Can a meme save a species?

In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins first formulated the idea of a meme to describe an idea or behaviour that quickly passes from person to person. Today, the internet facilitates an individual in sharing their memes to vast audiences across the world. These often humorous images are embellished with a short captions and usually reflect social ideas and current events of the time. Consequently, memes hold great power for education and bringing about positive action.

In their recent paper, published in Conservation Biology, Magdelena Lenda and colleagues ask whether memes can help in the quest to encourage the protection of less appealing species? Charismatic animals such as tigers, pandas and whales, adorn the posters of WWF appeals, National Geographic and television adverts and are readily supported by a public emotionally primed by the latest David Attenborough film. But for those animals that don’t capture the public imagination, protection campaigns are often overlooked and underfunded.

Recently a number of less well-known species, such as the proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus), have become internet sensations via the widespread sharing of amusing memes that use their image. In 2013, the BBC ranked the proboscis monkey as one of the ugliest animals in the world, and, as it happens, this species is the focus on Lenda’s study. Using social media users in Poland as a test case, the authors examined the role of memes in generating interest in “ugly” species and to what extent there were differences between memes and traditional forms of conservation propaganda for developing an emotional connection between humans and these species.

Figure 1: The proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) has seen a rapid increase in popularity follow the use of its pictures in social media memes. (Image source: flikr).

They gathered data from Google trends, Facebook and media articles. Facebook alone has 14 million active monthly users and is the most commonly used social media platform in Poland. By searching for the term ‘nosacz’, Polish for proboscis monkey, on these platforms, the authors mined a vast trove of data to look for trends in the digital archive.

The first significant digital occurrence of proboscis monkey memes in Polish social media was in April 2016. This was followed by a rapid increase in the sharing of images that used this species. Interestingly, the authors found that as the number of proboscis monkey memes increased, there was a corresponding increase in the number of Google search for this species. Further, following a one-year lag time, there was an increase in the coverage of proboscis monkeys in traditional media outlets too, suggesting that memes can kickstart more traditional forms of media coverage.

However, what most demonstrated the power of memes for influencing the conservation of less well known species, was the corresponding increase in Google searches for similarly unattractive primates such as the uakari and Yunnan snub-nosed monkey. These trends highlight the important role that memes can play as catalysts for education and awareness of other less well known species too.

By comparing awareness of the proboscis monkey in Poland to countries where this species lives, Lenda and colleagues found a contradictory result. It would seem expectant that local citizens would be more informed and likely to donate to protection strategies than those who live far away. However, Lenda et al. found that in Poland where meme-sharing of the proboscis monkey is high, there was greater support to save this endangered species than by the citizens of Indonesia and Malaysia, where social media users were more ambivalent. In Poland, interest in the proboscis monkey is so high, that is has even overtaken koalas, orang-utans and gorillas which are some of the species most marketed by the WWF.

The authors believe that the frequent exposure of social media users in Poland to the “ugly” proboscis monkey, has decreased the initial subjective impression of what ugly mean. This instead has been replaced by sympathy towards the species. Since November 2017, the number of donations by Polish citizens for the protection of the proboscis monkey has been steadily increasing. Some of this money has been diverted towards programmes that encourage the protection of all species within an ecosystem, suggesting that memes can not only help save the species of interest, but may also confer benefits to all creatures that live in the species region. In an increasingly urbanised and digitalised world, memes may offer an important connection to some of our most in-need animal species.   

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Andrew Abraham

I am currently a PhD student at Northern Arizona University and University of Oxford. My research investigates the role of animals as nutrient arteries, quantifying the extent to which they transport vital minerals across landscapes in their flesh and dung. My work spans both terrestrial and marine environments and I have ongoing field projects in southern Africa, Amazonia and Scotland. I integrate this empirical data into ecological models to understand the collective impact of all animals in altering global nutrient cycles. My passion for the natural world ultimately stems from a lifetime immersed in wild places. Twitter: @EcologyRoo

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