Yes, memes can be journalism. Here’s how.
Embrace internet memes and you, too, can be Success Kid 💪👶
Hey y’all! Anita here. I’m excited to continue sharing key takeaways from the rockstar guest speakers who recently spoke to my Journalism Innovation class at Ryerson University. This week, I’ll be looking at meme-based journalism through the eyes of Annie Colbert 🚀
My outsider’s approach
Annie is a Brooklyn-based journalist and the executive editor of Mashable, a global media outlet that specializes in tech, digital culture and entertainment content. It’s where Annie and I met as colleagues nearly a decade ago in 2012; Mashable, which currently has an audience of 60 million people, is where I got my very first post-internship job as weekend editor.
As executive editor, Annie oversees Mashable’s day-to-day editorial and social operations, and manages all the “vertical” or section editors. But when I first met her, she’d just joined the company as editor of Watercooler, which was originally called Viral Content and then later rebranded to Culture. In a 2012 post announcing Annie’s hire and Watercooler’s debut, Mashable described the vertical as “your destination for web culture and what’s trending.”
“It is extreme 2012 internet. If you spent any time on the internet in 2012, the entire announcement post is just all the memes from that year,” Annie said in class. “One of the things that I really liked about working at Mashable [at the time] was that we were going to report on the internet on the internet.”
For the uninitiated, memes are bite-sized, often funny, pieces of media designed for quick consumption. Or as philosopher Daniel Dennett describes it in this 2011 Smithsonian Magazine article, a meme “is an information packet with attitude.”
Annie was ahead of her time as an early adopter of memes, and over the years as internet culture has evolved into mainstream culture, I’ve come to see her as a pioneer in meme-based journalism — someone who incorporated memes into journalism in the late 2000s and early 2010s when few others did. As I witnessed first-hand, she’s also a master at it. As Annie explained it, “Memes have become such a vital part of how we communicate online. If it's a shared experience, we have just sort of this mutual understanding of what these images mean.”
Below, I’ve highlighted Annie’s best insights, including how she landed her dynamic career, the different ways she uses memes in journalism and how the significance of memes has grown over the years.
On how she got her job: “I like to call myself a professional internet person….My background is in sociology and my original career plan was to get a PhD in sociology. But then I started traveling and I thought I would rather do something with writing and editing. So in my early 20s, I did a lot of freelance. I did a lot of permalancing. It was in the early 2000s, so it was when digital media was just becoming a thing. I worked for a number of those first-wave, digital media and blog companies….Then in 2012...the editor-in-chief of Mashable at the time reached out to me and he was like, ‘Hey, I really like your work.’ ‘Cause between my stories, I would tweet out what I was working on. And he was like, ‘Are you interested maybe in this [Watercooler] position we have?’”
On how she brought dimension and complexity to her initial role: “When I took that job, the original pitch to me was: ‘Well, you know what people click; you know what people like; you know how to package it in a way that's interesting.’ So it was like, ‘Can you share some viral videos?’ And while I personally love viral videos, too, it was important to me to expand the scope of what we were doing, which meant really talking about digital culture, talking about memes and the internet in a way that was informative and conversational….I don't want it to just be: Here are some things we saw on the internet. I really want it to be a conversation about what was happening online and how we were acting online. Again, my background is in sociology, so I was really interested in how people act online, what they share.”
On using memes to promote stories: “What I love about memes is that they're this tasty information nibble where you're getting a little piece of the whole picture. And what you're trying to do when you share a meme or look at a meme is get people to click and understand the broader story….We use memes to also promote huge complicated stories. And that's one of the skills you learn when you understand the internet and meme culture — you can take out one tiny piece of a larger story and understand what people are latching onto. So we will use a meme or something very short to promote a beautiful long-form [piece] that’s well-reported because we have to [think]: What are people going to attach to on social that [will get them to] click and read the whole thing?”
Jennifer Grygiel is an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University whose research focuses on memes. They have a similar perspective to Annie, suggesting in The Conversation that internet memes should be elevated as an “important form of editorializing that’s worthy of appearing alongside the traditional [political] cartoon.” Grygiel argues that memes are technically political cartoons, albeit ones that are more democratically accessible and inclusive given that “the ranks of [political] cartoonists are too white, too old and too male.”
Beyond using memes as political cartoons and as promotional material on social media, Annie and her team at Mashable also cover memes and their broader impact.
On meme reporting: “We know people are going to get in the door by seeing one clever piece of this whole story. So, how do we make sure that when we're writing about this, that we're providing context? We also need to think about who's talking about it….Is this just a media Twitter thing? Or has it gone beyond that? Who's talking about it?...Beware of bots. This was a really big problem in 2016 because we had meme bot accounts. So there were a lot of news organizations that were embedding memes from these bots and that's not great. So we're always checking. We're like: Who's tweeting it? Did they make it? Are they real people? And just thinking about those questions, which are the questions you ask as a journalist: Who am I talking to? What is their background? Can I trust them as a source?”
On choosing which memes to spotlight: “There was a study that came out…[that said] 54 percent of teens only get their news from social media. So that means as journalists, we have a responsibility to cover memes and report on memes responsibly. In our newsroom, we think about this a lot. So it's not just like: ‘Oh, funny thing is happening on the internet. Let's round it up.’ We ask ourselves a number of questions about what's the original story here….We also talk a lot about: Are we spotlighting the wrong thing?...We did a story recently. It was about “Super Straight” TikTok, which is about people saying, ‘Oh, I'm super straight.’ And we wanted to do a story on it, but it was like: We don't want to highlight the people doing this. So how do we highlight that it's going viral and the other side of the story — the important part of the story that we can bring attention to? We think about that a lot.”
