Avoid Using Memes Unless you can Contribute Meaningfully to the Culture: Marissa Mayer and the Yahoo-Tumblr Announcement

Yahoo Borg Assimilates Tumblr

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer just announced that the search relic will be buying Tumblr, an announcement made on a Tumblr created by Mayer using an animated gif of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme.  This is a great example of why most organizations should avoid trying to use memes, and the framing of the announcement undermines Yahoo’s intended message.

Screen Shot of Marissa Mayer's Tumblr

Memes are cagey beasts – here’s what is problematic about deploying them for organizational communication:

Memes Have a Shelf Life:  Actually it’s probably closer to say memes have a half-life – they’re half as relevant in half the time.  It’s that fast. This speed is usually far faster than any large organization’s approval process for communications.  Case in point: the “Keep Calm/Panic and Freak Out” meme was already on T-shirts back in 2008.  It’s long past played out.

Memes Require Contribution: Just USING a meme to express a sentiment isn’t enough.  If you’re pegging yourself as a creative entity you need to actually leave your thumbprint on the meme you’re employing.  That is to say you need to do something new with it that is novel and compelling (or at the very least, funny).

Yahoo’s use of the “Keep Calm” meme is particularly heinous because no one is following Yahoo’s every movement looking for signs of insight (in the way they do with Apple, for example).  No one would ever “freak out” about Yahoo buying anything – unless it was the BAD kind of freak-out over Yahoo’s reputation for ruining innovative companies by assimilating them into the Yorg Collective.

Memes Invite Collaboration:  One of the things that makes memes really spread is when they not only present users with something novel, but when they invite those users to contribute their own creation.  They are, at their core, a collaborative expression of culture. In this case, Yahoo gives us nothing to work with – and in fact the meme they’re using to make the announcement is completely preserved in its original form (with the upside down crown), which is funny because it may actually be copyrighted.

Elsewhere there are other problems with this announcement…

Yahoo has a credibility problem because of how badly they’ve mangled other acquisitions (like Geocities and Flickr).  To their credit they’re aware of this (Mayer even notes in the post “We promise not to screw it up”), however they do nothing with that information to improve their announcement and ultimately end up looking out-of-touch.  For example:

  • Mayer doesn’t actually use Tumblr, they created this single-serving blog just to post her announcement (the Internet abhors poseurs and n00bs).
  • Worse, they also created a tumblr for Yahoo that does exactly the same thing – posting Mayer’s message verbatim (so the corporate voice is exactly the same as Mayer’s voice).
  • Neither Mayer nor Yahoo’s Tumblr has an accompanying profile/about page.
  • The announcement appears to be slapdash; neither Tumblr is using a custom theme that reinforces the brand identity of Yahoo (missed opportunity).
  • Neither Yahoo nor Mayer are responding to any of the hundreds of comments that are piling up on their tumblrs.  The posts that aren’t reblogs are mostly negative comments about the acquisition; however there are some good ones that suggest feature improvements (if I were Yahoo I would take this opportunity to invite those people to be part of a beta test focus group).

All in all not a promising sign for Tumblr.

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