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"Changing the Story": Using Memes for Social Change

AnnaP's picture

  “Changing the Story”:
Using Memes for Social Change

In Anne Dalke’s and Paul Grobstein’s course, “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories,” other students seemed very troubled by the lack of human agency in Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. In particular, my classmates were worried about Dennett’s comparison between genes and memes, in which he draws on Dawkins’ definition of memes as “a unit of cultural transmission” and states that meme evolution “obeys the laws of natural selection quite exactly” (Dennett, 345). If memes evolve according to the same mindless algorithm as do genes, then where does that leave us? Why go along with Dennett’s dangerous idea when it leaves us with so little impetus to help implement positive social change? I would argue that Dennett’s conception of memes can be useful to us only if put into productive dialogue with sources such as that explain how memes can also be useful to us and can furnish us with agency for social change.

Dennett points out that memes have more control over us than we would like to admit; we get catchy songs that we can’t stand stuck in our heads, and even Mozart claimed that he had “nothing to do with” his own success (Dennett, 346). While these examples seem relatively harmless, I started realizing how alarming this idea really was; what about racist and sexist cultural memes? Are we doomed to have these “selfish memes” control our world? The folks at smartMeme are very aware of these harmful, self-perpetuating memes that are used to marginalize certain groups and maintain the status quo; they call them “control memes,” and point to a few examples such as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “a woman’s place is in the kitchen.” A quick google search of this latter meme attests to its mimetic popularity, with results ranging from old-fashioned sexism to humorous cookbooks and even a Bryn Mawr Facebook group about communal meals, complete with the description “The title is a JOKE. Duh.” While some uses of these sites may be poking fun at sexism, it is undoubtedly a meme that ultimately marginalizes and limits women.

These pernicious memes do sometimes seem to perpetuate themselves in our world in an alarmingly Dennett-style fashion; smartMeme asserts that “unless we’re careful someone else’s meme may come out of our mouths, carrying with it an embedded story and assumptions that might skew the terms of the debate against us.” Given my own social justice work with Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia, I can’t help but think of “pro-life” as one such meme that automatically frames the debate such that those who disagree are inherently “anti-life.” So, given the potential harm of parasitic control memes, what next?

That’s where smartMeme really comes in. With the slogan “Changing the story,” they are committed to using memes strategically in order to “facilitate popular re-thinking of assumptions” to work for grassroots social change. They use a story-based strategy, creating slogans, images, and narratives to effectively transmit messages about social justice. Like “Think Globally, Act Locally” and “Go Green,” smart memes are developed through the “Story-Based Strategy Framework,” which examines the problem the meme seeks to address, the people involved in the problem, the proposed solution and the assumptions that need to be changed; the ideal meme will take all of these factors into account and then develop them through a “Show Don’t Tell” strategy into an image, a story, a song, a slogan, or a metaphor that sticks in people’s minds to make them want to rethink their assumptions and collaborate in a movement.

Apart from some of smartMeme’s success stories, what smart memes had worked in my life? How could I use smart memes in my own activism? I realized that during my internship with Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania this past summer, I had already participated in this narrative campaigning strategy through their “GYT” campaign. This aggressive media campaign partnered with the Kaiser Family Foundation and MTV to promote the message of “Get Yourself Talking, Get Yourself Tested” or “GYT” for short. According to the Planned Parenthood website, many clinics saw youth getting tested almost 50% more in April 2009 during the campaign than during April 2008.

To be effective, the developers of the GYT campaign probably used a similar narrative campaigning strategy to smartMeme. They saw that STD rates were skyrocketing among youth ages 15-24 and probably realized that talking about STDs and getting tested was usually viewed as shameful and embarrassing. So how could concerned youth and adults who knew STD rates develop a meme that would help other youth realize the importance of talking about sex and getting tested? While the phrases “Get Yourself Talking” and “Get Yourself Tested” might seem a little obvious, the “GYT” spin took popular Internet lingo already common among youth (OMG, BRB), and extended it into the realm of sexual health:


Judging by the success of the campaign, young people really were relating to the snappy messaging of this campaign and going out to get themselves tested. It seems like smart memes can be a productive source of social change; maybe there is room for some agency after all…

What with all of this potential agency, where does that leave us with Dennett? It seems that his idea of “selfish memes” can be useful in understanding some negative, self-perpetuating elements of our culture, but he does not seem to allow for the kind of creative agency that smartMeme suggests. Even Dennett seems a little uncomfortable with the idea that memes don’t allow for agency when he says, “It does seem to rob my mind of its importance as both author and critic. Who’s in charge, according to this vision—we or our memes?” (Dennett, 346) Ultimately, he seems to tell us that our memes are in charge. While Dawkins optimistically states that “we have the power to defy[…]the selfish memes of our indoctrination,” Dennett tells us that what Dawkins’ sense of agency is a “myth” (Dennett, 366).

