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MRX Lab Podcast

Exploring new & novel conversations from the fringes of the insights industry.

Episode #4 - Memes as a Language for Visual Communication

In this episode of the MRX Lab podcast from FlexMR, we investigate the use of memes in online qualitative research, and how to decode the complex meaning that can be found in them. We take three examples from recent internet history; the emoticon, the distracted boyfriend and the Dolly Parton challenge - applying semiotic analysis to uncover the rich social and cultural data they reveal about those that share them. Finally, we turn to the skills and processes required to turn memes from strange curio to source of useful, relevant research data.

But we start with a definition. Most academic papers on this subject reference their introduction to the world by Richard Dawkins in the 1976 book – The Selfish Gene. According to this book, a meme is a replicator, a unit of cultural evolution, which makes it possible for human ideas to evolve in manners similar to biological evolution. Or, in other words, a meme is a unit of cultural information passed on from one to another that is imitated at first and evolves over time. It is in this shared information and the adaptation where meaning and research data can be found.

Using this as the basis for our analysis, we dive into an analysis of the Dolly Parton challenge that circulated social media in early 2020. Inspired by a post from the musician, participants would post a quadrant of four labelled photos of themselves; representing their personalities on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Tinder. Both social understanding of how these platforms are designed to be used, and their relationship with each is required for an individual to take part.

This is followed by an analysis of the distracted boyfriend meme; based on a 2015 stock photograph that depicts a boyfriend and girlfriend passing another girl on the street. The boyfriend is captured mid-turn to look at the passing girl, while his girlfriend looks incredulously at him from behind. Antonio Guillem, the photographer, has since stated the purpose of the shoot was to depict infidelity in a playful and fun way.

Since it became a viral hit, the meme has been overlaid with text labels that give new meaning to the photograph – usually one subject being distracted from something by another. Later iterations have even used additional stand ins for the original subjects. For example, one depicts a cat being distracted by a box, over a fully constructed cat tower. We also touch on how the format has even been used for political, social and corporate criticism.

It’s my hope that this episode will encourage researchers to actively use the practice of semiotics to deconstruct and find meaning in a complex, richly layered and nuanced visual format that has the capacity to carry vast volumes of data in a succinct manner.


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