Content is Not King: A Measurement Study of Selected News Websites

During the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, the term “fake news” became a significant part of public vernacular and discourse. Fake news, it was posited, was used to spread disinformation and diminish the credibility of established news organizations in order to sow confusion about presidential candidates. In the months that followed the election, Donald Trump used the term to directly attack news outlets that published content that he disagreed with. In a heated press conference at Trump Tower, he directly told CNN’s Jim Acosta “You are fake news.” As a result of its sudden appearance in mainstream American politics, fake news as become one of the most significant topics among not just media researchers, but among the general public as well. It seems that virtually everyone is aware of the issue and accepts that fake news carries with it significant consequences, but it can be difficult to determine what specific effects it can have, and just how widespread they can be.

One of the reasons that fake news is such a significant problem is the fact that relatively small organizations and groups of people are able to easily produce partisan–and often misleading–news headlines and articles and spread them quickly via social media. This makes it possible for fake news to easily compete with large and established news organizations. Even though their content is not as well-produced or as high quality, the it is able to spread rapidly and reach a wide audience. In this study, I analyze three selected websites and examine their form, and style of writing–including both article content and headlines. I then compare those characteristics with the Facebook engagement metrics of the websites’ content to determine if there is a correlation between website content and overall online spread of said content. Though my study is limited in scope, the data suggest that even small partisan blog-style websites are able to compete with large established news organizations by tailoring their content to be shared rapidly and widely. It appears that the form in which content is presented is much more significant than the content itself. Perhaps it is time to move beyond the adage of many media producers that “content is king,” and instead confront the realities of the rapidly shifting media landscape.

Methodology

Over the course of one month, I observed the content published on three websites: Politico, Eagle Rising, and Addicting Info. These three sites represent a opposite ends of the political spectrum, as well as one neutral baseline website for comparison purposes. Eagle Rising is a conservative-leaning website founded by Gary DeMar and Brandon Vallorani. Its self-purported mission is to “share breaking news … from a Christain perspective.” Addicting Info represents the opposite political ideology, and nearly all of its content has a distinctly liberal slant to it. It describes itself as a “resource to discredit all the lies and propaganda that the right-wing spreads.” Finally, Politico is an international news and information network that specifically focuses on politics and policy. Its stated mission is “to help sustain and vastly expand nonpartisan political and policy journalism.” Compared to Eagle Rising and Addicting Info, Politico is much more well-established and is generally seen as a credible news source.

I visited each website on five separate occasions: February 4, February 7, February 12, February 18, and March 2. Each time, I recorded metadata about the five articles that appeared at the top of each website’s homepage. These metadata included the article’s timestamp, authors, headline, URL, and total Facebook engagement. I also took general notes on the form of each article’s content, such as the tone of the writing, or the inclusion of external media and quotes from other websites.

To gather Facebook engagement statistics, I used the publicly available Facebook Graph API. This service enables users to request specific information about given Facebook content, including users, pages, and individual posts. It is possible to use an external URL as an input for a Graph API request, and receive data about all the times that URL was used on the Facebook platform. The data I was collecting was publicly available, so I was able to use my personal Facebook account’s API key as the authentication token for the following Graph API request:

GET /v2.12/?id=http://example.com&fields=og_object{engagement}

I chose to record Facebook’s engagement data to serve as a measurement of the extent to which any given article had spread throughout online communities. Facebook engagement is the sum of interactions with that specific URL on the Facebook platform; this includes comments, shares, and all reactions (Like, Angry, Wow, Sad, Haha, Love). The number is not an entirely accurate representation of the number of times the article was read, or the dissemination of the URL via platforms other than Facebook. Gathering that information would involve using public APIs and analytics tools for many other platforms, and full viewership data would likely only be available to the website owners via tools such as Google Analytics. Those types of measurement are perhaps useful for understanding the full scope of a given article’s spread but is beyond the small scope of this study.

Results

For each website, I recorded metadata and Facebook engagement data for 25 articles. Generally, the range of data that I collected was very large, and with both high and low outliers. This makes the mean an inaccurate measure of central tendency. For this reason, I have chosen to use the median for the purpose of comparison and discussion.

