What's in a Meme? The Science Behind Going Viral

Editor's Note: Over the weekend, I caught up with Frank Chi and Will Donahoe, digital politics gurus and co-founders of Projects by Chi/Donahoe + Cole/Duffey. Follow them on Facebook here. Chi and Donahoe were the brains behind the popular Meh. Romney campaign. I asked them about all things internet, including memes, going viral, and effective digital campaigns. Here's my interview: 

PolicyMic (PM): Talk about the Meh. Romney campaign. What was the idea behind the meme? Why "Meh" and not some other word?

Frank Chi and Will Donahoe (F&W): This all started as a side project during the New Hampshire Primary. Will is from New Hampshire. When he was home over the holidays, he said: "I remember every primary since 1992, and I've never seen this state so bored. Nobody actually cares." At first we actually called it "Romney Just Sucks." "Meh. Romney" just works better. "Meh" is a word that a lot of young people use in everyday life and it's a perfect descriptor of Mitt Romney: a kind of blah that absolutely inspires nobody. The fact that "Meh" sounds like "Mitt" - well that's what he gets for not going with his real name: Willard. Tough luck Mittens.

PM: Why do you think that campaign went viral? What did you do to promote it? How successful was it? 

F&W: We actually didn't do much to promote it. It didn't really catch on in New Hampshire, and then one day three months later, our server was taking a huge hit. We checked everything we hosted and checked MehRomney.com last, and the traffic had exploded. Over 10,000 visitors in a day. We realized that someone had posted it on BuzzFeed and sent the site to Rachel Maddow, who subsequently blew it up on her blog and Facebook page. Days later, Andrew Sullivan was onto it, Jennifer Granholm put a sign up on the wall of her TV show, and everywhere from MSNBC to Daily Kos started to call him "Meh. Romney." What really made our day was when The Boston Globe wrote an editorial called "The Meh Generation" and wrote: "If there's one word that haunts the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, it's a tiny yet expressive one: meh."

We encourage people to print out the sign from the site, and people have sent us photos of their own signs from across the country. We also just made some buttons. They've been a real hit. You'll be able to order them at the site soon. Traffic has died down overall, but we’re gearing up for the general election. Secret plans are in the works ...

PM: More generally, from Hillary Clinton to Rick Santorum, the use of memes has exploded on Facebook this year. What explains this phenomenon? Why do you think memes are so successful with young people?

F&W: Memes, especially political memes, catch on because there's a grain of truth there. They're a reflection of ourselves and our beliefs. Meh. Romney works because Mitt Romney is well, just "meh." On the other hand, Texts from Hillary was incredibly successful because Hillary Clinton is actually a badass. Every iteration of the "Sh*t ______ Says" resonated with people because they reflected some grain of truth in their lives. Obviously, memes take that truth to an exaggerated level to make it funny and sharable. But their fundamental appeal is that they hit a nerve with a group of people whose first instinct is to blast something they like onto their social media networks.

PM: I want to make a meme, and I want it to go viral. What 3 things do I need to know?

F&W: Find the truth, make it funny, make friends with Tumblr, and find someone with a following to blow it up.

PM: Do memes have any real value? Are they social media at its best? Or at its worst?

F&W: From a political communication standpoint, there's absolutely value there. If memes take off, they start conversations within thought leaders and the press about why they took off. When people start asking that question, they are seeking for the grain of truth that started the meme in the first place. Texts from Hillary inspired article after article about what makes Hillary so popular, whether she still has presidential ambitions, what her popularity says about us as a society. Also, making something that’s actually interesting to the 99% that are not political junkies is huge.

Meh. Romney confirmed a lot of what has made Republicans so restless in their primary: Why is Mitt Romney so boring? Why has he been on both sides of every issue? Why couldn't he seal the deal early? Just look at Marco Rubio's face in this photo when asked about his endorsement of Romney. 


His quote might be even better: "There are a lot of other people out there that some of us wish had run for president -- but they didn't. I think Mitt Romney would be a fine president, and he'd be way better than the guy who's there right now."

That's the most "meh" endorsement, ever.

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