Biden-laughs and Ryan-abs, Big Birds and binders and bayonets: There is something fascinating when an event as stodgily ceremonial as the presidential campaign is run through the lulz-filter of social media, secreting a hallucination of phrases and images and videos and, of course, gifs. An army is at the ready to spin off a gag at every turn, to propagate the joke to maximum scope; digital arpeggiations of candidate goofs and campaign blunders are transmitted from host to host through a mere caress of the touch-sensitive screen. Watching debates with that second screen of fast-moving social media streams and text-input boxes begging our thoughts has positioned many of us as hunters for the most shareable, memeiest content, ready to pounce at something, anything, and in the process, changing the overall narrative of an event. We’ve developed a kind of meme literacy, a habit of intuiting in real time the potential virality of a speech act — to hear retweets inside words.
Retweets, reposts, reblogs, repins, and remixes lead to reporting. The Meme Election 2012 isn’t just a matter of what’s found in some sticky gif’d-out corner of Tumblr; it also dominates everyday Facebook feeds and news blogs. And because journalists are disproportionally connected digitally, popular memes also burrow into mainstream-media narratives as a measure of what has captured people’s attention. Whether you watched the conventions and debates on one screen or three, there’s a good chance you encountered discussion of Internet memes afterward.
The definition of meme can be debated, but the short of it is that a meme is a unit of culture, a parallel to the biological gene in Richard Dawkins’s original coinage. Many have since adapted the term to describe how cultural products pass virally from person to person by multiplying themselves throughout the social body. Technically, any shared image is a meme regardless of how viral it has become, but when we say meme, we generally mean a successful one.