Memes as a Propaganda Tool

Why do Memes capture our Attention?

Memes have been called the currency of the digital culture. Matt calls them the ultimate thought bomb, and our guest Joshua Nieuburrt calls them leaflet propaganda of the digital age. But what is it about memes that capture our attention and make them so powerful and effective at communication and persuasion.

Memes gain immediate access to our brain through humor, familiar symbology, tropes and pop culture reference. In doing so, they tend to bypass our conscious defenses because of their “insider” mentality or narrative. Memes are also an active process of viewing, sharing, and creating, which develops communities and cultures who are familiar with the basis, message and purpose of the meme.

Every scholarly article or research starts with Dawkins’ definition – a unit of cultural transmission – the cultural equivalent of a gene. (Dawkins, 1976)

I think that memes are better defined by McLuhan and his analysis of symbolism as communication. Even further, the theory of Symbolic Interactionism, “people act a certain way towards things based on the meaning those things already have, and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation.” (Blumer – first to coin symbolic interactionism in 1962)

Individual and community participation

  • Memes are shared cultural artifacts – movies, pop culture, meme culture & history
  • Memes promote an insider mentality – those “in the know”
  • Memes provide “wrappers” for propaganda narratives
  • Memes are an active participation in connecting “threads” that make up the meme
  • Memes are an active process of viewing, sharing, and creating
  • Memes provide non-verbal communication of ideas, attitudes, and reactions in text chats that are otherwise inexpressible.


[00:00:00] Joshua Nieubuurt: It’s like the memes that you see on Facebook like, uh, “The only word that starts, that has two e’s in the middle is weed. Prove me wrong,” kind of thing, right? And those things will get huge amounts of engagement because of people trying to, you know, prove them wrong, right? And you’ll see a thousand different words with two double, two e’s in it and people know that…

[00:00:25] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:00:26] Joshua Nieubuurt: …will feel compulsed to comment on them or share them. And so, that’s kind of throwing a much wider net, then.

[00:00:34] Bumper Intro-Outro: Welcome to Endless Coffee Cup, a regular discussion of marketing news, culture, and media for our complex digital lifestyle. Join Matt Bailey as he engages in conversation to find insights beyond the latest headlines and deeper understanding for those involved in marketing. Grab a cup of coffee, have a seat, and thanks for joining.

[00:00:56] Matt Bailey: Well, hello and welcome to another edition of the Endless Coffee Cup podcast. I’m your host as usual, Matt Bailey and I am so excited about today’s interview. It’s with Joshua Nieubuurt, and Joshua, I’m going to hand it over and let you introduce yourself if you could, and then we’re going to get into the exciting subject of memes. One of my favorites. Joshua, how you doing today?

[00:01:22] Joshua Nieubuurt: Excellent here. Thank you for that grand introduction. As we mentioned before, we came on record dancing on rainbows and walking on sunshine. It’s the late evening here, but I hope we’re going to have a great conversation. My name is Joshua Nieubuurt. I’m an adjunct faculty member at a couple different universities, and I’m also a PhD, PhD student at Old Dominion University, focusing on rhetoric, mis- and disinformation, and its intersection with media and technology.

[00:01:49] Matt Bailey: Love it. Love it. That’s, my background is in, uh, journalism and rhetoric. I was reading your paper and, dear listener, this is what got me started. I, well, I mean, if you’ve been in the internet at all for more than a few decades, or it may have been in a decade, or maybe even just the past few months, you know what memes are. Memes are the little picture graphics, maybe with something funny, but I’ve been fascinated by them because they carry so much.

They’re, they’re doing more than you think they are. I, I like to call them little thought bombs, but Joshua, what is it that interested you about memes? And then what is it that made you want to include this as part of your research into rhetoric and, and ultimately writing a paper about it?

[00:02:39] Joshua Nieubuurt: That’s a great question. I’ve always loved memes since I got on the internet in the late nineties. They’ve been going around for a long time, and even though people consider memes like the macro image that you see with the text over the top and then the picture, and then something snarky or funny, uh, memes take a lot of different forms. They can be videos, websites, parodies, phrases, photos, jokes, GIFs, pretty much anything that is sharing really condensed culture.

