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Meme’s the word now

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 08, 2013 04:27 AM
Politicians are always seen doing things. Even if they are not doing something, they are talking about doing things. And so on oodles of internet memes and on Tumblr sites, especially, they are shown "doing things".

The article by Padmaparna Ghosh was published in the Times of India on August 4, 2013. Nishant Shah is quoted.

Whether it is our former president, Pratibha Patil, "frolicking on a Goa beach" fully covered from head to toe in a sari, or Mayawati "copying Keanu Reeves from Matrix" or Rahul Gandhi "telepathically trying to solve the country's problems", political humour is finding new expression on websites like Tumblr. (Tumblr is a microblogging platform that uses pictures and media and is often used to quickly propagate humour based on themes.) Two such sites -- on Rahul Gandhi's achievements (which opens a blank site) and on Narendra Modi's plans (which displays a button, 'Get Details' that can never be clicked, because it keeps slipping away) -- also went viral on social media sites recently.

The popularity of these satirical sites, including 'fake news' sites that run spoofs of the news, is a positive sign, say many, of political engagement in the ranks of the young, urban and connected of the country, a demographic often accused of being disinterested in politics. And in an election year humour is likely to mushroom online. "Humour will play a big role in this election. It provides the public ability to say what they want. I feel that for a sliver of urban media, there will be that other option (the funnies), which wasn't there five years ago," says Anuvab Pal, playwright and stand-up comic.

Yet the value of news satire sites, memes and Tumblrs go beyond just the joke. They may also be critiques of politics, policy issues and debates, and function as veiled messages, all smartly packaged in pop-culture nuggets. Memes (a term that has found new life on the net and which the dictionary defines as 'an idea, style, or usage that spreads with repetition from person to person within a culture') are not just photos with text on them. They also transfer ideas and ideologies. And as recent popular movements across the world have shown, forms of protest are not just limited to rallies on roads.

"The disillusionment with electoral politics that the youth globally seem to be experiencing is one of the key reasons why they are coming online to express their dissatisfaction. This is their form of political engagement. They are showing us that they do have a vision of their future, they know the kind of world they want to build, the ways in which they would like to engineer their societies, but they are not necessarily going to put their faith in the structures of old-fashioned politics," says Nishant Shah of the Centre for Internet and Society.

Irreverence, subversion and criticism have always been a part of cybercultures. Shah agrees that while satire and parodies have always existed online, easier discovery of content thanks to social media, and an atmosphere of censorship in some cases, have increased the visibility and popularity of memes. The Narendra Modi Plans site was initially taken down after getting 60,000 hits in 20 hours. It's back online now. Still, compared to other forms of censorship the internet is still a relatively safe medium for people to voice their discontentment. Shah points out that "it protects people from persecution, from those who abuse power, just because they are questioned. So these instances become even more critical in countries like India, where literalness can land somebody in trouble. Attempts at censorship are only going to lead to more people realizing that the battles to be fought are information battles."

As the last US elections proved memes have become more popular than ever. Whether it was Romney's "binders full of women" or Clint Eastwood's "empty chair", political campaigns themselves adopted and ran with the memes for greater resonance with their constituencies. Of course, the US has a much livelier culture of parody and public debates that lend themselves easily to the mockumentary style of internet engagement. Satirists here say that while India is far from emulating America's parody culture it is undoubtedly moving in that direction. Says Pal: "We are just about getting comfortable with English. Irony in a new language can sometimes be just too many layers, like a double negative. It is also generational. But the new generation is an ironic one. And honestly, if you want to govern a billion people, you should be prepared for the fact that someone will make a meme out of you."

ASPI-CIS Partnership


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