Facebook Engagement for Selected News Websites

  Politico Eagle Rising Addicting Info
Range 7216 1210 21617
Maximum 7233 1210 21798
Minimum 17 0 181
Mode None 0 181
Median 853 27 2145
Mean 1608.20833 122 2949.08

One important caveat about the collected Facebook engagement data is that is was gathered at the time of each observation. For each observation session I collected data for whatever each website’s top five articles were at that exact moment. This means that some data were collected only a few hours after the article was published, while others were gathered a full day after publication. Furthermore, Facebook engagement data for previously recorded articles were not updated during subsequent observations. Therefore these results and discussion are applicable to the short-term spread of news articles via Facebook, but should not be interpreted as an indication of the long-term spread of content.

Discussion

Politico

Politico’s website has a large array of content types, from short informational articles, to much-longer thinkpieces. They have also had more “general interest” pieces that are less about specific news events, and instead focus more on broader issues – such as a federal minimum wage. All articles are still based in either politics or public policy issues.

Politico has a significantly large staff – with few repeated authors in the articles I pulled. Additionally, many of them contain photographs from their own staff, or licensed from other providers (and likely not just lifted from online). There are also often graphics and data visualizations that are also likely produced in-house. Most articles contain quotes that were obtained from actual Politico reporters on the Hill, and not just copied from other news sources and republished online.

The writing style is similar to that of actual print newspapers, and follows a lot of the “journalistic traditions,” such as the inverted pyramid model, specific style guides, and use of external quotes/reporting. Much of the articles are informative, and analytical – but not necessarily with a given agenda one way or the other.

The median Facebook engagement for Politico articles was 853, ranging from 17 to 7233. However, there is no specific correlation in type of content for articles that received the highest levels of engagement. “White House aide Rob Porter resigns after allegations from ex-wives” received 7233 engagements, possibly due to the scandalous nature of the article, and recency of the event. However, the significantly less scandalous candidate profile “Is Conor Lamb the Next Big Democratic Upset?” received 7075 engagements, a similar level.

Politico’s Facebook engagement outperforms that of Eagle Rising, but is overshadowed by the consistently high  engagement levels for articles published on Addicting Info.

Eagle Rising

Eagle Rising’s website has a distinct blog-like feel to it, and appears to be built using a premade WordPress theme. The writing style mirrors this aesthetic; Eagle Rising articles typically have a personal and casual tone as well as include personal opinions. The website appears to have a very small number of writers. During my observation, I only noted three unique authors: Joe Scudder, Dale Summitt, and Keely Sharp.

The content of Eagle Rising’s articles is limited, and most published content is quite short. Generally the website’s articles contain only a few paragraphs of text, and fit within the space of a single screen. Furthermore, much of its content is taken wholesale from other websites and news agencies, such as Fox News. Generally, the headlines contain politically divisive language, but are not necessarily aggressive, or meant to serve as clickbait. Some examples include “NeverTrump Republicans Mock the Memo,” “Pelosi Tortures House with 7-hour Speech,” and “CEO of Goldman Sachs Vindicates Trump on Economy.”

Most Eagle Rising posts receive low amounts of Facebook engagements, and several articles received zero interactions whatsoever. However, this may only be an indication of the small size of the Eagle Rising audience. The Eagle Rising Facebook page has 688,000 likes, while Politico and Addicting Info have 1.7 million and 1.4 million, respectively. However, this means that articles with really high levels of engagement stand out. The article “Pelosi Tortures House with 7-hour Speech” received 175 Facebook engagements, and “Former Mexican President Blames ‘Racist Trump’ for School Shooting” received 1210. However, these articles contain little substantive content themselves, which possibly indicates that Eagle Rising’s content is intended to be consumed in small snippets in the Facebook News Feed, rather than on the full website.

Nonetheless, for articles with little substantial content, it is noteworthy that the URLs are still being engaged with so highly compared to other Eagle Rising articles. It suggests that the headline and presentation of the content is more significant than the content itself. Eagle Rising’s median Facebook engagement is lower than that of Politico, but some Eagle Rising articles outperformed certain Politico articles.

