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The Meme is the Message: How Campaigns and Causes are Using Tumblr

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, March 28 2012

Source: We Are the 99 Percent tumblr

Ever since the 2008 presidential campaign, the national political conversation has been interrupted and redirected again and again with interjections from a mix of activists, celebrities and regular folks who decided to use the Internet to make their voices heard.

In the past year, many people — from conservative activists to Occupy Wall Street supporters — have used exactly that power to make their point. Several used Tumblr, the photo-friendly, highly social blogging platform, to do it. While there's currently a great focus on another social sharing platform, Pinterest, as this story is published, activists continue using Tumblr — with 47 million blogs and backed by a company that's had five years to mature — to build community and get attention.

We reached out to some of them to ask them how they did it.

First, a quick recap of Tumblr: The service hosts lightweight blogs for free, allows users to follow one another and their blogs, and makes it easy to share or "reblog" content from others. "Ask me Anything" and "Submit" functionality built-in lends the platform to accepting and handling submissions. Users can create a blog and then invite other contributors, a la the early group blogs of an older era. The layouts and themes lend themselves to photos and video with short captions, as well as to text, and iPhone and Android apps allow for easy posting on the go.

"What makes Tumblr useful is specifically, it's easy to take submissions and moderate them, and it's very effective at spreading visually oriented materials," said Deanna Zandt, author of "Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking."

Zandt created a tumblr called "Planned Parenthood Saved Me", curating exactly the kinds of stories you'd imagine a tumblr of that name would collect, as part of the response to Susan G. Komen for the Cure's decision in February 2012 to institute a rules change that would pull its funding of Planned Parenthood.

"Journalists tend too look for personal hooks, and there were over 400 stories that could be good hooks for journalists," Zandt said. "I launched it Wednesday morning, and by Thursday night Rachel Maddow was reading it from it on her show."

Perhaps the best example of this is the now-famous We are the 99 Percent tumblr, a nexus for shared stories of economic inequality, which drove an early and emotional point for the Occupy movement. Thanks in no small part to that tumblr, the "99 percent" message become more than a slogan — the blog collected stories compelling enough to garner mentions on national television and in newspapers, and set a precedent other advocacy efforts would seek to follow.

I Am Obamacare is a tumblr devoted to "99-percent"-esque individual stories about how the Affordable Health Care Act, signature Obama legislation that was one of the president's first and most controversial priorities in office, was good for Americans.

The tumblr's creator wishes to stay anonymous, but described himself to techPresident as male, late 20s and living in the United States. He was inspired, he said in an email, by a post from blogger M. Turner, who describes herself online as a 34-year-old woman from Florida who suffers from several chronic health issues.

"Thanks to President Obama's Health Care Reform, I was able to get PCIP Insurance after I was diagnosed with a uterus full of tumors in the ER," Turner wrote. According to her blog, her photo showing her holding that testimonial has spread widely, thanks in part to MoveOn.org, which has an entire operation devoted to helping progressive messages go viral on social networks.

"I saw the original photo that "Ms. M. Turner", as she refers to herself on the web, via Facebook, where it was being reposted frequently toward the beginning of 2012," the I Am Obamacare author told techPresident in an email. "It reminded me of the many photos posted to Tumblr that helped fuel the Occupy Wall Street movement. I thought those photos helped connect what had been a very abstract debate -- income inequality -- with very real people and the impact on their lives. It was powerful. It made it real. And it helped change the discussion. So I decided to try and create an equivalent based upon Ms. M's post -- 'I Am Obamacare.'"

He accepts submissions of stories via e-mail, and has reposted a few similar stories from other sites. "One of my biggest hopes is that we're able to take back the term 'Obamacare' from those that have turned it into an epithet," he wrote.

Not all meme-worthy ideas have to be associated with loss or crisis, though. According to Angie Akers, editor-in-chief of Moveon Media, highly shareable items are usually are usually more feel-good and provoke a positive emotion, as are things that appear to "cut through the bullshit" of politics.

"Things that are less polished and produced looking, look more authentic and home grown we find have more success than items designed by an organization to promote a cause," she added.

And the meme-as-message idea isn't limited to the left — or to the anonymous. Ben Domenech, the conservative writer and RedState co-founder, is the man behind Newt Judges You, a collection of photos of Newt Gingrich photos with snarky comments. It has, for him, become a way to do a sort of meme-based rapid response, all in the hopes of making fun of Gingrich. It's become a favorite stop for insiders in the national political scene.

"There was a New York Magazine slideshow that was passed around with pictures of Newt Gingrich looking condescendingly at things," Domenech wrote in an email. "It was okay, I guess, but not as funny as it could've been. Plus I don't think it's just condescension, it's that Gingrich looks at people and assesses them very frankly and fundamentally - in his words - in terms of how pathetic or stupid he thinks they are."

Tumblr, he said, made sense as the perfect medium to capture these snapshots of Gingrich's campaign.

Domenech says the site has been fun for him, for journalists, who now regularly send him images, and even for Gingrich friends and supporters.

"Yahoo's Chris Moody has been judged on more than one occasion," Domenech said. "One thing that's really been great as a source is the campaign embeds who use Instagram — Holly Bailey and others — who've taken some great candids," Domenech says. "An event I attended where Gingrich was doing a walkthrough in a children's hospital in South Carolina and he was pointing critically at some plastic dinosaurs was a good example of that. The advent of these instant share methods creates so much more content than before."

The reception has been overwhelmingly bipartisan, he said. "The left loves it because they hate Newt. The right loves it because they either hate Newt or love Newt. It's a uniting force for good."

The relationship between the official campaigns and what spreads virally can also be symbiotic. Not only does the Obama campaign have its own tumblr, but it recently started Pet Lovers for Obama Facebook page, which seems to embrace the concept behind many of the unofficial pages and tumblrs. (In light of the campaign's subsequent purchase of ads around, for example, the Westminster Dog Show, it also seems to be an embrace of another meme — the one about how Mitt Romney reportedly went on a road trip with the family dog in a crate strapped to the roof of the car.)

In early February a new tumblr cropped up, Barack my Timeline, which features photos that users are encouraged to add as their Facebook cover photos in support of Obama. The page says it is not affiliated with the Obama campaign. But after it came out, the tumblr was promoted by the official Obama Tumblr, Facebook pages and Twitter feed, with one word: "Cool."