Crasher Squirrel. Rickrolling. The Hampsterdance. Grumpy Cat. Chuck Norris Facts. The options are highly amusing and seemingly endless. The more studious, however, might use memes for a better purpose, like academic research. That's what Sarah Sangster and Linzi Williamson, PhD students in the applied social psychology program in the College of Arts and Science, are doing with their research project.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme almost 40 years ago to represent a unit of cultural transmission or imitation. That high-level definition still applies today, but has taken on a different twist to incorporate all the quirky photos, videos, phrases and links that spread quickly online.
Sangster and Williamson are working to determine the cultural impact of internet memes and whether exposure to them could influence feminist attitudes and beliefs.
Their research choice? None other than the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme.
This particular one first appeared online in 2011. Its premise was simple: photos of Gosling superimposed with text promoting his own sense of feisty feminism. For consistency's sake, they always start with, "Hey girl." After that, they range from witty ("If I had a hammer, I'd smash the patriarchy") to remarkably academic ("The post-feminist fetishization of motherhood is deeply rooted in classism but I still think we'd make cute babies").
Sangster and Williamson liked that the meme, in addition to being easy on the eyes, poked fun at feminist theory, albeit in an informative way. "It started from just our admiration of Ryan Gosling and the feminist memes," Williamson said, laughing.
From there, they wanted to explore the impact the meme was having on people's attitudes towards feminism, specifically whether it was influential in endorsing feminist beliefs.
"We saw this pop culture phenomenon that many people dismissed," said Sangster. "But maybe they also have an important effect."
Their research process involved showing various photos of Gosling to participants. Half of the photos included the overlapping text (the memes), while the other half did not. After viewing the photos, participants filled out a questionnaire asking about feminist beliefs and attitudes, including if they self identify as a feminist. The results showed those exposed to the memes were more likely to endorse specific feminist beliefs than the control group who just viewed the photos.
"What we found, as well as being cute and funny and pleasant to have around, [is that] they are a real persuasive device," said Sangster.
Their research has gained a lot of attention, particularly when they presented their work at the Canadian Psychological Association Convention last summer. Their research poster, which includes a giant picture of Gosling and an example of the meme, generated a lot of interest, and the pair could barely catch their breath during their poster session. "It's the busiest I've ever been at a conference," said Sangster. "It's the most attention I've ever received."
"We had a lot of people walk by as if they weren't going to stop, and all of a sudden their gaze is on him and they didn't really watch where they were walking," added Williamson. "They'd have to come back and ask a bit more about what was happening."
Putting a popular culture spin on a fairly traditional topic like feminist theory might make the subject easier to digest, but it is a fine line to walk.
"I think sometimes researchers are reluctant to do it because it seems gimmicky," said Sangster. "If you're doing it just for the gimmick, maybe you're not going in the right direction."
Humour can also be a powerful tool, so long as it is used purposefully and to illustrate the point of research.
"We study some pretty heavy areas of literature, so for us, we like to see the humourous side of research," said Williamson. "There is room for being a little bit cheeky."
Lesley Porter is a communications co-ordinator with Advancement and Community Engagement.