On memes spreading misinformation: “We also talk about: Well, what context can I add here? Is there something else that we can make sure that people understand? We also do a lot of debunks because, especially as Facebook shifted its algorithm away from publishers and onto individuals, we saw a lot of people were given this megaphone to share whatever they wanted. We see a lot of misinformation being spread through memes. So we will watch that and see: ‘Okay, time for a debunk. We're seeing, you know — my aunt in Ohio keeps sharing this meme that’s just wildly incorrect. Can we do a debunk on it?’...One of my big things since I started at Mashable in 2012 was to just always be a good citizen of the internet….You want to highlight the original creators. You want to make sure that you're finding the real source of the meme because people will take credit for other people's work. And that's just a really important thing in general.”
When I left my year-long reporting internship at The Toronto Star for my first permanent job at Mashable, a Star colleague at the time told me that a mutual colleague said Mashable didn’t produce “real journalism.” Times clearly have changed since then, and I’m forever grateful for my foresight to take a risk and leave establishment Canadian media for a then-fledgling digital American media startup. I still see my time at Mashable as one of the seminal moments of my career, and all the skills I learned there are still bearing fruit today. In fact, this knowledge — specifically of data analytics, audience engagement and internet culture — laid the foundation for my current success. It helped me look at journalism in a different way, and more importantly, it helped me understand that journalism can and should evolve.
On the mainstreaming of memes in journalism: “Memes are not just digital media. They are not just silly. These are a couple examples of Mashable posts and New York Times posts covering the same memes. Mashable is usually first — that's my little humblebrag there. We usually beat The Times by anywhere from one to five days. But these have gone mainstream….It's just so fascinating to me [that after] being in this job for — it’ll be 10 years next year, doing this specific job — I've seen The Times sort of come around to memes, and other companies, too. All of these traditional publications being like, ‘You know what? Memes are such a huge part of how we live our lives online that we are going to cover them, too, because we don't want to be left out of these online conversations.”
On how internet culture is now real-life culture: “At this point, especially with the pandemic and us all using our computers to connect to our lives, digital culture has really become culture….We used to have a tech team and we had a culture team. And just last year, we ended up actually combining those teams into one huge team….The reason we did that was because one thing I struggled with as the executive editor was: I wanted our tech coverage to be more like our culture coverage. When we were talking about a new phone, I wanted the tech team to really think about: Well, how does this impact your digital life? Are we thinking about privacy? Are we thinking about how someone would use this in their everyday lives? And I wanted our culture team to think more like tech, like: What's the bigger story? What more can I say here? So we ended up combining these teams. They were already our two biggest teams. So now we have one huge team, which covers digital culture and technology and gadgets, but all through this lens of how we interact with our technology.”
On journalism’s role in the future: “There's not going to be less content, going forward. There will be more and more content that you have to consume, which means as a journalist, you're going to have to analyze where you exist online. What digital communities are you taking a part of? What are you taking away from those communities? What are you adding? What stories can be told from those communities? Your job is to be able to sift through that noise and provide information and provide context to your readers. It used to be that journalism was all about just providing information that people might not know, which is still a huge part of it, but…people have access to all the noise; they're spending all of their time online. So what are we doing to improve their experience on the internet and guide them through that experience?”
My insider’s approach
Congrats to the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour for hosting RISE, their inaugural joint conference this weekend, which was a huge success! Kudos to the fantastic organizers, volunteers, speakers, moderators, artists and wellness facilitators for running a conference that dissected difficult — but important — conversations about equity in Canadian media. I’m also proud of the work I did to help make this a reality, including dreaming up the vision and successfully fundraising for the conference, along with my sponsorship co-lead and CABJ executive director Nadia Stewart.
Thanks so much to Fateema Sayani, the Ottawa Community Foundation’s director of donor engagement, for becoming one of The Other Wave’s monthly paying supporters.
In my community
Check out “Dialogue on the Role of the Media in Canadian Democracy,” a new report from the Institut du Nouveau Monde that’s based on insights from sessions it held with 25 Canadian media stakeholders, myself included, last year.
At a recent meeting for the Canadian Association of Journalists’s ethics advisory committee, one of my fellow members mentioned the Boston Globe’s Fresh Start initiative, which allows people to appeal their presence in older Globe stories published online; it was launched in response to the global reckoning on racial justice.
I recommend reading this article from the Reynolds Journalism Institute, which looks at what newsrooms can learn from creator culture and monetization strategies. It’s chock-full of insights like “In the creator economy, people aren’t paying for content, they’re backing a creator they believe in.”
Globe and Mail journalist Sierra Bein recently told me about her new collaborative initiative, Shared Bylines, a scholarship and mentorship program for promising student journalists who are traditionally underrepresented in Canadian media.
Cool stuff I like
I’ve long admired the work of my multi-talented friend Erin who founded Stories of Ours, a grassroots project that aims to challenge dominant narratives by elevating diverse stories, while also building community and creating solidarity. Be sure to check out one of Stories of Ours’ upcoming events.
I’ve read almost every edition of Emily Atkin’s Heated, a compelling “newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.” As one of the earliest Substack success stories, Atkin is a great example of a solopreneur who’s injecting her hard-hitting journalism with a big dose of personality.
I first met Randell Adjei, a spoken word artist and founder of youth-led initiative R.I.S.E. (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere), when I ran Scarborough Discourse several years ago. He’s a gem of a human being so I was thrilled to learn that he was named as Ontario’s first Poet Laureate. Congrats, Randell!
I’ve seen a lot of movies that skewer suburban malaise, but Greener Grass definitely takes the cake for being the weirdest and most surreal. Highly recommend watching the 2019 dark comedy, especially if you like late-night Adult Swim vibes.
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