Addicting Info

Much like Eagle Rising, many portions of the Addicting Info website are written in an informal style, more like a personal blog rather than a traditional news source. In my observations, I only recorded four unique authors of Addicting Info’s content: John Prager, Shannon Barber, Conover Kent, and Tim Abel. Additionally, much of the website’s content is sourced from other websites. “Trump Staffers Desperately Want To Quit, But No One Else Will Hire Them” quotes Buzzfeed extensively, for instance.

Despite the small staff and low volume of content within its articles, Addicting Info handily outperformed both Eagle Rising and Politico in terms of Facebook Engagement, with a median of 2145. One of its articles, “JUST IN: Trump Campaign Chair In Kentucky Pleads Guilty To Sex Trafficking Of Minors” received 21,798 engagements, the highest amount throughout my entire study. However, removing this article from the dataset drops the range of engagement down to just 181, suggesting that Addicting Info’s audience is stable and enagages with its content on a regular basis.

Perhaps one reason that this website is so successful in terms of Facebook engagement is that many of its headlines seem specifically designed to grab attention and encourage other users to share and interact with the content on social media. This includes titles in all-caps, claiming that items are “breaking news,” and clickbait titles that tease the user with the promise of more content, such as “The Police Were Called Over Man’s Anti-Trump T-Shirt; His Response Is Perfect.”

Conclusion

The Facebook engagement for these three websites is a fairly small dataset, but nonetheless can provide some interesting insights to the current media landscape, which has been vastly shifting in the last several years. Eagle Rising and Addicting Info are significantly smaller than Politico, but thanks to social media are able to somewhat compete with its content, and draw their own share of online interactions. My study shows suggests that the current Facebook platform does not necessarily incentivize good content, but instead incentivizes content styles and methods that generate engagement.

Through attention-grabbing titles and divisive language, websites such as Eagle Rising and Addicting Info create headlines that draw in readers, despite the fact that the actual content of the articles is limited, and often simply just quoted extensively from other websites and news sources. Whether or not an individual actually reads the article is irrelevant; so long as people continue to engage with the content–commenting, liking, or sharing–it will continue to spread throughout online communities. It is by these methods that fake news, misinformation, and disinformation spread so rapidly. Even an established news organization such as Politico is unable to increase its online engagement simply by having higher quality, and more lengthy content; in the context of social media, it too is playing by the same rules as Eagle Rising and Addicting Info. The media landscape is still adapting to the proliferation of online communication technologies, and media researchers continue to feel out this new media environment and figure out just what the rules to this new game really are. However, the data from this study carry one significant implication–the possibility that content truly is no longer king.

#itsATideAd – the Evolution (and Risk) of Memes in Advertising

The Super Bowl is an enormous cultural event that is way larger and way more significant than just a simple football game. For advertisers, it is an opportunity to reach millions of potential customers within the context of an enormous and influential media event. Each year, countless individuals choose to watch the game “just for the ads,” and corporations recognized the Super Bowl as an opportunity to reach these viewers with creative and innovative advertising strategies. This year, one particular company has been widely regarded as having “won” the Super Bowl advertising game: Tide, with a unique an innovative #itsATideAd campaign.

The ad itself is brilliant in its simplicity, and absolutely devilish in its execution and influences. It begins with David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame) behind the wheel of a car, in the convention of any other typical car ad. Next, Harbour at a bar in an approximation of a generic beer ad. This goes on with Harbour mimicking the tropes of various ad formats, until finally revealing that the commercial is in fact an ad for Tide laundry detergent. (Look at those clean clothes! What else could it be an ad for?)

