Recent scholarship on Democracy has become obsessed with topics related to free expression especially related to online mediums. The digital revolution has expanded not just access to information, but the ways people communicate and express themselves. It has transformed political dissent and propaganda in ways nobody expected twenty years ago when everyone first recognized the transformative impact of the internet. But Memes to Movements is not simply a book about the digital age. An Xiao Mina explains how memes have existed throughout human history. The digital age has simply amplified their proliferation and impact.
I came across this book in an article in the Journal of Democracy called, “Egyptian Youth’s Digital Dissent” written by Adel Iskandar. Near the end of his article he refers to Memes to Movements to provide theoretical context for the digital expression active in Egypt. Askandar notes, “Online activity is part of political culture.” I mention this because although An Xiao Mina is not a political scientist, her research has enormous implications for those interested in the science of politics. Moreover, this work is taken seriously by academics.
Throughout the work the author takes time to reference relevant academic studies. She has a firm handle on her subject matter and writes about it with a mastery of larger concepts rare within some of the most serious works of nonfiction. Her first chapter analyzes the cat as a meme. Not only does she make it interesting, but she transforms it into a topic of intellectual discussion.
The challenge for a book like this is the temptation to declare a sort of digital exceptionalism. As part of my Marketing emphasis in my MBA program, I took a class on digital marketing. During the early days of digital marketing, everyone tried to explain how it broke all the rules of traditional marketing. But as the novelty began to wear off, everyone recognized that, while the techniques were different, the principles remained largely the same. Near the end of her book, An Xiao Mina gives an historical account of the Nazi swastika. She explains its origins in the Far East and its connection with the Nazi party. But her point is to show how memes did not begin with the advent of the internet.
Memes are pieces of culture which can be repurposed and designed to give different meanings beyond their surface level interpretation. They have existed throughout human existence dating beyond the origins of historic records. They can represent symbols of hope or serve as tools of repression. They help establish narratives but can become repurposed to fuel a counternarrative. They can inspire some people while offending others. In the end they are an important part of free expression. And while not every meme leads to a movement, perhaps every movement has identified with a meme.
Finally, this work is not a typical work of political science. Some academics will give this work the respect it deserves while others will be completely unaware of its existence. The work was published earlier this year, so it is not well known. But is timely and will tie into research on free speech, dissent and digital governance. Any significant research on mass movements will come across this book. It is an easy listen on Audible making it simple to add to a full reading list.