The Story Behind That ‘Future That Liberals Want’ Photo

Samuel Themer never planned to be a symbol of everything that’s right or wrong with America. He just wanted to go to work. But when he hopped on the subway to head into Manhattan on February 19, the Queens resident was in full drag—he performs as Gilda Wabbit.

from Pocket


A few days ago, the Twitter feed of a right-wing political magazine tweeted the photo above with the caption ‘This is the future that liberals want’. And it spectacularly backfired. My Twitter feed  – admittedly one which roughly reflects my political views and is therefore a bit of an echo chamber – was full of people commenting ‘well, yes, actually’; there were also plenty of memes using the same text but with different images – some serious, some ironic, some hilarious: my favourite so far is about gay space communism.

The article I posted is the story behind the image, and it’s quite lovely. Definitely worth reading. But it’s made me wonder about the way in which community cultures develop around the notion of endorsement. The tweeted memes had so many RTs and favourites. I’m thinking about the ways in which we instrumentally use Twitter to express community, identity or belonging without actually creating content ourselves. To say ‘yeah, me too!’ without actually saying it. It’s almost equivalent to the MOOC participants who would be classified as lurkers: they might agree with a comment, but express it only in the ‘up votes’ (or whatever mechanism is used)….

Just the bare necessities of life(stream) – Week 5 summary

My lifestream this week is focused on community. This was partly in response to my reading of the chapter by Lister whom, I felt, took a fairly traditional stance on what we might understand by ‘community’. While Lister stopped short of othering online communities, and while he helpfully argued against the binary of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ (p. 209), there was still a sense of assessing the new as part of the continuum of the old. Old wine in new wineskins, rather than the other way around.

This week I’ve looked at the make up of MOOC participants, and included a couple of screenshots based on the survey conducted on entry to the course. I started to explore the nature of the community, focusing on the stated motivations of participants to join this MOOC. The variety of explanations might be expected, but I found an interesting mix of fairly passive responses and some which strongly mirrored the expectation of socially constructed knowledge, to which Knox (2015) refers.

Following from this, but sticking with the theme of community, I had great fun attempting to bring a critical perspective to the use of gifs and memes. I even tried creating a few of my own, but found it much harder than expected; there’s a message there about the roles of consumer and producer. I wrote about the impact that memes and gifs might have on community development, and the implications of their ability to be both the object of a community and its vocabulary. There are critical considerations around their currency, their political influence (for example, see here), their relationship to text, the effects of their de/re-contextualisation, and – librarian hat on, sorry – their ownership.


Knox, J. (2015). Critical education and digital cultures. Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory. Singapore: Springer, 1–6.
Lister, M. (2009). Networks, users and economics. In M. Lister (Ed.), New media: a critical introduction (2nd ed, pp. 163–236). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, N.Y: Routledge.

Gifs and memes

We have tried to demonstrate how human creativity, technological affordance and economic advantage each contribute to shaping our own individual networked media experiences – as both producers and consumers (Lister, p. 231)

When I read Lister last weekend, I added a comment to my notes which said, simply, “GIFS AND MEMES”. I’ve been thinking about gifs and memes a lot lately – a colleague and I share responsibility for a Twitter account for an inanimate metal box (best not to ask, honestly), which posts mainly bad song lyrics, gifs and memes.

Parks And Recreation GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Lister’s chapter, I thought, exhibited an understandable bias toward textual communication, and the development of community through discursive practice. He mentions emoticons but in the context of belonging: the correct deployment of an emoticon is, for Lister, a way for a participant to demonstrate their understanding of the cultural and behavioural norms of that community (p. 214).

Tv GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There are studies on exclusively visual media (see Highfield and Leaver, 2016, for a short literature review) – on selfies, Instagram, and how these contribute to culture and generate communities. Gifs and memes are almost exclusively visual too, and they have a communicative currency of their own. Tolins and Samermit explore how gifs depict affect and action, and argue persuasively that they’re:

used to reproduce actions that in face-to-face conversation do not require demonstration (2016, p. 77)

So while they’re visual, they have a specific and maybe even symbiotic relationship to text. They’re used, for example, on Twitter, to reiterate a textual point, to indicate humour, to underline a particular emotion or clarify that sarcasm is intended. Or they’re used on their own, in lieu of text, in response to its absence. Highfield and Leaver describe how the visual can sit ‘in concert’ with the textual (2016, p. 49); I think this is a pretty good example of it.

Gilmore Girls GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

One of the things that interests me most about gifs and memes is how they’re decontextualised from their origin – the TV show or news clip or image. One does not simply have to have seen The Fellowship of the Ring to understand that Boromir meme. They don’t have to have heard of Tolkien, let alone read the book. Identity and belonging very much play a part here, but perhaps not in the way that Lister intended.

Star Wars GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There’s a Facebook site called ‘Memebridge‘, where students at Cambridge can submit memes which are then posted anonymously. There’s one for Oxford and Manchester Universities too, and maybe more – I’m not sure. It’d be interesting to do a mini-ethnography of these pages to explore how the memes are being used and how they generate community and reflect culture. There’s probably room too for some critical thought on the ownership of memes, and the network created by repetition of message and mediation. Memebridge is mostly in-jokes, gentle digs at people or things, and self-deprecation, but I wonder if community here requires a different form of literacy. I haven’t read this yet, but it looks as though Kanai (2016) draws some interesting conclusions after considering socio-cultural approaches to reaction-gifs.

I think there’s still much that could be explored in relation to the themes of this block and the deployment of gifs and memes. I’m wondering now if any of my fellow #mscedc students have created any…



All gifs from Giphy

Highfield, T., & Leaver, T. (2016). Instagrammatics and digital methods: studying visual social media, from selfies and GIFs to memes and emoji. Communication Research and Practice, 2(1), 47–62.
Kanai, A. (2016). Sociality and Classification: Reading Gender, Race, and Class in a Humorous Meme. Social Media + Society, 2(4).
Lister, M. (2009). Networks, users and economics. In M. Lister (Ed.), New media: a critical introduction (2nd ed, pp. 163–236). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, N.Y: Routledge.
Tolins, J., & Samermit, P. (2016). GIFs as Embodied Enactments in Text-Mediated Conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 49(2), 75–91.