Finally, the audience is left with a leading question–does this make every Super Bowl advertisement a Tide Ad? By attaching the simple idea of clean clothes, something that every Super Bowl ad will inevitably have, with the Tide product, the company effectively hijacked every other company’s ad by forcing the viewer to question whether it might in fact be a Tide ad. Even when an ad was for another product, there was a lingering thought in the back of our minds, “wait, is this another Tide ad?” Advertising analysts were quick to tout the success of Tide’s campaign and declare it the “winner” of the Super Bowl ads. To a large extent, I agree with this general sentiment–the #itsATideAd campaign was a success, largely because it was able to utilize the mechanism of memes – a process I’ve written about extensively in my senior thesis. By attaching their brand to a set of images/videos and commonly understood conventions, the Tide ads spread virally within the mind of each viewer, and throughout online and offline communities as well. While this has led to commercial success for Tide, and will likely drive engagement with their brand and increase product sales, they have done so at a significant risk. It is only possible to “hi-jack” the meme mechanism for monetary gain in a limited manner, and for a limited time. Tide now runs the risk of their #itsATideAd expanding beyond their original scope, and evolving into a message that can no longer be controlled.

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Y tu mamá también (2001) – Beyond a Roadtrip Comedy

Synopsis

After their girlfriends leave for Europe, Tenoch and Julio desperately search for some way to pass the time in their last Summer vacation before college. After just a few days the two teenagers from Mexico City have already grown bored of their lazy lifestyle, and jokingly invite Luisa, the wife of Tenoch’s cousin, to join them on a road trip to a fictional beach, Heaven’s Mouth. To their surprise, she agrees to join them after learning of her husband’s infidelity, and the unlikely trio sets off through rural and poor Mexico. Y tu mamá también is just as much about this rural Mexican backdrop in the context of the country’s globalization as it is about the trio’s road trip to the beach. During the trip, the boys pass the time bragging about their relationships and sexual experiences, while Luisa increasingly teases them and prods for more information. They do eventually reach a beach destination, but their journey is not without conflict and tension. But through those also complete their own personal trips of discovery; Luisa negotiates what to do with her immediate future, and Tenoch and Julio’s friendship evolves as the two boys continue their steps from childhood into adulthood.


Along with Alejandro Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron is part of the so-called “three amigos” of Mexican cinema. These directors have become increasingly popular for their work during the Mexican film industry’s transition from an independent player to a participant in the global cinema market. While Cuaron has produced global Hollywood blockbusters, such as Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Gravity (2013) he has also continued to produce relatively localized work within Mexico’s film industry and has helped to define components of the Modern Era of Mexican film. One such example of Cuaron’s work in this area is his 2001 film Y tu mamá también. Though it is frequently presented as a traditional road trip comedy, the film also serves as commentary on the issues of modernization, and the realities of life in rural Mexico. Through a combination of a “straying camera” and deliberate editing techniques, Cuaron produced a film that operates on two levels—as a lighthearted road trip comedy, and as serious commentary on the current conditions in Mexico as well.

Within Mexico, the film industry developed in a similar fashion to cinema throughout Latin America, and globally as well. It went through a golden age during which annual film production was an all time high. This has since died down, and the Mexican film industry has found itself competing with the American dominance of Hollywood films. It was only in the last few decades that Mexico has really entered the global market and has been competing directly with other nations in what has become known as the Modern Era of Mexican cinema. This is the context in which Y tu mamá también was produced and released. According to Nuala Finnegan, films from this era operate in a duality of marketplaces; they appeal to widespread conventions to find success in a global market, yet simultaneously remain localized and directly address issues situated within Mexico. With Y tu mamá también, Cuaron created for global audiences a comedic road trip film with two young boys and a sexy older woman, and for local audiences a critical look at the issue of Mexico’s modernization, and the role of rural areas at a time when cities and urban centers are continuing to experience rapid growth.

On the surface level, the film’s narrative fits well within the conventions of the road trip genre. The casual dialogue and jokes the trio fire back and one another is light-hearted enough that the film is able to stand alone as a comedy. The sexual tension that develops between Luisa and the boys is typical for many other teenage summer vacation films, as is the open manner in which all three characters are willing to discuss, and even joke about, their sexual experience. It is entirely possible that barring MPAA regulations, many US road trip and teenage vacation films would unfold very similarly to Y tu mamá también. Additionally, Cuaron employs the use of a expansive soundtrack throughout the film, using music to bridge both time and space throughout the course of the road trip. In this sense, Y tu mamá también generally adheres to the conventions of the road trip genre. However, there are many instances where Cuaron breaks from the conventions of the road trip genre and utilizes the backdrop of the trio’s trip—rural Mexico—along with specific cinematic techniques to develop a sub textual meaning that confronts the audiences with the difficult role of rural spaces amidst the ongoing modernization of Mexico.

