Although it was the top item on this dubious list, Monday’s SXSW panel “The Making of a Meme” turned out to be one of the most enjoyable of the week.
It featured the key players behind the Texts from Hillary meme — with the notable exception of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Diana Walker, a photojournalist who took one of the photos used in meme, was joined by Time Director of Photography Kira Pollack and Texts From Hillary co-creators Adam Smith and Stacy Lambe.
Smith and Lambe’s account of the meme was fairly typical for SXSW — they were drinking at a bar, came across the Hillary photo and thought it was ripe for a meme treatment. So they paired it with a picture of President Barack Obama and gave it a caption: “Hey Hil, Watchu doing?” Obama asks, to which Clinton replies, “Running the World.”
After just a week and a few dozen more attempts, their Tumblr and meme photos had been seen thousands of times, and even Clinton contributed one before setting up a meeting with the pair. Smith and Lambe were shocked by the turn of events, calling it “pretty crazy” and “insane.”
The lesser-known contributors to the meme are Walker and Reuters’ Kevin Lamarque, whose photos of Clinton in sunglasses provided the inspiration for Smith and Lambe. The professional photographers were on an overseas trip with Clinton, and snapped the photos while she was on a C17 flight heading to Libya.
Walker had been the White House photographer for Time for two decades. She’s won multiple awards and published a book of her work. She’s snapped exclusive photos of tech god Steve Jobs — for more than a quarter-century.
And yet, she’s a grandmother, one who said she “didn’t know what a meme was” prior to Texts from Hillary.
“When I saw it, I kind of went ballistic. I was really upset. … You don’t take somebody else’s picture and run [it] without calling them and asking them and paying them,” Walker said. “I was beside myself.”
Walker says she calmed a bit when she saw Clinton getting in on the fun, but her message for photographers was still forceful: Demand credit. Protect your copyrights. Talk to a lawyer. Sue if you must.
“I am more aware than ever that photographers today, if they want to protect their rights and their image, are going to have to remember that copyright laws are there for them,” she said.
Walker let out a laugh when the SXSW audience was asked: Did you see this photo first in Time magazine or through Texts from Hillary? About 95% of the obviously skewed audience raised their hand for the Tumblr blog.
Among the young and tech savvy, the new media meme was a clear winner over the old media world. While that battle will continue (with new media likely to continue winning), the Texts from Hillary story offers key lessons for marketers and creators in the online and social worlds. Here are four:
Be careful what you take, and always give credit
In the fast-paced online marketing world of memejacking, newsjacking and more, it can be easy to grab whatever you can off the Internet, quickly add your twist, and throw it up on the Web. You may be able to get away with copyright violations if no one notices — but you’re not creating things to not be noticed. Go in with an expectation that everything you create will explode with traffic, and always give credit where it’s due.
Timing is everything
Walker took the photo of Clinton in October 2011, and it was published in Time the following month. Texts from Hillary wasn’t created until April 2012, five months later. Smith and Lambe said they likely benefited from their timing — there was a lull in campaign news as the Republican primary campaign dragged on. The pair sent out the initial photo to D.C.-based political reporters, who were hungry for anything interesting, and they helped to turn it into a phenomenon. Take the time to understand your audience and their content wants and needs, and you can better time your messages and help ensure they get noticed.
Trust your instincts
Both Walker and Pollack, the director of photography, knew they had something special with the photo of Clinton texting — Walker said she thought it was “really weird.” Pollack even showed a mockup of a Time cover using the photo — the editors had considered using it, but it didn’t feel quite right, so they moved it to the inside spread. Their instincts turned out to be right, but only when someone found a creative twist. Was there more they could have done early on to leverage the photo, besides placement in the magazine?
Think outside of your comfort zone
Photos on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat and more are massive drivers of social sharing. Time magazine has thousands of photos at its disposal, and likely has shelled out millions for them. While they’ve mastered an understanding of how to deploy the photos in the print magazine, it’s clear the online world has to be approached differently. Should Time try to be in the meme-creation business? It’s hard to say. But there are likely hundreds of opportunities sitting in their archives — perhaps it’s time to approach them in a different way. If you have photos to work with, take the time to Photoshop, gif and caption them. You might just stumble on the next big meme.