And one of the big joys that I find from memes are they’re like little puzzles. If you’re a part of the group that understands them, they kind of open up in front of you, like Christmas morning, you’re unwrapping it and it pops out and you’re like, “Oh, I get this.” Or if you don’t get it, it offers you opportunity to look deeper into something, to learn something new, or simply just to have a laugh. I think quite often memes are just for humor or, or catharsis.

And I think that, that they are incredible things to research because they are so dense and they can trace the roots back really, really, really far. And before we consider the memes, they still existed in societies, um, throughout history, probably way back before we can even, you know, consider writing or things like that. Memes still existed as stories and as things that were passed on. And now they’ve taken, they’ve been taken to a whole new level with globalism and the internet and the connections that we continue to share and grow.

[00:04:02] Matt Bailey: Hmm. Yeah, I, right along with what you’re saying is the layer aspect of it. I, it, I, it, this fits sort of that, that tribal aspect. That, “In my tribe, we get it. I know the movie reference. I know when this meme first appeared. I know, you know, some of the original aspects of it.” And, and there’s this satisfaction of, “I understand this meme. I know where it came from,” but yet, like you said, you can still be entertained by it, but not know all the history.

But yet, having that history, really, I think it can isolate you as a, as a group that there’s a special meaning there. There, there’s a deeper meaning there. And, and so it carries a little more weight as it gets spread around within the community, and that, that makes a very powerful message whenever you package something like that.

[00:04:59] Joshua Nieubuurt: Yeah. That’s an incredible point. Yeah, they are very dense in their modality. They’re very dense in the fact that there is certainly an “in group” and an “out group.” And if you are in that “in group,” and the danger, I think what you’re alluding to is it can create an echo chamber, right? Or it can create, most people probably consider memes just something funny or like snarky, or, “I’m going to stick it to this other group of people,” but they do help to reconfirm it, something that you believe already or something that you understand or something, you mentioned that can be a deeply, deeply meaningful experience. If you just keep seeing the same thing over again, how could it possibly be incorrect or how could it be misleading if so many, so many people are continuing to share this idea?

And I think that’s one of the problems with, and people aren’t always aware of why they’re being shared or where they’re originating from as well, which can, um, certainly cause problems as we’ve seen with like the IRA or other types of kind of maybe PSYOPs or social experiments or things like that. When people are trying to use rhetoric, in this case visual rhetoric, to get people to reconfirm these misleading ideas or misinform a purpose, right? And they might use something as such as humor as a hook to kind of draw you in.

I got Bart Simpson meme or the LOL cats or something like that that gets you funny. It gets you excited. You’re laughing about it, you share it, and then you, maybe you join the Facebook group or something like that. But those Facebook groups can change and rebrand, and it could turn into something a little bit different.

[00:06:38] Matt Bailey: Yeah, I’m, I’m fascinated by how memes almost bypass our gatekeeping ability because there is that connection and, and the deeper the connection I think to the meme, the easier it bypasses this, this maybe our gatekeeping or our, especially if it’s confirming a bias, but that’s why I call memes sort of that, that thought bomb because they can get in so much faster than any other type of community.

It, it fascinates me when that happens. It just, it’s, it’s like our, our guard goes down because it’s funny, because we identify with it and the message of it is able to almost sneak in to our psyche without really being challenged.

[00:07:28] Joshua Nieubuurt: That’s an excellent point. Yeah, they are definitely using heuristics, kind of like, uh, little cognitive shortcuts and they…

[00:07:33] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:07:34] Joshua Nieubuurt: …you know, they do use like less brain power, right? Whenever you’re zoning out, driving, driving your kids to school or something, you’re like, “Wow, how did I get here so fast?” You’re using that type of heuristic, right? I mean, you know how to get there, your body knows how to get there, and you can kind of zone out and think about whatever. And these memes kind of do the same thing. The, they’re easily consumed. Usually, they’re not too dense in what they’re trying to say. You’re not reading Hegel or something like that.