One of these techniques is what has been described by some critics as a “straying camera.” Thoughout the narrative, Cuaron allows the camera to drift away from Luisa, Julio, and Tenoch and instead move the frame to show something else that is happening within the scene. For example, during the wedding scene, the camera pans away from the primary characters to follow a waitress as she takes food to bodyguards waiting outside the venue. In another instance, the trio is waiting inside a restaurant in a rural city; the camera moves from the three sitting at a table into a back room, where the family that owns the restaurant is preparing food and washing dishes, all within the same space that they live. Finnegan suggests that this straying camera technique demonstrates to the audience “that there is more to see” and has the effect of creating the “confused portrait of the nation that emerges by the end of the film” (38). Highlighting Finnegan’s argument is another example of Cuaron’s straying camera in which the trio’s car drives past a police checkpoint, and lingers behind to show another car that is stopped and being searched. This shot lingers much longer than would be expected, remaining centered on the police search. It is only after the boys’ shouts of “no mires, no mires” (don’t look, don’t look!) that we cut back to the car that has long since continued down the road, almost as if to provoke the audience into questioning if the police checkpoint was something they were allowed to be looking at, let alone something they should pay attention to for the narrative. In other words, the use of the straying camera makes it difficult for the audience to know what is important to focus on, and what is just background information. By doing so, Cuaron showcases bits and pieces of life in rural Mexico while simultaneously developing a sense of uncertainty.

This uncertainty allows Y tu mamá también to exist as a comedic road trip film, but while simultaneously presenting a more serious subtext that address a wide array of complex issues related to the new role of rural spaces in the current state of Mexico’s development. While Cuaron doesn’t provide any answers to the questions and issues that he raises throughout the film, the use of a straying camera technique enables the audience to at least become aware of the realities of life within those rural areas, and question what their future may be as Mexico continues to develop as an economic power in the global market. This situates Y tu mamá también well within the contexts of the Modern Era of Mexican cinema. It identifies and critiques actual issues local to the country, but without necessarily claiming to have the solution to the problems. There are two Mexicos presented in Y tu mamá también and within reality as well—one that has developed into an economic power, and another rural version that has largely been left behind. Cuaron’s ability to showcase both Mexicos within a road trip comedy cements his place among other great directors as one of “the three amigos.”


Works Cited

Cuarón, Alfonso. Y Tu Mamá También. 2001. Film.

Finnegan, Nuala. “So What’s Mexico Really Like?” Framing the Local, Navigating the Global in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. pp. 29–50.

 

The Mall

benpettis.com/mall

Like many other kids in the third grade, I really enjoyed drawing things and using simple markers and crayons as an outlet for my active imagination. For some reason, I became obsessed with creating and drawing imaginary storefronts and the various items that each of them sold.

Over the course of about a year, my friends and I drew countless different storefronts – some based in reality, others entirely imagined. I visualized our creation as a giant mall of sorts, with each storefront physically connected to other stores that we had created. I envisioned a giant network of stores, and wanted to find some way to connect all of our drawings and represent their actual spatial relationships. Unfortunately, third-grade me lacked the technical know-how to actually make this happen, and my idea sat unfinished in a small folder tucked away in a my parents’ garage.

Fast forward 18 years to me visiting Colorado for Winter Break. I’m digging through boxes of my old stuff – at the request of my parents to finally “get this crap out of here” – and stumble across my old third grade project. Seeing as I had some time to fill, I started Googling some HTML5 and JavaScript network visualizations and cobbled something together.

