When I was in my final year studying History I completed a module all about Georgian satirical cartoons as primary historical sources. I was immediately hooked by the lively work of Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruickshank and their friends. I spent happy hours pouring over their cartoons, deciphering the complex symbolism as if it was a code worthy of a Dan Brown novel.
The concept of a political cartoon actually dates back to the Renaissance when contemporaries of Leonardo Da Vinci would satirize his work. I can confidently say the political cartoon has endured and is now a recognised historical source. Every GCSE and A-level history student who sat their exams this summer will have encountered at least one cartoon source among their many papers.
However, the political cartoon has a serious contender – the modern-day meme. Like cartoons, memes stand at the crossroads of seriousness and light-heartedness. They often appear as a reaction to a topical event and in some cases can act as a political commentary. When you consider their function, there is every possibility a meme may end up as an historical source in a future history exam paper.
Could we actually use memes as historical sources?
The short answer is yes. Political cartoons and political memes essentially do the same thing – they exaggerate and simplify complex events so that they can be understood by a wider audience. They also offer a distinct insight into (a specific part of) public opinion at the time they were produced.
Like a political cartoon, the meme tries to make events as accessible as possible to the ordinary person. In fact, one could argue they are even more accessible than cartoons. Firstly, memes are disseminated via the internet and social media, and are therefore available to billions of people. In contrast, political cartoons are seen by an ever-decreasing audience as newspaper sales wane year-on-year. Secondly, whereas political cartoons use symbolism that may not be understood by everyone, memes often use a previous ‘established’ meme, take the same and picture and text, and then tweak it slightly. People know what the underlying message of the meme is, because they have seen the same meme format several times before.
Memes also share many weaknesses with their political cartoon cousins. Both can be seen as very unrepresentative. Political cartoons may reflect the readership or political bias of a political newspaper, whereas it can be argued that political memes are skewed towards representing the views of younger people. Both are hardly attempts at an objective historical analysis.
Are Memes Primary or Secondary Historical Sources?
One of the problems I personally have with memes as potential future historical sources is that I have trouble categorising them as either a primary or secondary source.
Primary sources are the ‘raw materials of history’, created at the same time the events you are studying took place. This seems to fit in with the nature of memes, which appear promptly on the internet in a viral fashion soon after an event (at the time of writing this blog post, there are several memes of Teresa May dancing doing the rounds).
However, memes are 99.9% of the time created by someone not involved in the particular event the meme is ridiculing. In other words, the meme has been created by someone without first-hand experience – many would argue memes are therefore a secondary source.
Problems with Memes as Historical Sources
To understand the problem with memes as future historical sources, you must first consider how you would approach and evaluate a political cartoon. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Just place the meme in its wider context, like you would any other historical source. But what if that context is no longer clear?
One of the buzzwords of 2018 has been Donald Trump’s favourite catchphrase ‘Fake News’. I hate to agree with Donald, but fake news is a thing (just not in the way he uses the term). There are now several websites dedicated to disseminating deliberate misinformation, and fake news is seen as a major threat to modern democracy. When studying memes in the future, we might have to consider that they were created by someone who held a radically different interpretation of a certain event or topic based on information that they truly thought was real.
Also, to fully understand a source you must trace it back to where it originally appeared. Is that even possible with a meme? The whole idea of a meme is to create something so relatable that it spreads across the internet like wildfire, spawning various imitations and versions. How do you find the original version of a meme, let alone its creator so you can start to unravel their intentions behind creating the meme in the first place? For a person with limited technological experience such as myself, it seems like an impossible task. Future historians may have to broaden their skillset dramatically!
In conclusion, despite their many weaknesses memes should not be dismissed as having no value. In fact, they have the potential to be extremely useful and valuable sources to future historians, especially when you consider the almost inevitable decline of what I call the ‘traditional’ political cartoon –the type of cartoon you would find in your daily newspaper.
To deny the importance of politcial memes as future historical sources also means denying one of the fundamental facts of modern life – we love our social media. However, I do also feel sorry for these future historians – the amount of digital data we are all generating is going to leave them with an insane amount of primary sources for them to shift through and use.
Future historians – I apologize.