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Municipal Politics

Click Here to Laugh at Vancouver

Why memes are the new satire in a place ripe for ridicule. Add your own!

By Christopher Cheung 14 Feb 2019 |

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

Sick of Vancouver taking itself too seriously? Your next laugh at the city’s expense is just a meme away. Most are little more than captions hastily slapped onto images plucked from the web. But while a laugh’s a laugh, one old school cartoonist says the proliferation of memes on the internet signals the “democratization of satire.”

Where to find the best memes ridiculing life in Vancouver? A Facebook page called Vancouver Memes has over 27,100 followers. There are smaller, specific communities, such as Unaffordable Vancouver Memes, which lampoons the housing crisis, and UBC Memes for Teens with Crushed Dreams, which calls the University of British Columbia the University of Broken Dreams. These pages have crowdsourced streams of memes.

Image from Unaffordable Vancouver Memes on Facebook.
Image from Vancouver Memes.
582px version of Vancouver-Pills.jpg
Image from Unaffordable Vancouver Memes on Facebook.
582px version of Meme-Housing-Unique.jpg
Image from Unaffordable Vancouver Memes on Facebook.

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A post shared by Seabus Memes (@seabusmemes) on

Jean Swanson, the longtime housing activist elected to city council last year, features in her own special collection in a Facebook group called Jean Swanson’s Dank Meme Stash. Her meme makers seem to like giving her superhuman powers.

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Image from Jean Swanson's Dank Meme Stash on Facebook.

The flood of memes coincides with the decline of print media and a form of satire so old the Benjamin Franklin is said to have created it: the editorial cartoon. Geoff Olson, a Vancouver cartoonist whose work since 1981 has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, Adbusters and the Vancouver Courier, said the form is now on “life support.”

“They’ve been the anchor on the editorial page for decades, and some studies show it’s the first thing that people turn to,” said Olson. “Ironically, they’re seen by managers and owners as among the first things to go because they’re not ‘serious journalism.’ I would say that it’s the opposite, in the sense that it was the first area in journalism that was allowed the space for satire.”

Today, Olson’s cartoons are occasionally published in Common Ground magazine. He’s not interested in allowing his work to be published for free, but others are: there are Vancouverites in the thousands creating and sharing memes on all things local.

For better or worse, “it’s the democratization of satire,” says Olson.

On Instagram, an account called SeaBus Memes that roasts the ferry’s hard seats and poor passenger etiquette, has over 30,700 followers. Another account, BC Ferries Memes, is over 38,500 strong. These accounts churn out memes by a single, anonymous creator.

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A post shared by Seabus Memes (@seabusmemes) on

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A post shared by BC Ferries Memes (@bcferriesmemes) on

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A post shared by BC Ferries Memes (@bcferriesmemes) on

What does an expert in satire think makes a meme live or die on the Web? In Olson’s opinion, weak memes are usually “purely sarcastic vehicles that don’t carry a lot of editorial weight” while the cleverer ones “make a really good mark capturing a particular point of view.”

Olson’s work once regularly appeared in the Vancouver Courier. One award-winning cartoon featured former Mayor Gregor Robertson in bed with both “big developers” and “big unions.” Robertson is covering himself with a blanket, saying, “This isn’t how it looks.”

Satirical local content may pay less and less, but its real value hasn’t decreased, says Olsen.

“The global market isn’t really geared towards rewarding people who do micro-commentary for small, geographic areas. In the current news climate, it’s becoming more and more important to keep an eye on the ball of what’s happening in municipal or provincial or state-level politics. In the absence of eyes, those who are elected have more opportunity for corruption or the abuse of power.”

Some local, editorial memes have targeted real estate industry messaging as well as BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson and the referendum on electoral reform.

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Image from Unaffordable Vancouver Memes on Facebook.
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Image from Unaffordable Vancouver Memes via Facebook.

But because memes are quickly created to be consumed on social media, the art takes a backseat.

“A lot of memes trade on the very quick news cycle we have now,” Olsen said. “The 24-hour news cycle has gone down to 24 minutes, then down to 24 seconds. Memes are an instantaneous kind of commentary, with anybody slapping a caption or word balloon on an image in Photoshop.”

Content doesn’t need to be a masterpiece to sing. Olson gave the example of a popular webcomic called xkcd, first published in 2005, unique for featuring a cast of stick figures.

“What’s central now is the joke,” he said. “That’s always been the case with any kind of satirical work. It’s great if the artwork that goes along with it fits, and is artistically rendered, but if it’s not, it probably doesn’t matter.” Satirical memes live or die at the mercy of a “Darwinian kind of selection,” he says.

The first person to link the concept of memes to Darwin was Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He defined memes as “units of cultural transmission or imitation.” Like genes, memes exist to spread, wrote Dawkins: jokes are memes, fashion trends are memes, the idea of God is a meme. Competition and selection propels a meme’s evolution.

On the internet, memes have taken many forms – images, videos, dances – and are remixed again and again. But the interactivity of memes sets them apart from the traditional editorial cartoon.

Memes aren’t a single idea or image, stresses meme scholar Limor Shifman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; they’re a group of items created with awareness of each other.

Unlike drawing a cartoon, you can’t meme alone.

The “Gangnam Style” dance, for example, is a meme because it spawned gigabytes of videos of people doing the dance themselves.

In the U.S.’ 2016 presidential campaign, memes were used like ammo. Animated GIFs created from emotional clips of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were flung by the left and the right. The alt-right, for example, misappropriated a cartoon frog as their symbol.

In Vancouver, Jean Swanson seems to make good meme-fodder because she’s an iconic representative of city’s left, spawning those heroic images of Swanson fighting for renters rights and sticking it to market forces.

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Image from Jean Swanson's Dank Meme Stash via Facebook.
Image from Jean Swanson's Dank Meme Stash on Facebook.

But even the tiniest “units” of cultural information – in Dawkins’ words – can become memes.

Meme scholar Shifman says that as we pass along cultural information from person to person, it “gradually scales into a shared social phenomenon.” Which is how a minor annoyance like the hardness of SeaBus seats can snowball into a following of thousands.

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Seen any smart memes? Have you made your own? Share them below.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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