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  • The Case for More Cat Memes
  • Andrew Baerg (bio)
Memes to Movements: How the World's Most Viral Media is Changing Social Protest and Power
An Xiao Mina
Beacon Press
240 Pages; Cloth; $24.95

Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, with his bemused grin, has become a ubiquitous part of Internet culture. This grin has become a digital icon freely overlain with all kinds of messages ranging from, "Please tell me more" to "You only live once? That's an incredible discovery!" to "Oh, your company doesn't have a content strategy? Please, keep complaining about your small online following." Most of us stumble upon these generally irreverent images of Wilder/Wonka in tweets, texts, and message boards. Other memes we encounter might invoke cats, dogs, llamas, or goats saying or doing humorous things. We might smile or laugh, but then quickly move on to something else seemingly more important. However, if An Xiao Mina is correct, this form of communication, the meme, is critical for how social change occurs in the twenty-first century.

Mina's Memes to Movements: How the World's Most Viral Media is Changing Social Protest and Power represents a hopeful, if not celebratory, take on the potential internet memes possess in social and cultural change. As an artist interested in cultivating this change, Mina wants to ask questions about how something so small and seemingly insignificant like an internet meme becomes something prominent and influential. She also wants to situate these memes within their broader media environments as they shape and are shaped by other forms of media. Mina argues that memes serve as both pliable and portable in their circulation as digital objects subject to creative remixing as they traverse online spaces. It is this capacity for remixing that accords memes so much of their force in effectively undermining authority and challenging power structures.

To explore her questions, Mina turns to several case studies of social movements that have employed memes to great success. Examples of these social movements come from a diversity of contexts and address a variety of themes. Mina begins from the seemingly innocuous proliferation of cat memes that have arisen over the past two decades as a way to share the joys of cat activity, activity that was once more secretive and hidden by contrast to the more overtly publicized activity of dogs. The chapter on cat memes sets the stage for a broader discussion of memes and their role in social movements around the world. For North American readers, these movements include the more familiar #BlackLivesMatter movement protesting police violence against African-Americans and the #NOH8 movement arguing for same sex marriage. However, Mina also alerts readers to potentially less familiar social media protests like the #UmbrellaMovement against Chinese authoritarian interference in Hong Kong and the #UgandaisnotSpain Ugandan response to a pejorative text message by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Via her case studies, Mina demonstrates how the meme-driven protest affirms those who deploy memes, establishes an alternative narrative, and allows for the challenging of power. This series of case studies from around the world demonstrates how memes function as a form of social protest on a global scale.

Mina is careful to note that not all uses of memes challenge power. The #MAGA movement and the Chinese workers who produce pro-government social media content serve as prime examples of how memes might be deployed in service of those possessing and/or aspiring to more power. These movements cultivate fake news and potentially lead us into a "post-truth future." Yet, even as she cites these problematic exceptions to her series of otherwise successful meme protests, Mina speaks to how these status quo supporting messages are resisted by social movements through a clash of memes.

This resistance shines through in the most fascinating sections of the book. These sections speak to how Chinese activists employ memes as a way to deal with the selective governmental censorship associated with the Great Firewall of China. Even as it allows a lot of internet content, the Chinese government works to prevent any form of political...


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