On Confusing Memes with Movements

Note: This post by David Karpf, Assistant Professor in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, was originally published on shouting loudly.

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Allow me to be cranky for a minute.

Jeff Jarvis had some fun on twitter this weekend. After a day spent reading news about the debt limit, and a nice pinot noir with dinner, he tweeted,”Hey, Washington assholes, it’s our country, our economy, our money. Stop fucking with it.” Encouraged by some of his replies and retweets, he turned it into a hashtag, #fuckyouwashington. It didn’t *technically* reach the trending topics list — twitter management censors for language a bit — but it did pick up steam, with 10,000 or so people writing their own #fuckyouwashington message.

So far, so good. I scanned the tweets while standing in line at Trader Joe’s Saturday night. It was pretty entertaining. The debt ceiling negotiations are patently absurd. A routine congressional vote has been converted into a mighty standoff that might bring down the global economy, all because Republican legislators are more beholden to the most conservative elements of their base than they are to managing the damn country. Sure, blow off some steam on twitter. Riff on the theme a bit.

But, predictably, the next day Jarvis and others took to calling their little exercise a “movement.” That’s where I board the cranky-train. [important context: I’ve been in nonstop editing mode on my book manuscript. My snark-meter could probably use recalibration.]

If we label everything a social movement, then the term ceases to have any meaning.

The size of this “movement” bears some scrutiny. In a country of 300,000,000+, only a few million pay regular attention to politics. Let’s say (for some back-of-the-envelope math) that the politically-attentive class is approximately the same size as the audience of Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, and other political talk shows. That would be around 10 million, or ~3% of the population. Not very big. Many of those people are on twitter, of course. Let’s pretend they all are. And they’re mostly going to be linked to people with similar interests — other members of the politically-attentive class.

On Saturday, a member of the techno-journalistic elite with a strong following, offers up an engaging hashtag, linked to the news that has politically-attentive Americans concerned. About 10,000 use the hashtag, echoing his concern. That’s 0.1% of the politically-engaged class, and 0.003% of the national population. We’re supposed to call this big?

Importantly, their tweets don’t aggregate to much of anything. It’s over by Sunday. The “movement” received coverage on CBSOnline’s “What’s trending,” a blog devoted to… trending topics on twitter. That same blog has a story up right now about George Takei and planking. Which is also pretty entertaining. And also isn’t a social movement. Dave Weigel also mentioned it in a blog post for Slate, but he was writing about the debt ceiling anyway. I’m all for giving Weigel entertaining hooks, but how about some #realtalk while we’re at it?

Jarvis sees “cause for hope” in all of this. He writes that it demonstrates “the potential of a public armed with a Gutenberg press in every pocket, with its tools of publicness.”


What Jeff Jarvis did Saturday night was a meme. It rippled and went viral a bit. It was kinda cool. But not every meme is a social movement.

Social movements are about building and exercising power. The end goal is to force powerful individuals to take some action that they wouldn’t take otherwise. Or the end goal is to replace recalcitrant individuals in power with people who are more in touch with the will of the people. In the process, social movements affect the balance of power, give people a sense of their own power, and result in concrete improvements in people’s lives. Social movements knit communities together and reinvigorate democracies. They inspire people to enter public life. They ain’t easy.

Since social movements are so attractive, and since its pretty much impossible to distinguish the early stages of a social movement from the early stages of an ephemeral and passing fad, there’s a strong tendency to label everything a social movement. And that degrades their meaning. (It’s like grade inflation. If everyone gets an A, then an A isn’t anything special. The difference is that it’s difficult to care much about grade inflation. Social movements can actually, y’know, change the world.) We should fight against that trend.

So I’m thankful to Jeff Jarvis for the meme this past Saturday. It was entertaining, and fun to read. It’s nice to hear that there are thousands of people out in twitterland who also find the debt ceiling negotiations absurd.

But don’t call it a movement. Please. There isn’t a second or third act to this particular play. It was a meme, it went briefly viral among people who already care about this sort of thing, and it left few traces behind. The debt ceiling fight continued, oblivious to the twittering masses. Social movements are something greater than that. They’re extended, and collective, and costly, and sadly still far too rare. If social media tools are influencing social movements (Hint: they are.), we’ll need to be clearer in our language before we can make much headway in figuring out how.

Cranky session over. Back to my edits.


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