I tried to connect each image to the correct neighbors, but it turns out that third-grade me was actually pretty awful at creating a sensible organization structure… Any nodes that are unconnected are stores that we forgot to connect to another one. Nodes without images are store names that I found references to, but no actual drawing.

Eat your heart out, younger-me

YouTube Rewind 2017: All Hail Our Corporate Overlords

At the end of each year, YouTube releases a “rewind” video – a compilation of popular videos, music, and trends from the previous 12 months. A collaboration with hundreds of YouTube content creators, each year’s YouTube rewind ends up being a rapid-cut montage of song, dance, and celebration. However, this year’s YouTube Rewind broke slightly from this format, resulting in a strange and disjointed effect. While the seven minute video does conform to previous years’ YouTube Rewinds–with hundreds of popular YouTubers and popular music from the year–the entire feeling of the video changes about halfway through. In a break from the general positive feeling of upbeat and energetic reflection upon the previous year, there is a 45 second montage of very serious and tragic events that occurred during 2017. As if in an attempt by YouTube to acknowledge and engage with the negative aspects of the year as well, the audience is subjected to a rapid-fire sequence of low points from the year before being thrust back into the happy song-and-dance sequence. Not only does this trivialize complex and nuanced world issues by presenting them as yet another “trend” from the past 12 months, the treatment of these serious and tragic events by YouTube Rewind 2017 also raises significant questions about the ever-growing role that media giants such as YouTube play in our daily lives.

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We are at War

The political situation within the United States has become interesting, to say the very least. Our president is provoking Kim Jong Un via Twitter toward a nuclear confrontation, has interjected himself into a small conflict with LaVar Ball after he wasn’t thankful enough for getting his son out of a Chinese prison, and is the center of several sexual harassment allegations (much like the rest of the GOP as well). Of course, all of this is occurring against the backdrop of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into any connections that the Trump campaign may have had with Russia, including possible collusion during the campaign.

While all of these things are certainly important topics to pay attention to, I fear that we have become blind to another pressing issue that is happening right in front of us. Our very institutions of American democracy have been attacked, and continue to be assaulted on a daily basis. But I fear that we are becoming complacent and not taking this threat as seriously as we should be. Russia has, and continues to, undermine our nation through online attacks and disinformation campaigns, and we seem to be unwilling to even acknowledge this fact. The United States and Russia have entered a new stage of warfare, one that takes place not in battlefields but on social media. We are at war with Russia. And we’re losing, badly.

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Battle for the Net Part 2: Electric Bugaloo

In 2015 the FCC approved rules guaranteeing a free and open Internet and made official protections for the principle of net neutrality. This principle simply states that Internet Service Providers ISPs must treat all content equally – they cannot discriminate content by slowing or blocking certain websites entirely. This is important to promote innovation, protect the freedom of the Internet, and prevent ISPs from controlling what we are allowed to see and access. But now those same protections are under threat once again thanks to the FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai.

Stop fucking with the Internet, dammit!

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Who is to Blame for Fake News?

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In the last several months, the term “fake news” has gone from a rarely-used phrase to a concept that seemingly everyone had run into and had an opinion on. And with a President who casually throws the phrase around in an attempt to discredit media organizations, it certainly seems that the notion of fake news isn’t going away anytime soon. The term has evolved from describing articles that are factually inaccurate to encompass any media that has a distinct partisan bias. On the one hand, you have Trump supporters using it to claim liberal bias in news reporting while on the other hand you have the US Intelligence Community describing a deliberate Russian “influence campaign” to sway the 2016 Presidential Election. Regardless of political leaning or party affiliation, it seems that everyone is at least aware of fake news, and has an opinion on what should be done in response. Though there are disagreements over what actually constitutes fakes news, universally fake news is seen as a problem that must somehow be “fixed.”

So naturally, a handful of solutions have been proposed that aim to solve the problem of fake news once and for all. Generally these solutions have offered a “top-down” approach—attempting to cut off fake news from the source, and prevent it from ever reaching an audience. This has taken many forms, including blaming the media corporations who published the content, holding social media services responsible for their platforms role in spreading the content, or even suggesting that the government take a more active regulatory role in journalism. However, hardly any so-called “fixes” for this problem get at the root of what’s really causing the proliferation of fake news––us. We can attempt to blame media outlets, social media services, or even the government for the problem that fake news has become, but the common factor in it all remains the same: those who read, watch, listen to, and otherwise consume media in their day to day lives. We, the audience, are ultimately responsible for the rampant spread of fake news.

