Most of us are guilty of having liked a meme: a humorous video, photo or GIF overlaid with text. Whether it be one of the hundreds of Downfall parodies or a photo of a silly/cute animal with a witty message, try as we might, the urge to like, share or tag a friend on this content tends to be too strong. But have you ever stopped to think that your taste in memes might be used as a window into your inner character, and hidden opinions?

While many of us would hate to think that our character would be judged via a viral video, memes are becoming a data resource to accurately assess popular public opinions, and cultural trends.

Social media platforms gather a huge amount of user data, and thanks to users’ sharing, re-sharing, liking, commenting and tagging content, these platforms create a vast data set about different demographics opinions. While LOLcats might not reveal anything but our immaturity, political memes, memes linked to current events, celebrities, movements or world leaders offer a range of interesting insights which can be extracted from the meme-sphere. So just how can memes offer us insights into today’s society?

Measuring Social Issues Through Memes

While Millennials have become more involved in recent political elections in the US and Europe, up until recently younger generations had low voter participation and were alienated from contributing to, and sharing their opinions through traditional political and media channels.

Experts state that social media has helped Millennials find their voice, and has boosted political engagement. According to The Millennial Impact Project, a new study conducted by Achieve, the majority of millennials post regularly on social media about the issues they care about. While many people will leave long Facebook monologues, others choose to post memes, which offer a more light-hearted way of dealing with serious topics, bring up conversations that might come across as awkward in other context and address issues that affect them one way or another.

From social protest movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’, to groups raising awareness of climate change issues, memes have become a new artistic channel for young people to share their opinions on important issues in their lives. However, whereas the traditional media, and its journalistic values, had generally acted as a buffer which kept overtly extreme views out of the mainstream media, the open, unfiltered nature of the internet allows for any opinions -regardless of how controversial they may be – to be shared en mass, often in the form of memes.

For example, here is a graph we created which shows the popularity of memes on the themes of racism, nazism and fascism from 2012 to 2017. With the rise of the far right being widely discussed due to controversial political elections in Europe and the US, we can see a sharp rise in content being shared on these topics:

Based on our studies of keywords which appeared as memes more than 10,000 times, we calculated which meme themes had increased the most between January 1st 2016-2017.

“MAGA”, a shortened version of President Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” ballooned from one use in January 2016 to more than 12,000 uses in January 2017.

Other high performers were “libertarian”, “DonaldTrump”, “conservative”, “politics”, “liberal”, “republican” and “president.” Of the top 25 terms, 14 – nearly 60% – are political in nature. Identity-related terms -“LGBT”, “vegan”, “Christian”, “black”, “white” – also experienced large spikes in usage.

From fascism to feminism, or Starbucks to Vladimir Putin memes offer interesting insights for marketers, social analysts and even politicians to get an idea of the popularity and impact of a specific sentiment, group, event, or public figure based on the amount of posts, shares, and re-shares of particular memes.

Memes as a Quantifiable Data Source

Social ‘news’ site Reddit is home to hundreds of subgroups devoted to discussing, sharing and analyzing memes, and recently led to the birth of NASDANQ, a user created fake stock market where the online community determines the value of a meme based on its potential social impact. What started off as a joke between members, called Meme Economy, has now blossomed into a functioning ‘stock exchange’ run by 12 Redditors.

While the memes that are bought and sold have no real value, the creation of NASDANQ shows just how impactful these widely shared snippets of content have become in terms of judging social opinions.

The team behind NASDANQ have put a value on usually intangible pieces of content, by coming up with an algorithm which can place a value on a meme based on a combination of popularity, growth and relevance with popular trending issues. For a meme to be featured on NASDANQ, someone needs to decide it has made, or will make some cultural impact so the creators have left that to the people they feel are the meme experts: the fans who create and share memes.

By making memes quantifiable, and placing a value on their ability to create a cultural impact, this opens the door to more efficient use of this type of content in political, social, and marketing campaigns.

Memes as a Marketing Tool

The viral capabilities of memes can be very helpful when it comes to promoting a product or service. A recent article from Hootsuite shows successful meme campaigns from companies such as Norwegian Airlines, Jimmy John’s, Barkbox and Ruffles, which have harnessed the dry humor of memes to advertise everything from cheap international flights, to dog treats.

However, other than simply advertising products, the analytics behind a meme and the whole meme ecosystem can be leveraged by businesses and individuals to measure the success and popularity of existing products or ideas. In fact, even a meme with negative connotations for a brand can be a helpful tool, aiding marketers to spot the flaws in a product or campaign to make improvements.
After Pepsi released its latest ad featuring Kendall Jenner, the backlash was so harsh they ended up pulling the commercial out of the media. Memes played a massive role in spreading the news and helped push more and more people criticize the whole ad campaign from Pepsi.

In the aftermath of the recent United Airlines scandal in which a doctor was dragged from his seat by staff, the internet was flooded by a range of memes on the topic. While this is obviously terrible PR for the company, by looking at data showing which demographics are most actively sharing and creating United memes, offers an insight into who needs to be targeted in ‘damage control’ PR campaigns.

Memes offer valuable insight about a brand’s status and ongoing market trends. These micro-pieces of content are the subtext of our society. Every time and incident goes viral, or there’s a scandal in the news, we’re pulled into a stream of memes about it, which can provide us with a better perspective of how a specific audience interact with the situation presented.

To keep a finger on the pulse, it is also important  for brands to keep track of competitors on the meme-sphere and compare results with their own present. Memes featuring competitors allow brands to assess their strengths and weaknesses and determine where they stand within the market from the public’s viewpoint.  

So, next time you find your finger moving the click like on a meme, think about whether this content really represents your true feelings, or opinions. Memes, which until recently have been dismissed by most as lowbrow or unimportant, are now being used to trigger opinions and ignite conversations, offering a reflection of deep social commentary and more importantly a predictive tool for what will be relevant next.