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The Engagement Project: Finding the Meaning in Memes

the rundown

Gen C is renowned for creating, curating and connecting across the web, but what motivates the actions of this powerful group? And how can brands engage authentically with them? As part of our Engagement Project series, we partnered with cultural anthropologists, psychologists and digital creators to explore the meaning behind these behaviors.

“This is what the internet is all about, people. A killer song, a stupid meme, a nostalgic throwback to 2001 and, most importantly, bites of dumb hilarity that come in 30-second bursts.”
– Huffington Post on the Harlem Shake, Feb 2013

The stats tell us that we’re spending more and more time on the web creating, curating and sharing visual content. We uploaded over half a million videos related to the 'Harlem Shake’ to YouTube in the past few months. Google searches for Cat GIFs hit an all time high last month. And we took 380 billion photos last year – that’s 10% of all the photos ever taken. But let’s be honest, these memes are fun, but they don’t matter, right? They’re pretty much a waste of time.

As the head of Google’s Agency Strategic Planning team, it’s my job to work with brands and creative agencies to help develop their ideas in the digital space. So I had to ask: why would we be doing so much of this “visual play” if it really means so little to us? And ultimately, what can brands learn from it to engage with their followers more meaningfully?

These questions kicked off a new chapter in what we’re calling The Engagement Project. This ongoing series shares insights, perspectives and ideas on how brands can connect with consumers more deeply in the participation age. (For more on this project, click here.)

To get to the bottom of these memes, we assembled a team of original thinkers – anthropologists, digital vanguards and content creators – to dig a little deeper into this “visual web.” We also spoke to Gen C’ers – the people who grew up on the web or behave as though they did – and who thrive on creation, curation, connection and community.

The research showed us that far from just distracting us from more serious things, these viral pictures, videos and memes reconnect us to an essential part of ourselves. By understanding what’s at the root of our obsession with the visual web, brands can create the kind of content that resonates in today’s culture.

The Fascinating Familiar

“Who knew there was such a thing as goose barnacle gathering? That’s fascinating. It was cool to see something new about a subject that I already thought I knew.” – Travis, Gen C, Age 27

The visual web is full of amazing and beautiful things. So why did a picture of my breakfast I posted this morning get 37 “likes”?

Marcel Proust knew. The great French novelist once wrote that the “voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In other words, humans aren’t necessarily attracted to the allure of the new, as much as we like to see things we’re already familiar with in a new way.

This is exactly what’s happening on the web. It may seem that all we’re doing is just capturing every mundane moment. But look closely. These everyday moments are shot, displayed, and juxtaposed in a way that offers us a new perspective. And then all of a sudden these everyday moments, places and things look... fascinating.

This fascination with the familiar is deeply rooted. As humans, we’ve always wondered, “Is this really all there is”? Through poetry, art and philosophy – and now the visual web – we strive to elevate the everyday by feeding our appetite for imagination and discovery.

And the web allows us to do this on a scale we’ve simply never seen before. By seeing the miraculous in the mundane, we’re learning to fall in love with the world again, to laugh with it, and be fascinated by it.

Synaptic Play

“I think that’s the genius of it – to be able to go anywhere or pull up anything. Linear meets nonlinear is kind of the way that I envision it.” – Becky, Gen C, Age 32

Let’s say you’re a fan of Les Mis. But you also think the whole screaming goats thing is hilarious. Even though they seem very different, to you they’re connected – if only by the passion you share for them. So you take a leap of imagination and make that connection.

Huh? What in the world is going on here? I often find myself riddled with the same confusion when I listen to my 6 year old daughter jump from frogs to princesses to polka dots in the same sentence. No coincidence. Both are reflecting a similar dynamic.

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Neuroscientists explain that synapses occur inside the brain when we’ve made a connection among various different things. The more random the components connected, the more synapses occur. Synapses are the basis of creativity. In other words, synapses firing = creative joy.

As kids, that happens all the time because everything is new. Everything is unlike. And, we aren’t constrained by the rules about what “goes together.” Why else was putting the Barbie in the toy car wash more fun than putting the car in the car wash?

The visual web frees us to return to this child-like state where we can adventure through a whole array of different, seemingly unrelated, images and clips – be they old, new, from a world away or own backyard – sparking our all important synapses and helping us come up with new combinations and ideas so easily.

Uninhibited by linearity and stimulated by all the access to imagery, synaptic play takes hold and we’re free to indulge in a purer kind of creativity. Or, as we call it, the Nyan Cat Dubstep Remix. And even if we’re just watching these crazy creations, we are still celebrating and appreciating all this synaptic play, and it inspires us.

The Energy Exchange

“You get even more enjoyment when you know other people are enjoying it.”
– Dan, Gen C, Age 23

The only thing better than going on this journey of discovery is sharing it with others. This ‘gift’ of sharing contributes to an energy exchange that amplifies our own pleasure – and is something we’re hardwired to do.

Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott figured out that our first emotional action as babies is to respond to our mother’s smile with a smile of our own. Winnicott called it the ‘social smile’ and it teaches us that our own joy increases when we offer it to others because it forges a bond between us.

In the language of the visual web, when we share a video or an image, we’re not just sharing the object, but we’re sharing in the emotional response it creates.

There are billions of these energy exchanges happening every day. Whether we’re posting, commenting, liking, repinning or +1ing, our new visual culture is one in which we’re constantly offering each other little gifts, little moments of pleasure that remind us we’re truly and deeply bonded to one another.

The Meaning Behind this New Normal

In the end, it all matters: every meme, GIF and seemingly silly video. Nowhere else can we rediscover the fascination of our everyday world, spark synapses that unlock our creative potential, and amplify the joy we feel in a global exchange of energy. And through it all, we connect more deeply with each other – and ourselves.

So what can we do to start tapping into all this visual play? Most importantly, start thinking like a creator, less like an advertiser. While posting the glossy photos from the photo shoot or :30 spots online may be part of your approach, it shouldn’t be your entire approach. Think content, not commercials. Here’s a few thoughts to get started:

Help us rediscover the beauty of a forgotten familiar.
Find something familiar – in your product, brand or from people’s lives – and help us see it in a fascinating new light. It could be as simple as taking a kitchen appliance and turning it into a science experiment or reminding people to capture just one second of their daily lives and compile a beautiful montage.

Find ways to spark synaptic play and participation.
Search for your brand online. Chances are your fans are already mixing and mashing your brand with something seemingly unrelated. Build on it, fuel it, steer it and help us make more with it.

Gift happiness we can share in.
Ditch the pitch. Instead, start an energy exchange. Create content that reminds us of our own capacity for excitement, happiness and vivacity so we want to share in it with others.

To dig deeper into these insights, download our full report here.

Engage with us
What do you think? Does this ring true to you? Where have we missed the boat?

In the coming weeks we will continue with detailed looks into things like the creative process, new thoughts on measurement, and media planning. If there’s something specific you’d like to see, give us a shout. We’ve also worked to gather lots of examples from across industries of this thinking, but we’re always keen to find more. If you have an example to share, please get in touch.

You can reach us at theengagementproject@google.com, or follow us at +ThinkwithGoogle and @ThinkwithGoogle for updates.

"We aren’t necessarily attracted to the allure of the new, as much as we like to see things we’re already familiar with in a new way."
  • Abigail Posner Abigail Posner

    Head of Strategic Planning, Agency Development, Google

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