Feisty the Seal: Anatomy of a Duluth Flood Meme

22 Jun

Meme \`meem\ n:  an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture 

Figure 1 – Feisty the harbor seal captured on June 20th on Grand Avenue in Duluth by Elli Buchar.

The lens by which the world viewed the Duluth flooding disaster this week was actually viewed through a sympathetic set of eyes.  Never mind that they belonged to a nearly blind harbor seal named Feisty.

When 10 inches of rain fell on the bluffs that anchor the city of Duluth, Minnesota the runoff cascaded down its hills with the force of a dozen rivers at spring break-up.  The rushing water in the middle of the night on June 20th swallowed cars, roads, homes and even the Lake Superior Zoo.  The raging floods drown eleven animals and flooded out the pen holding two aging and sight impaired seals named Feisty and Vivien.  At the height of the disaster in the middle of the night, no one knew the plight of the zoo animals until Ellie Buchar saw something unusual along Grand Avenue—Feisty.  She snapped a picture, shared it online, and within a matter of hours this nearly blind seal became the vision by which the rest of the world viewed the disaster. (Figure 1)

Just how powerful was this meme?  I was standing along Olney Street interviewing Gene Swanson who was in danger of losing his house to the raging King’s Creek when my phone rang.  It was one of my news producers at her computer monitor from 170 miles away wanting to know why I wasn’t at the zoo?   Never mind the people desperately trying to save their homes and lives.   “What about the animals?” demanded the producer.  (I could give a dozen journalistic counter arguments–but that’s another post at another time.)

Feisty’s story is a case study in contagion and memes in this new age of social media.   It provides a unique pathway for understanding why they become so powerful.

In this case, social psychologist Jaap van Ginneken would argue that Feisty served as what he calls a strong replicator.  Such replicators evoke an emotion that cause people to take notice and share.  Image plays an essential role—the strongest replicators have child-like images with large eyes.  Finally, the replicator must be positioned in an unexpected way—a surprise.

Feisty’s image on Grand Avenue fit perfectly into the model:

  • Strong Replicator: stressed animal
  • Child-like face: helplessness
  • Surprise: found in middle of street 

    Figure 2

The image served as a critical signal to viewers, especially women that something was happening.  This signal is the beginning of a cognitive cycle where the viewer forms a positive association with Feisty and in context forms a negative association with the floods.  (Figure 2)  When the viewer hits the “send” button on their computer and others share, a meme is born.

That’s essentially what happened on July 20thand why a helpless animal has become the face of such a human disaster.

Figure 3 – Feisty in her new temporary home at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, MN

It should come as no surprise that Feisty’s viral picture is exactly why she and her half-sister are now safe and recovering at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul.  When Como’s zookeepers saw her viral picture they immediately called the Lake Superior Zoo offering help.  Several hours later both seals and a polar bear were traveling to their new temporary home.  (Figure 3)

Como’s Sr. Zookeeper Alli Jungheim says they’re all feeding and adjusting well to their new home.  “We’ll take care of them like they are our own,” said Jungheim.

For now the seals are safe.  But, there’s so much more work to ensure the rest of Duluth is safe, too.

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