Using meme culture to report on Twitter

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You’ve heard of telling stories natively on social media. Here’s how to tell them in way that’s native to social media culture.

I get my news on social media, bypassing Google for Twitter’s explore page — and I’m not alone. Sixty-seven percent of American adults get their news on social media, according to the Pew Research Center, and 74% of Twitter users get news on the platform. Twitter users are also receiving news authentically on their feeds through memes about trending news stories, as opposed to just videos and links to articles. As both a journalist and meme-loving Twitter user, I wanted to experiment with reporting in a way that felt authentic to my social media experience. Through my experiment, I came to realize that what we see on Twitter is already an unconventional broadcast news show — even as Twitter ventures into more traditional newscasts.

We can’t dive into meme reporting without first clarifying what a meme is in this context: Basically, it’s a unit that carries cultural ideas, symbols or practices. Remember that emojis are essentially tiny digital memes too — this: 😱 should represent fear or surprise, regardless of what language you speak.

When news is reported within meme culture, memes communicate the news, the story behind the news and the commentary on the news through images, GIFs and contextual captions.

For example, memes are how I found out that President Donald Trump and LaVar Ball, the father of one of the UCLA basketball players recently accused of theft in China, were beefing on Twitter. Trump tweeted that Ball never thanked him for releasing Ball’s son, LiAngelo Ball, from custody in China after LiAngelo was accused of shoplifting.

I found out about the Twitter feud when these memes popped up on my feed.

(1)⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ (2)⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀(3)⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

The first meme broke the story for me: For whatever reason, Lavar Ball and Donald Trump were tweeting about each other. I compare this meme to an anchor lead on a television newscast.

The second meme perfectly encapsulated the response that social media users have when entertaining figures (and leaders of the free world) publicly feud. I hadn’t seen entertainment like this since Kanye vs. Amber Rose in February 2016. *Sips tea*. This meme is akin to the broadcast package.

And then, the third meme served as a sort of… po-twit-ical commentary on where Ball and Trump should go from here.

The progression of these memes is not that different from the progression of a story on a television news show. And this meme news show unfolds live, leading me to believe that memes could be one of the most effective ways to report news to an engaged Twitter audience.

To try this for myself, I tweeted the GIF version of a broadcast package on @USCTheBuzz, the entertainment vertical of student-run Annenberg Media. The story was about Cardi B being the first solo female rapper to snag a #1 hit since Lauryn Hill in 1998. I quizzed USC students on Cardi’s “Bodak Yellow” lyrics and later packaged the story as a Twitter Moment.

I believe this did particularly well — bringing in six times the engagement of a normal Buzz story on Twitter — because it incorporated multimedia elements (such as GIFs) that are native to meme culture.

⠀⠀⠀⠀Text graphic ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀GIF Response⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

The text graphics substituted what would have been my voice (or text overlay) asking the questions in a traditional “vox pop” video. The student responses, intro and close were turned into GIFs.

The GIFs contained traditional elements, such as the publication logo in the top-right corner and CGs, and social video elements, such as captions at the bottom. I added green check marks for correct answers and big red Xs for the incorrect answers for clarity.

This GIF package was obviously silent, so the audience understood the nature of the responses through the interviewee’s expressions. This allowed gestures understood by the meme audience to communicate the energy of the package. Here’s another example.

The red ‘X’ = wrong answer. Bakari (who’s CG was included in a previous GIF) looks confused here.

This gave The Buzz users a news experience they seemed to stick with through the end of the story. They got the news hook, which was Cardi being the first female rapper to reach the top of the Billboard charts with no features, and possibly learned a few of her lyrics.

Because of its implicit communicative power, the meme serves as an aid for reporters to tell stories — in a way that truly connects a story to how people naturally communicate on social media. By breaking down the elements of a traditional video package or article into a thread of tweets, we leave room to add Twitter culture’s native, funky features such as memes and GIFs to our stories. With the more recent 280-character update, this becomes even more feasible. Translating our reporting into Twitter’s native media language provides our audience with a more captivating and thorough experience that meets them where they already are — both physically and culturally.

Using meme culture to report on Twitter was originally published in Media Center Lab on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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