recomposing it into different formats).
  • Recomposing a text, a spooftext, using the elements.
  • Sloganification.
  • Root it in geographical space (to attribute it somewhere) or to groups of people. The camp is the prototypical way to do it.

Issuefication and memeification

In our group we focused on a specific type of formatting an issue, what we initially called the montage image. These adjusted photos are often formatted in the very recognizable visual style of the meme-image with captions on top of and below the image. Think, for example, of the Pepper Spray Cop or Kony 2012. While sometimes referred to as ‘photoshop memes’ (KnowYourMeme) they do not even require an expensive graphic design suite such as Adobe Photoshop as they can be easily created online with so-called meme-generators. While such images are not widely recognized as (part of) a campaign, they may be seen as a tactic. The Tracking the Meme-ification of the 2012 Presidential Election research conducted at the MIT centre for Civic Media and The imagery of Project X Haren: The meme-ification of an issue provide two ways into looking at meme-images as part of an issue or as a tactic. The issue becomes issuefied through the personalization of it while at the same time the issue may become memeified through the visual style used in the issuefication.

Poster by Beau Bo D’Or. Airbrushed for Change. Credit:

User-generated tactics

The photomontage has a deep political history ((Evans, David (1986). Photomontage: A political weapon)) but the widespread availability of visual editing tools as well as online image generators have turned it into a participatory practice. These specific montage memes have created new mini formats that come out of the 1990s practise of photoshopping followed by websites as “Airbrushed for Change” and meme-generators. It is not about the aesthetic of the image but about the user-generated tactics that surround it. This do-it-yourself digital object is a format that presents the issue as open-ended, as it can be filled in by the user itself, while at the same time, through replication and continuous adjustment it may turn into a tactic that can be issuefying. This replication and continuous adjustment of the images may be traced using Google Images reverse image search. This also allows us to analyze which actors (news, blogs, social media) take up which images therewith potentially turning them into an issue. We can try to trace the spread of the image to see the extent to which it gets taken up as political expression or something completely different and look at its dynamics. Some images do not necessarily express politics but when looking at them we may see source side-by-sideness but they also may be a-political and contribute to the de-issuefication of an issue. It is not completely a-political but it moves the issue, the more images (and variations) are being produced, the more it moves away from the issue itself.

Exploratory analysis proposal

Use Google Images to see which images get shared where and focus on:

  1. Cross-over to mainstream media
  2. Frequency or quantities (same image, original images and edited versions, each of the edited versions, how many of them are there, and where they appear)
  3. Images and their related hashtags
  4. Hashtag hopping, related hashtags
  5. Funny or political


3 thoughts on “Meme images as personalized action formats and user-generated tactics

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