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The ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ Meme

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen it appearing all over the Internet, a new meme that has surged in popularity. Its basis is quite simple: a stock photo of a young couple walking down a city street. The man turns to look back at an attractive woman walking back the other way. His girlfriend looks on in disgust. The original photo is quite simple and could have easily lived its entire life as an obscure stock photo – a man looking away from his girlfriend at another woman. Antonio Guillem, photographer of the original image, likely thought that it wouldn’t go much further than that as well.

Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock

But that soon changed as some users started adding text on top of the people in the photo to assign different names or personalities to the original. Each version of the photo now told a slightly different story: looking away from what you currently have, or what may presently make sense, and considering a different (and more preferable option) For example a love of dogs:


Or a cat’s obsession with boxes:

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Or maybe even the scenario of playing new games, or old ones:

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What makes the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme especially interesting is the fact that the same format can apply in numerous situations – even to specific details that only certain groups would be able to understand. For instance Penguin Random House got in on the meme fun:

Or InfoSec experts discussing Windows updates:

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Or from players of the most recent Zelda game:

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Regardless of what group was using the meme format, its overall meaning remained the same. Each instance of the Distracted Boyfriend meme portrayed the same scene playing out again and again–someone who had already made a decision, or had an obligation, wondering about whether or not they made the right choice, and wishing that they could take a different action. Each individual instance of the meme feeds into the meme’s overall meaning as a whole; simultaneously the overall meaning of the meme feeds back into how each individual instance is interpreted. Thus, even if we don’t understand the specific details of how one particular group is using it, we still understand the general usage of the Distracted Boyfriend meme.

Guillem even referred to this fact in an interview for WIRED. “Regarding what I think about the photo has gone viral, I think the image was a good foundation to whoever had the great idea to turn it into a metaphor that works for almost everything,” he says. No matter what group uses the image, and no matter how it is adopted, the overall meaning is still approximately the same. The memes even became self-referential, and many instances appeared that speak to the actual act of creating meme instances and running a meme social media page:

(@mc3smemedream ) heck

A post shared by Meta Memes (@memesformemers) on


Perhaps, the Distracted Boyfriend meme has become so widespread in its popularity because it revels some universal truth of the human condition. The fact that life inevitably presents each of us with a series of choices that we must make, and that you’ll always question if you actually made the correct decision–or if there was a “better” option that you turned down. Perhaps the meme is our contemporary rendition of the problem that Robert Frost was trying to get at in his famous poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

-Robert Frost, 1916

Or maybe it’s just a stupid Internet that’s running its course.

Trump, Chickens, and the Memeification of Politics

For better or for worse, memes have fully entered the world of politics. And they’re here to stay.

An inflatable chicken meant to resemble President Trump on the Ellipse, just south of the White House, on Wednesday. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An inflatable chicken meant to resemble President Trump on the Ellipse, just south of the White House, on Wednesday. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Earlier this week, a new political protest appeared outside of the White House–an enormous inflatable chicken stylized to look like President Trump. The chicken, with Trump’s distinct hairstyle and signature hand gestures (👌) was placed on the Ellipse, a park between the White House and the Washington Monument. The large balloon representation of the President drew plenty of attention, from both side of the political spectrum. According to the New York Times, the inflatable chicken’s trip to Washington was planned and organized by Taran Singh Brar, and was meant to represent trump as a “weak and ineffective leader.” Brar said that his goal was for his political statement to go viral and his inflatable chicken certainly did exactly that, though perhaps not exactly in the way that he was hoping.

