Credit Facebook’s new look. In addition to updating its algorithm, Facebook also changed the way posts are displayed in your feed. The biggest change involved photos. In the past, when a friend posted a photo, you’d see only a thumbnail of that image in your feed—you’d get a bigger version if you clicked on it.
But photos are now several times larger than they used to be. This was an obvious boon for image macros, whose power depends on the combination of a photo and text. In Facebook’s old, thumbnail-image design, pictures were too small for you to make out the text without clicking; now you can read the text and the image without doing anything.
Credit “meme generator” sites. If images with text are now more prominent on Facebook, who’s creating them, and how? O’Neill mentioned another important factor in the spread of image macros: The rise of sites like Quick Meme and Meme Generator, which let the online hordes easily create their own graphics.
Such sites aren’t new, but O’Neill suspects that Facebook’s newfound hospitability to image macros has given them new life. And that could be feeding a cycle—the more popular image macros get on Facebook, the more people start creating and posting their own, which makes image macros even more popular, and on and on.
Credit Occupy Wall Street. Facebook’s redesign coincided with the rise of a protest movement that has been especially adept at getting itself heard on social media sites. An outsized number of the image macros I’ve seen on Facebook were created to support OWS, and even the ones that aren’t directly supportive were at least inspired by the movement—see, for instance, the picture of the milk carton holding up a sign that reads, “I am healthier than whole but not as much as skim. I am the 2%.”
It may merely be lucky timing that OWS came along at just the moment Facebook became more receptive to images with text, but it’s also the case that OWS’s sometimes-convoluted goals are well-suited to image macros. Explaining the problem of income inequality is difficult in a tweet or a blog post, but you can get the message across easily in an infographic like this one, which shows a map of the United States with more than half the land allocated to the richest 10 percent of the population.
Credit all of the above. There are usually many reasons why a message goes viral online, so it’s likely some combination of the factors I mentioned—and some others I didn’t—that’s causing image macros to become popular on Facebook. Both Constine and O’Neill pointed out that these changes don’t even need to be large. Since viral messages feed on themselves, it could be that all of these factors made image macros slightly more popular on Facebook—and then, the slight popularity pushed people to post more of them, which increased their popularity even more.
It’s also likely that Facebook didn’t mean to make the site more hospitable to image macros and that this was an unintended consequence of changes the site made for other reasons. Facebook’s goal, in making improvements to its site, is to get people to use it more. But it has no particular interest in how that happens. When the company first launched the Facebook Platform—which allowed third-party developers to create apps for the site—it didn’t predict that it would spawn a class of games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars. The rise of image macros was also probably a surprise to Facebook’s execs. If it leads to more people spending more time on the site, though, I can’t imagine they’re disappointed.