Add Memes to Your SciComm Toolbox

By Kirstynn Joseph

Don’t underestimate the value of memes in #SciComm.

It was day two of the Entomological Conference in Ecuador, right before coffee break, and it was clear that everyone was a bit tired and ready for a snack…and I was up to present next. This was my first official conference, and I was presenting in my second language, but I was confident it was going to go well. Why? Well, because I had a trick up my sleeve. I had science memes.

My presentation was about a citizen science project looking at the distribution of an invasive ant in Quito. I started my presentation, and though a few people were politely engaged and curious, you couldn’t see a lot of life in the audience. That was until slide three – that’s where I had my first meme calling out cats as another problematic invasive species. And just like that, people sat up in their chairs, laughed, and started to pay attention.

a meme that kirstynn joseph created about invasive ant species
Meme created by Kirstynn Joseph

I had surprised my audience with a little bit of humor: a meme I created likening outdoor cats to invasive ant species. It turned out to be the perfect comic relief for my talk.

I had two more memes in the presentation: not so many that it took away from the talk, but just enough to elevate an otherwise boring, academic subject. After my talk, many conference attendees came up to me to share how much they loved it. I even helped a couple of colleagues add a meme into their presentation for the next day.

That day, I learned that memes are an awesome tool for science communication (SciComm), not only to liven up conference presentations, but to share information on social media and blogs, and for educators of all levels to add a bit more fun to lectures.

Keep reading for more about memes and why you should use them in SciComm!

What is a meme?

You might be asking yourself, “What is a meme?” Even if you know what a meme is…do you really?

Richard Dawkins invented the word “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. According to him, memes are the equivalent of genes for ideas in society. He defined the meme as something that “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” To summarize his discussion of memes in The Selfish Gene in a few words: ideas are in competition with one another, and are under a sort of social selection pressure…and, well, only the best memes survive. For more about that, check out the Dawkins Foundation’s website.

Memes today

In the Internet era, a meme is often an image — whether a photo, drawing, or a scene from a popular show or movie — that has a specific theme and tone attached to it, where people can continually add new contexts to it. The meme’s tone and theme is either taken directly from the original context, or it develops as people use it. Memes are often used to be funny, but the main criteria for a meme is actually just that it is a recognizable template from pop culture that can be imitated in new ways. 

And if you think about it like Dawkins, there are memes that are more prevalent and more long-lasting than others. 

How to make a good SciComm meme — and how not to 

The cool part about memes is that they are essentially templates where the theme and tone is already set and understood by the general populace, and new captions can be added from almost any subject if they fit this pre-understood template. Let’s look at an example.

How to use the Distracted Boyfriend Meme

There are probably thousands of meme templates to choose from, and hundreds that would be considered really well known and iconic, but I think this one is a pretty good one to start with. 

template of the popular meme that is a photo of the guy walking with a girl, but he is turned around checking out a different girl
Template for the Distracted Boyfriend meme.

The original context behind the Distracted Boyfriend meme, which started out as a stock photo, is pretty straightforward. A girl’s boyfriend is very obviously checking out another girl while she is right there. The tone is funny and the common theme used in the meme world is either 1) paying attention to something other than what you should be, or 2) being attracted/drawn to something else.

I have commonly seen this meme to talk about procrastination, something we have all been plagued by some time or another…

image of the distracted boyfriend meme with the text "a new research project, me, my pile of unfinished papers"
Meme created by Kirstynn Joseph

You can also use it to point out important socio-ecological issues, like this: 

image of the distracted boyfriend meme with the text "ornamental plants that look kind of nice - urban architects - beautiful, beneficial, and low-maintenance native plants"
Meme created by Kirstynn Joseph

I hope the above variation on the Distracted Boyfriend meme can hopefully get people thinking about how native plants are already here (and amazing!) yet they are often totally ignored when it comes to urban planning.

I also found this gem from the Elite Chat Chemistry Memes Facebook page showing the way that water molecules interact in aqueous solution. Hydrogen ions do not exist in aqueous solutions, but rather, they bind to water to form what’s known as a hydronium ion. The reason is that the hydronium ion is more stable than a hydrogen ion. The hydronium ion donates its hydrogen to hydroxide (OH-) to form a water molecule.

This is a great example of a SciComm meme for the classroom that help students remember concepts!

We could do this all day, but the idea is simple enough. If the theme is that Thing A should be paying attention to Thing B, but is focused on Thing C instead = Distracted Boyfriend meme. Alternatively, a concept where Thing A will move to Thing C over Thing B = Distracted Boyfriend meme! 

How not to meme

What about what NOT to do?

Making memes isn’t an exact science and there aren’t a lot of rules, but if you try to apply a concept that doesn’t work with the general theme and tone of a meme, it’ll fall flat.

