Most memes are poorly executed, forgettable nonsense…though this could be said about television or YouTube or really any form of mass communication. But if done right, they can convey a lot of meaning in a very small space. Here’s how they do it:
Memes, and to a larger extent comics and cartoons, do an excellent job of separating the messenger from the message. When you look at me:
you make a lot of assumptions. This can come from videos you’ve seen of me or stereotypes you have about men with beards who wear hipster sunglasses. Yes, you also have assumptions about Lisa Simpson, but she is drawn simply enough that you see a lot of yourself in her.
This is called the “Neutral Mask,” and it is why (work with me here) Keanu’s non-acting in The Matrix is perfection. It is EXACTLY what you want in an action movie star. His lack of expression throughout the movie is a blank slate that you project yourself onto. If Neo had facial expressions or, you know, a personality, he would alienate anyone with a different personality.
The neutral mask allows you space to insert your own emotions and values on the character and make it your own. The simplicity of cartoons and memes do a great job of this, and is a big part of why they can be so successful with a broad variety of audiences.
Which brings me back to Lisa Simpson.
Since you already see some of yourself in Lisa Simpson, your guard is down and the message about street design vs street signage can have a greater impact. There is also a social tick in the human brain that lights up when we get a reference.
I have been thinking about all of this since reading “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud. It’s an amazing dive into the psychology of visual storytelling…which I have done a mediocre job of rehashing here.
It also led me to drop my elitist “Nu-uh I’m a REAL filmmaker/writer/creator” hangups and have fully embraced the poignancy of urban planning memes. This is not to say that there is no longer a place for long-form content — I will still be making YouTube videos and writing blog posts. The point is to communicate in the most appropriate format for your message AND your audience.
I hope you follow along on my meme journey…just be prepared for some heavy eye-rolling.