Beyond the initial coverage of the chicken’s appearance, there has been very little information about Brar and his message of Trump as an ineffective leader. Instead, Trump supporters have flocked to the inflatable chicken and used it as a unifying symbol and as a rallying cry. The specific messaging has varied–from the chicken as a symbol of “butthurt liberals” to being representative of the President’s personality and his “enormous cock.” Despite these variances one fact remains, which is that Brar’s inflatable chicken, originally intended to criticize Trump, was now being used in a positive manner by his supporters.

the_donald-frontpageThe frontpage of /r/The_Donald, a subreddit for Trump supporters, was filled with links to images, articles, and comments all relating to the giant inflatable chicken. Trump supporters visited Washington, posing for photos with the chicken while wearing their Trump shirts and Make America Great Again hats. Other redefined Brar’s original message of cowardice and saw the chicken as representing strength, bravery, and leadership–or in one user’s words, “The President’s huge cock.” For them, the chicken was a symbol of Trump’s style of leading the nation, his America-first style of diplomacy, and the manner in which he pushes his legislative agenda. And finally, one last common theme that was found throughout /r/The_Donald was that Brar’s chicken represented liberals’ inability to accept Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 Election. For many, the chicken was seen as an immature response from the left to the Trump Presidency.

However, what’s really interesting regarding this whole chicken business is that this conflict over its meaning did not take place in the form of debate, discussion, or even as an argument. Instead these messages arose in the form of memes, and spread in a similar fashion. Originally meant as a single political statement, the giant inflatable chicken had become its own meme and had begun to spread virally, just as Brar had hoped.

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iyj9bw2d5xezInstances of the inflatable chicken meme ranged in form and style–some were simply a photograph of the chicken with a simple caption placed on top. Some copied previous memes, such as “I Made This” and simply edited in imagery of Trump supporters stealing the chicken from a Clinton supporter. And some Photoshopped the chicken image into other photographs, as if to represent their view of Trump’s wide-reaching power and influence.

And if the meme instances alone were not enough confirmation that Trump supporters had reclaimed the inflatable chicken imagery entirely as their own, the comments that were left on each post confirmed this point even further. The general theme of most comments was that the meme had successfully been stolen from the left, and that the right’s memes were significantly better than what the other side could ever come up with.

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“BECAUSE THE LEFT CANT MEME” – /u/HIGHENERGYBASTARD

“We have the best cocks, don’t we folks?” – /u/God_I_Love_Men

“We have the best meme thieves, don’t we folks??” – /u/MAGANOPOLIS

“WE HAVE SEIZED THE MEMES OF PRODUCTION” – /u/kingofthekarts

Interestingly, there has been little to no dialogue from the other side, from those who the meme was supposedly stolen from. Though /r/The_Donald is filled with comments bragging about stealing the chicken meme from the left, nobody on the left really seems upset nor seems to even realize that something was “stolen” from them in the first place. In other words, the transformation of the inflatable chicken from single political statement to Internet meme underscores many of the issues relating to the increasing prevalence of memes within politics. Specifically, the inflatable chicken meme calls into question the notion of ownership when it comes to the issue of memes.

I am currently writing my senior thesis on Pepe the Frog and that meme’s role in American politics; many of the concepts my research has led me too are echoed by the recent appearance of this inflatable chicken. Memes are unique because unlike other political statements, there is no one single owner. There isn’t a single person, or even a single organization, that can rightfully claim ownership of a meme and define what its specific (and “real”) meaning actually is. The inflatable chicken portrays President Trump simultaneously in a negative and positive light–and neither interpretation is intrinsically more correct than the other. Memes serve as a vessel to carry and transmit to complex ideas, and distill them down to a simple image or phrase. The conflict between Trump supporters and Trump opponents, and the complex relationship between Republicans and Democrats, and the inherent complications of the US political system are all somehow simultaneously embodied by this giant inflatable chicken.

At first glance, the chicken is merely a simple political stunt, and images of it that appear online are nothing more. However the chicken has grown to represent in simple terms the complex political ideas, discussions, and debates that are currently unfolding in the so-called “real world.” The fact that a simple inflatable chicken can serve as a symbol of such a wide array of topics is significant, and underscores the new reality of the 21st century: Whether you like it or not, memes matter. And they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.