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From Media to Memes: Lessons from Occupy Democrats

08/06/2016 08:49 am ET

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I want you in the news business -- and politics and brands -- to learn from two media and political geniuses for the social age you've probably never heard of. They are Rafael and Omar Rivero, 29-year-old twin brothers and the founders of Occupy Democrats, a Facebook page that specializes in the creation of memes like those above and below: a gif with text and photos or a video (the "veme"), containing information, opinion, and a call to action. Thus they feed conversations all over the net. Their Facebook page has 3.5 million likes, adding 100,000 a week. The average meme reaches 1 million people. In total, Rafael Rivero says, they reach between 100 and 300 million impressions a week.

Oh, they also have a web site with posts and articles, like a media company, but that's frankly "an afterthought" -- even though it's the web site that has the advertising that brings in high five-figures of income a month, which enabled the brothers to quit their work and hire help: "five of us in a living room." The point of their enterprise is not making content or building a destination, in media terms. It is "affecting the national conversation."

"We want to give people the ammunition to engage in meme warfare," Rafael told me, "giving people the fodder to win the battles and ultimately the war. The battles are fought and won or lost on social media." The battles are also informed or uninformed there and that is why news media should pay attention.

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The reason I called Rafael is because I believe Occupy Democrats demonstrates a vital skill we must learn in media: feeding others' conversations with information and arguments, adding journalistic value to the flow of information the internet enables. When I attended Vidcon, I saw that for YouTube fans, content is not a destination but a social token -- something that speaks for them or informs and provides fodder for their conversations. We in media need to learn how to do that: how to take what we make to the people we serve, how to do that in a manner that is native to the platform and use case where these people are, and how to add value to their conversations and thus be valued for our contribution. Occupy Democrats does that. Sure, it's partisan at its core. It's not journalistic. But it has lessons to teach journalist.

The brothers launched Occupy Democrats a month before the 2012 election in response to the success of the Tea Party and to make up for what they saw as the weaknesses of the Occupy Wall Street movement -- "outside the system, aggressively leaderless." They started "just as a hobby, to be honest." But it took off and started bringing in enough money that Omar, a Cornell graduate, could quit his job in finance and Rafael, a Swarthmore graduate, could give up his work running a vacation rental company and a furniture assembly business. "I always had an inclination to use the internet to fund my life," Rafael said. "Ever since I was little, launching online businesses and online websites." That's the other thing media has to learn from them: entrepreneurship.

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Rafael says the hardest part of their job is selecting what to make into a meme. "When I look back at the first memes I made on Facebook, damn, I sucked. Media companies: they suck, too."

Define "suck."

"The meme must tell the full story. You can't assume people know anything. You have to be able to tell the entire story in as few words as possible. You have to plug into the zeitgeist. The text has to pop and be 100 percent readable from 30 feet away. The image has to be compelling. The arrangement -- it's very hard to describe. It's very intuitive. The statue is already in the block of marble and the sculptor just uncovers it. The meme is already there. You just have to find it...."

You might make fun of making GIFs as a media artform, just as I made fun of one of my CUNY colleagues some years ago when he said he wanted to teach the making of animated GIFs. I was wrong, dead wrong. These little media nuggets are portable and carry value. Rafael thinks hard about what people will do with them. "There's something very personal about sharing a graphic on Facebook," he said. "You're not sharing with one person, with five people. You're sharing with pretty much everyone you've met through your entire life. It says, 'This speaks for me. This is how I feel on this issue,' often a very controversial issue. People in the past were hesitant to discuss politics in person.... People have become much more willing to engage in political discussion because of Facebook. We give them the tools to do that."

Yeah, I know, sometimes you wish people didn't discuss politics online. But they do. We in journalism have an opportunity and an obligation to inform that discussion. And we in media have clearly done a bad job of that. So when you hear uninformed discussion, think about blaming us first.

Facebook et al give us new tools to do our job. Sadly, we keep thinking they exist to distribute our content, to drive traffic back to our sites, to generate page views and reach. When Facebook tweaked its God Algorithm a few weeks ago and announced the principles behind it, it was really trying to teach us in media that -- though Instant Articles are nice -- the real way to succeed on the platform is to give people things *they* will use in *their* way.

Occupy Democrats teaches us to do that. It also teaches us new ways to reach more people. Their claimed 100-300 million weekly impressions "puts some of the old media horses to shame, leaves them in the dust. It's just insane," Rafael said.

But reach isn't everything. Damnit. Relationships matter. Impact matters.

I asked Rafael what he knows about the impact they're having. So far, he sees it in terms of who's copying him. "I created so much viral Bernie Sanders material when no one had any idea who Bernie Sanders was," he said. "Someone in the Bernie Sanders campaign woke up and thought, 'we can make our own memes.' It can't be coincidence that they copied our style. Sometimes when I get drunk I tell people I created Bernie Sanders as a political force." He's joking. In any case, Rafael is right when he says: "Bernie Sanders was basically the meme candidate."

(By the way, the brothers were split politically: Rafael for Clinton, Omar for Sanders; now they're both #withher. And by the way, the brothers are dual citizens of the U.S. and Mexico and so fighting Trump is extra delicious: "He fucked with the wrong pair of Mexican twins." )

I was curious whether the campaigns have come to Occupy Democrats for help. Someone high in Sanders campaign wanted them to share Bernie's memes. Rafael is not complimentary of the memeing in the Clinton campaign but he says they are talking with someone there. The campaign runs weekly calls for folks like these, sharing their messaging -- that is, giving guidance rather than asking for it. The DNC? Nope. If they were right-wing, Rafael believes, the RNC would fund them.

What interests me more is whether media companies have come to the brothers to learn at their feet. One innovative company -- Fusion -- did because of the data they saw on social-media tracking service CrowdTangle: "Who the fuck is Occupy Democrats and they're eating everyone's lunch." There was talk of a TV show but remember that the brothers are less impressed with big media than they are with Facebook. "We already are pretty busy. We didn't see that it would add that much value to us.... The old-media landscape was what was said on Meet the Press. Now you've got to control the media narrative on Facebook." In any case, points to Fusion and Univision.

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So how should news organizations incorporate these skills? Should The Washington Post have a meme desk? Sure, it should. The Post is hiring two full-time producers for Facebook Live alone. Others are hiring devoted Snapchat producers. Lots of media properties have email newsletter authors. More and more, I see calls for platform-native content creation (and that is making us ask questions about how we teach skills in a journalism school).

The problem with much of that so-called social-media work is that the goal is still to drive traffic back to the media site and that will be the case so long as we try to prolong the life of the volume-based mass-media business model and depend on volume. If we instead judge our value on how well we inform people and how much we help them solve their problems and meet their goals, then we will go to wherever they are and use the tools at hand to deliver value the best way we can.

Thus the meme desk would not create promotions for articles on web sites. It would not be an arm of the audience development department. It would not identify trending stories and jump on them by copying those stories. No, the meme desk would start by seeing what people need to know: what are they curious about or wrong about, what information do they need to know, what are they already talking about and how can we improve the quality of those conversations journalistically, with information, fact-checking, explanation, evidence, news? Then the meme desk would teach every journalist to do this and put itself out of business.

I was talking about all this today with tech journalist Charles Arthur, whom I've worked with at The Guardian. When I said that the newspaper front page and home page are dying because hardly anyone is going to them -- demonstrating a lack of demand for our vaunted "news judgment" (for they exist to promote more than to summarize and inform), I also said the only exciting page 1's I see these days are from New York Daily News editor-in-chief Jim Rich, who has reinvigoratec the form. Right, Charles said. That's because they're memes. Right.

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