While Dennett’s application of memes can be pretty frustrating, I for one would prefer not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater; after all, what Dennett has taught me about memes helps me to think about how aspects of our culture survive or die out; it helps me to think about which elements might end up being self-selecting and why. After all, the idea of parasitic memes is useful in a positive context too; the effectiveness of the “GYT” campaign depends upon its somewhat parasitic ability to linger in people’s brains, just like an annoying song. The difference, of course, is that “GYT” urges us to keep ourselves healthy and disease-free, and thus combats the dangers of control memes that keep us stagnating in harmful cultural assumptions.

In fact, researching smartMeme has made me think about how I could use this strategy in a project I might be starting with Women in Action, Haverford College’s feminist organizing group. We would like to start an awareness campaign about the crisis pregnancy centers in Haverford and Bryn Mawr that give out scientifically-inaccurate information about abortion, and we might develop educational pamphlets and materials to distribute; how could I use smart memes to create an image or slogan that would stick in people’s heads, help them remember what crisis pregnancy centers are, and steer them towards other clinics where they could get medically-accurate sexual health information? In thinking about potential next steps of this project, I could maybe create a SurveyMonkey survey with multiple different images or slogans surrounding this campaign, send it out, and see which meme people find most catchy. This could be one productive way to move beyond Dennett’s ideas to works towards a more positive model like smartMeme that would allow me to enact social change and resist becoming the passive product of an algorithmic culture.



Dennett, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

“GYT: Get Yourself Talking, Get Yourself Tested.” MTV: It’s Your Sex Life. 1 March 2011. Web. 

“MTV’S GYT Campaign Spurs Nationwide Movement to ‘Get Yourself Tested.’” Planned Parenthood. 2 June 2009. 1 March 2011. Web.

smartMeme. Web. 01 Mar. 2011. Web.



aki's picture

Nice post!

Nice post!

Anne Dalke's picture

the political mind

the link I see between last month's paper and this one is your focus on action. Thinking earlier about Educating Evolutionarily, you moved from Darwin's work, through Dewey's, to Friere's, to your own interest in political action. Thinking here about Dennett's dangerous idea of memes, you move from "control" memes to "smart" ones, from the experience of being the passive "host" of a bad idea, to the more active one of being the author of a "good" one. (And you make great use of the resources of the internet--images and hyperlinks--along the way, for which thanks!)

I'm really heartened by the way you've turned this idea of Dennett's from an disempowering one into an empowering one, and I think you've found a fine resource for--and are floating some great ideas for --how "memes can be a productive source of social change." But I'm still having a lot of trouble w/ the lingo here. For example: what distinguishes a "control" meme from one that is "smart"? Is it that the first one doesn't expresses your values, while the second one does? I'd say that if a meme can't be "selfish," it probably also can't be "smart"; that the "smartness" is in the human crafters, rather than in the "contagious information patterns" we craft.

Actually: aren't you really aiming here to turn your "smart" memes into "control" memes, to "keep us from stagnating in harmful cultural assumptions" by replacing them w/ those that will "promote a more democratic, just, peaceful and ecological future"? All to the good, of course, but the category of the meme doesn't get altered, I don't think, by its left- or right-leaning political valence. The process is the same. You speak of "elements that might end up being self-selecting"; I'd still say the selection is our own, and I'd still like to place the agency where I think it belongs--in me and you, not in the "capsules for larger stories" that both inhabit you and can be re-written by you.

If you want to learn some more about how this process works in the brain, you might find the political work of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff of interest. He wrote a book in 1996 called Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, explaining two different conceptual models of morality ("Nurturant Parent" vs. "Strict Father"). In 2004 he came out with Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which was a political guide for progressives; and then in 2008 he published The Political Mind, which looks @ the mostly metaphorical and unconscious dimensions of our moral and political thought processes. All of that might be of use to you, as you plan your next "smart" campaign.