Social Media’s Changing Needs—According to Know Your Meme Creator [PSFK 2015]
Social Media Expert Kenyatta Cheese shares what he’s learned about the culture of the Internet ahead of his talk at PSFK 2015 (April 17)
In this role, Kenyatta designs communities and content that build audiences for media, entertainment, and sports guided by the principle that the audience has an audience. Before co-founding Everybody at Once, Kenyatta created Know Your Meme, a website dedicated to cataloging the creation and spread of Internet culture. We sat down with Kenyatta to discuss how social media has revolutionized how ideas and culture are communicated and what that means for individuals and brands.
How has the mass adoption of social media changed how brands and individuals communicate in life, work, and play?
I feel like we’re all seen the ways that social media has disintermediated both brand and individual communication. A brand can build awareness by renting eyeballs through a TV commercial and then direct that awareness to a conversation on a Facebook page.
But it’s also surfaced old behaviors that look new when placed in a social media context. Fans of TV shows have always sought out others to talk about their favorite moments, now they do it in real time.
Brands have always built their advertising campaigns to be relatable, now they do it in lots of small moments. People have always shared ideas that articulate their hopes and fears and values, now they do it in front of everybody else. Not everybody is comfortable with this including the people who are having these very conversations. We are trying to have complex communication in spaces that were designed to flatten and make relatable the things that make us unique. This creates new tensions that we have yet to resolve especially around privacy, dignity, permanence, and public space.
How have some of these tensions changed the way people create, share, and view content online?
There are tumblr bloggers who obfuscate their communication by hiding entire posts in tags. My colleague, Molly Templeton introduced me to what she calls “delete culture”—the act of removing social media posts from the Internet that are no longer relevant to the exact moment you are in.
She’s shown me Instagram users who limit their accounts to a carefully curated collection of nine photographs that fit in the above-the-scroll grid. We’ve seen super-long Twitter conversations disappear the moment a TV show’s credits roll. I think there’s a lot to learn from these behaviors that are less about meeting consumer needs and more about respecting the human desire to be understood.
After creating Know Your Meme in 2008, the site grew to reach over 9.5 mil viewers each month in the first three years. Can you share a little bit about what you learned through working on the site?
Yeah, it turns out you can learn a hell of a lot by tracking down the specific path of an image macro or a viral video. One thing that we believe to be true is that Internet memes tend to spread through a well worn path of:
At first, somebody has an idea. They introduce that idea to a community that then accepts it, rejects it, or improves upon it through a process of iteration until it reaches a certain fitness— which usually means that an expression of the idea has created an emotional or rational reaction in people. When people connect with that reaction, they feel compelled to pass that idea on to other communities that they are members of. Often those communities will have different or larger audiences. Virality is less a function of the content or an influencer than the network into which it is placed. It’s why Chinese mom forwards still work best as email chains and why The Dogist is bigger on Instagram than on Twitter.
What are some of the new challenges you’re facing propagating content as the Internet matures?
Related in no small way is the current conversation around diversity in both work and play. So much of what is great about the Internet was made by people solving small problems for themselves—be it shareware or social media platforms—but as the neighborhood has grown, our tools, content, platforms, and companies have sometimes struggled to grow with it.
In my own work, I have no choice but to honor diversity because the audiences we work with are complex manifolds of age, ethnicity, gender, and experience. The minute a show or album is released or the day a team enters a new season, we start seeing fans show up from different cultures and languages even within a single market, and all they want to do is find ways to make connections with other fans. Besides being more sustainable, embracing diversity is a much more fascinating problem to solve for.
How do you see the future of social media changing going forward?
I think there’s an opportunity for more computer assistance in social media. Keeping track of every message and every conversation can be a chore even for people who only exist on a single platform like Facebook.
In the same way that we’re starting to employ bots to automate our background processes, I think we could see the same thing in social media for both brands and individuals. To that end, we’re going to need a lot more experts that look less like coders, designers and marketers and more like social scientists and community organizers.
To hear Kenyatta and PSFK’s selection of thought leaders, change-makers, and creators inspire new ideas on how to live, work, and play better, join us at our conference April 17 in New York City. Tickets are available now.