Let’s say I want to talk about the ecological concept of salmon who are “sneaker males.” Long story short, these males essentially look like females, and avoid all the fighting with the large tough and showy “alpha” males. Sneaker males get their name from sneaking by the dominant males to fertilize the eggs while the dominant males are distracted.

The Distracted Boyfriend meme doesn’t readily lend itself to something like “sneaker males in salmon.”

image of a Distracted Boyfriend meme relating to sneaker males in salmon that is crossed out because it doesn't work as a meme
Meme created by Kirstynn Joseph

The above meme doesn’t work, because even though sneaker males end up fertilizing females’ eggs instead of the showy males, females aren’t actually choosing them over flashy males or ignoring showy males for the sneakers. So, instead of the Distracted Boyfriend meme, we can try another meme.

We could use the Drake Hotline Bling meme, which is often used to contrast an unfavorable option with a better one.

image of a Drake Hotline Bling meme about sneaker males in salmon
Meme created by Kirstynn Joseph

Essentially, once you get the tone or theme behind a meme, you can apply all kinds of science concepts to them, and you can add them into your toolbox. If you are ever unsure of a meme’s context, you can just spend some time Googling memes to figure out the themes, which is also a nice break in all the serious research and writing we have to do every day! 

By the way, when in doubt about what a meme means or how it’s been used, you can check the website Know Your Meme.

Why should you use memes in SciComm and Science Education?

1. Connecting with the public

image of a cartoon man with a whiteboard that says "first we do the science! then no one understands the science! then we write about the science! then no one understands the science!"
Meme created by Kirstynn Joseph

If you are interested in SciComm at all, you are probably well aware that science is often done in such a way that information is siloed — it stays within science and the ivory tower, and away from people who aren’t scientists. Although research for the sake of advancing scientific knowledge is important, there are many reasons that non-scientists should be more connected with science. 

Proper science communication can help people: 

  • More engaged in what is going on in the world;
  • Better informed around health and climate issues;
  • See science as more approachable;
  • Become interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from a younger age;
  • Be better able to communicate with a variety of key stakeholders — for scientists, that includes advocacy groups, funding agencies, and more, which can help them get grants;
  • …and so much more!

Memes are a good way to get people interested in SciComm by making concepts a bit more easy-to-understand. They’re fun and culturally relevant!

2. Engagement 

Memes add some humor and help people stay interested and engaged in content, whether in presentations, classes, or in blogs and articles. They can be used to add a light-hearted break in a heavy load of information. Sheeva wrote a detailed breakdown of science policy using LOLcats, which added fun and cuteness to a serious subject while also being informative.

I know many people who have said their best teachers through university were the ones that included memes and other kinds of humor to help the class be a little more fun. Like this kind reminder to always check your statistical test assumptions: 

image of a meme about anovas using the guy from lord of the rings captioned "one does not simply run an anova on non-normal data"
Meme created by Kirstynn Joseph

3. Humor helps us remember better

If someone tells you something funny that leaves an impression, it is a lot easier to remember than just being told a fact, formula, or something else that you are supposed to memorize. If you can find a way to make a little joke out of it, you just might make a better impact. 

image of a meme captioned "she asked me for time and distance - i think she wants me to calculate velocity?"
Meme from Memegenerator.Es translated into English by Kirstynn Joseph

4. Connect unrelatable concepts to more relatable things

Any good modern educator and/or communicator can tell you that being able to connect an otherwise abstract idea to something relatable will help facilitate understanding. So, if someone sees a familiar meme explain a concept they don’t understand, it can help them relate to the concept better.

When teaching about why some animals practice Batesian mimicry (where a harmless or palatable species mimics a harmful or unpalatable one), I would use this popular meme based on a scene from The Office. 

image of a meme based on The Office
Meme created by Kirstynn Joseph
5. Use memes to spark curiosity 

Sometimes you see a science meme but you do not get the joke because you don’t understand enough about the context. However, if the meme is familiar and something that you understand should be funny in some way, it encourages you to search more about that topic and learn about it for yourself. You can use a meme as a hook to get people to read a longer article to learn more about your topic. 

image of a meme using a scene from star wars to talk about spiders' mating habits
Meme created by Kirstynn Joseph

Did you know that many (not all) female spiders will eat the male after mating?!

In conclusion 

Memes are an awesome addition to SciComm. They can help scientists and science communicators to share information in a fun way. They are a great way to engage your audience, help people remember concepts and connect to ideas, hook in your audience, and just have a bit more fun along the way. 

photo of kirstynn joseph

Kirstynn Joseph is an ecologist and science communicator with a passion for helping people learn more about biology, conservation, and our world’s weird and wonderful critters. Much of her research career has been spent at the intersection of entomology and ecology, studying invertebrates in Ecuador’s Amazon. She is currently a freelance writer and full time adventurer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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