If a pic is worth 1k words, what’s a meme worth?
Memes continue to shape human conversation as they have for eons through political cartoons, pamphlets, and even ancient graffiti. These dense packets of meaning and commentary thrive particularly well in digital communities on the net and meme genesis is no longer solely the lofty, ivory towered realm of patronized artists. Many ordinary people create their own meme, and even our primitive A.I. is welcomed to create here. These works of art and social commentary have become part of our everyday lives, and major drivers for online platforms.
Even though memes can bring notoriety to the creator or the subject, there is a darker side too. As powerful content, memes can become tools of misinformation and conspiracy, to terrifying effect. Much to my adult self’s surprise, my childhood fantasy of an emergent dystopia brought to its knees by art was far more accurate than I am comfortable with.
My childhood fantasy demonstrates the power of memes, and the insight of our constitutional framers. In the U.S. founding documents much care and attention is given to the most powerful information networks of the time, the post and the press, as well as the control of content, through speech and intellectual property regulation. While certainly wise, they likely also took note that information networks and art, including memes, influenced the U.S. revolution and societal change across the globe.
Even with our advanced society, imagine the framer’s horror when confronted with our current content landscape; unclear ownership, high costs to access even the most fundamental of intellectual property tools, and takedown policies from private companies that eclipse the importance of regulation due to their sheer industry dominance. Yet, in our era this content is flourishing despite suffering a dysfunctional market with questionable incentives and management.
Somehow, non-economic, or at least difficult to see, incentives are driving the creation and publishing of this content, primarily by people and not larger organizations. Viewing the content market as a whole, within a digital network, reveals that while the cost to assert rights has risen, so too has the cost of creating and publishing digital content dropped through the floor. This forms a paradox for creators — the cost to enter the conversation, or ‘market of ideas’, is low, while the cost to assert even basic rights is high. This web of conflicting market incentives and strained regulatory policy frameworks is almost certainly a factor in our contemporary challenges with content — misinformation and radicalization. As a society, we must accept that art is extremely powerful and that improving the meme market may be our best hope for economic and cultural prosperity.