The Power of Memes
by John Beske
This essay starts with three epiphanies: The first happened when I was a sophomore in college and moving aimlessly through a general degree in art. I happened to meet the husband of a daughter of some friends of my parents. He was an art director at an ad agency in Minneapolis, and as he described the ins and outs of his job and his work, it suddenly struck me that this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I transferred to a university where I could get a degree in graphic design, and I have followed that star for my entire career.
The second epiphany hit me about eight years later. I was now working as an art director at an ad agency in Minneapolis and life was good, but at the moment I was very sick with bronchitis and watching public television from my bed. They started broadcasting a documentary about factory farming called “The Animals Film” and somewhere in the middle of it, I decided I would never eat another animal, and to this day I haven’t and I never will again.
About eight years after that, I was an art director at the largest and most famous ad agency in Chicago, where I was creating ads and TV commercials for some of the world’s most well-known brands. While flying back from a vacation in Europe, a movie came on called “Defending Your Life” about a successful advertising executive who dies at a young age, and in the first days of the afterlife is forced to confront all of the important life choices he had made while he was alive. It suddenly dawned on me that one component of my job was basically to lie to people, and that the whole advertising profession was shallow artifice, and that I needed to move to a life with more meaning.
It took a few years after that before I felt that I really hit my stride, but I realized that I deeply loved the tools and the promise of graphic design, but I needed to use these tools, as much as I could, to build a healthier and more compassionate world.
Then about eight years ago, Marla (my partner in life and in Vegan Street) told me she thought we should start producing memes to share on our recently revived website and Facebook page. I was fairly illiterate about social media, and when she showed me some, I wasn’t impressed. I thought some of them were amusing and a few were even mildly thought-provoking, but nearly all of them were completely devoid of any design sense. I believed that I could apply my decades of design experience to develop memes that would stand above the others.
This was our first ever Vegan Street meme – published on July 23, 2013
Later that day, I designed my first Vegan Street meme. It was certainly not my best work (I eventually got a lot better at it), but it did establish a theme that we have carried to this day – a square, 800 x 800 pixels, with a simple headline set in Rockwell Bold (or sometimes Rockwell Regular), an eye catching image or series of images and a VeganStreet.com logo in the lower right corner. At the time I had no idea that a square was the geometric choice of Instagram (or that Instagram even existed for that matter). I just was really drawn to the shape.
For the first year, we met our goal of publishing a new meme every weekday, though it was really difficult to come up with enough ideas, and I felt we’d burn out before we got to 100. Since then, though, we have published more than 1,250 of them, with another new one every other weekday, and we rarely have writer’s or designer’s block anymore.
Each meme is designed to carry a single message as eloquently and concisely as possible, and each message is designed to either promote a positive aspect of veganism or a negative aspect of industrial animal production or other animal abuse. We make a point to contain all of the necessary information within that 800 x 800 pixel square, so there is no need to link to any external explanation. Of course, many of them are based on news stories, reports or other external information, and we always provide a link from our website to our sources.
Another limitation we face is time. In addition to our memes, we regularly post recipes, essays and lots of other content. And we spend most of our time on our client work through Vegan Street Media. So we typically have between 1 ½ to 3 hours to conceive, research, write, design, build, publish, share and promote each meme. Not a lot of time to mess around.
The memes are all designed to be shared, and collectively they have been shared many thousands or possibly millions of times. The goal is for everyone who sees them to instantly understand them and be moved by them. In advertising, we were taught that we had about 1.8 seconds to get someone’s attention – the amount of time it takes someone to flip the page of a magazine. Now I suspect that social media has cut that time by at least half – to less than a second before they scroll away from our message. In other words, we have to grab their attention immediately or we have forever lost them.
It is also important to Marla and I that everything is also elegant and professional and always communicating a consistent message and style. We feel that the strength of our memes lies in the library as a whole more than each individual post. If someone visits our web portfolio or one of our social media pages, our goal is that they see one beautiful and powerful meme after another. Of course, sometimes we fall short of this goal (even Michael Jordan only hit 52% of his shots), and sometimes we feel we did something great that gets very little positive response. Conversely, sometimes I feel that a meme didn’t hit the mark, but it still drew thousands of likes.
Fortunately, the vegan message has many, many components, and there is always an abundance of material for us to draw from. Our plan is to keep regularly producing Vegan Street memes as long as our minds and fingers allow us to do so. And hopefully all this work will help lead to a healthier, more compassionate, more just and more sustainable world. Images are powerful; words and images together are the basis of storytelling and people, no matter how busy and advanced we may be, still are reached and influenced through a persuasive story that grabs them.
When Vegan Besties Break Up
When I first went vegan, new friends were a big part of helping me to ease into that transition. I was lucky enough to be folded into my local animal rights organization along with a bunch of other newbies as if we were all going through a new vegan orientation together. There was one woman in my unofficial grouping and we immediately clicked as friends. She was hilarious, confident, brutally honest and deeply committed to the cause. It wasn’t long after we met that we were genuine let’s-hang-out-together friends. We would seamlessly segue from protesting outside the circus to sampling cruelty-free body care products at the old Garden Botanika like it was the most natural thing in the world. It was an intoxicating time and I will always associate this friend with those heady days when life felt very electric and I’d found my life’s purpose.
For a few years, we remained very close. Remember those early years with your first best friend, how close and intense those friendships could be? Our friendship was like that. We were ride-or-die besties. Over time, though, life happened. There were moves, marriages, breakups, deaths, and, for one of us, motherhood. We would still touch base a few times a year and remain friendly - we had the kind of comfortable, easy shorthand unique to friends who share a lot of memories - but our friendship kind of withered on the vine. We grow the things that we put time into nurturing and I think we both kind of moved on with our lives, which was easy to do living across the country from each other. No harm, no foul. We maintained a distant friendship, though, touching base even less often as the years passed. Finally, we didn’t really have anything in common but our shared past and veganism.
. . .
I have had similar experiences with some other vegans on my path: We grew apart. There were no angry confrontations or resentments necessarily, it was simply that we no longer had the same connection, or maybe we assumed that there was more of a connection than there actually was. Friendships between vegans are not all that different from other kinds of friendships and there are a million reasons for growing apart but sometimes, as vegans, we feel like we’re supposed to be friends. Sometimes a friendship fades out over purely circumstantial reasons: one gets married or moves and lives change. Maybe those circumstantial changes exacerbate other areas of difference. Maybe one’s politics have changed. Maybe personality clashes have emerged.
I think sometimes we feel pressured within ourselves to stay friends with other vegans because we share that important commonality that makes us different from so many other people. Especially if we don’t have a big vegan community, we can hang on longer to the friendship than we would otherwise. At a certain point, though, we all have to decide if friendships are worth hanging on to when we have outgrown them or moved in different directions, whether we are vegan or not.
. . .
We all have our lines in the sand with what we’ll accept from a friend and what we will not, whether it’s QAnon adjacent conspiracy theorizing or narcissism, bigotry or gossiping. There are some times when the conflict is not bridgeable. There is a sense of sadness and loss with that, of course, but if the friendship is not worth the maintenance of it, it may be time to move on.
My first vegan friend and I will always have our memories: The protests, the great conversations, finding the world for ourselves as vegans and warm friendship. But when it is time to move on, it is time to move on, whether or not the friend you are cutting loose is vegan.
How important is it for you to maintain vegan friendships even when that is the main commonality?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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