But, and as I mentioned before, they are consumed in mass, as well, right? You’re seeing so many of them that you’re not probably going to stop and think, “Wait a minute,” and really think below the surface of it. And they are, uh, definitely playing on things like confirmation bias, homogeneity bias, and popularity bias as well. And all of those kind of, I don’t want to say trick, but maybe lead us in the direction of saying that, “Yeah, this is a good thing,” or, “This is what I believe,” or, “This is part of my identity, so I’m going to share it with other people who probably think the same.”

[00:08:31] Matt Bailey: Hmm. Now I’ve got to ask, have you seen maybe a, a shift over the past, I don’t know, 10 years? To me, and, and, and this goes to, you know, kind of us, us online nerds. I feel like the internet 10 years ago was a lot more fun. It was, there was, it wasn’t as serious, and especially with the political climate, especially here in the U.S.

You, you’re in Japan. Maybe, maybe you’re seeing something similar, but I felt like as soon as the political community got ahold of memes, as soon as these different groups or, you, you know, the political divisions got ahold of it, all of a sudden now they’re for lack of a better term, it’s like memes are being weaponized to now for political means, for, “I’m part of this group and we’re going to use these memes because we think they’re cute, but they’re, they’re being used completely in a different way now. Have you noticed that, this, this shift from a fun to more of a political statement?

[00:09:34] Joshua Nieubuurt: Yeah, I would definitely say so. I remember when the internet was really the wild wild west, took you forever to load a webpage, and when you finally did, even if it was just a GIF or a flash website and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is the greatest thing ever,” after waiting for an hour, but I, I can really see, like as time has gone on, there’s, uh, been a big shift of people utilizing these fun kind of quirky things in order to really, um, become a staple of ideology or to share whatever it is that you believe and kind of what you believe, what other people should believe, or why other people are incorrect in their assumptions, as well.

[00:10:00] And it does seem like, I don’t know if there’s just more people on the internet or more people are using it or finding out that these things are really easily shareable, go viral very, very easily, and if you do have a community and “in group,” it’s much easier to share something that you all believe in.

I think it’s going quickly, dispense onto the next one, than something like a long essay or a book or something like that. People don’t have time to really delve into those things, and if they do, um, they’re not able to do it in math, something like a meme. And so, yeah, I would have to agree with that observation and say that I think it’s probably going to get more and more difficult to disassociate the meme from the real reality and kind of like, um…

[00:10:59] Matt Bailey: Wow.

[00:11:00] Joshua Nieubuurt: …what brand says is like, uh, truth decay or post-truth kind of…

[00:11:04] Matt Bailey: Yeah, definitely. It’s going to be interesting to see how this evolves over the next few years, because, you know, even before the podcast I was talking to my kids about our discussion and, you know, we’re, we’re, my, my teenagers are going back to the, the memes they started with.

And, you know, I’m trying to go back and, you know, and, and those of you who have been online, maybe you remember Techno Viking. That was like one of the, like you said, I think I waited 20 minutes to download that, that minute long clip, and that was one that just got passed around. And then you, you know, you end up with the, the penguin, I think the Advice Animals, those types of things, and you can even go back even further. And, and I, as I’m saying this, I’m looking down and, and Joshua, you might appreciate this. I, I have a grumpy cat mouse pad. Um, so…

[00:11:53] Joshua Nieubuurt: Beans Everywhere, right?

[00:11:54] Matt Bailey: Oh my goodness. Yes, that’s right. So, yeah, just so much, you know, you look back on that and it’s almost, I feel, I was telling them, it’s almost like a childhood cartoon that I grew up with that now I have this affinity to these, these memes. I’m like, “Oh yeah, those are the good old days. Uh, Scumbag Steve and, and some of these others that,” you know, I remember taking the Google logo and putting the Scumbag Steve logo or a hat on it. Just, and then, you know, within my tribe, that meant something, you know, so it was…

[00:12:28] Joshua Nieubuurt: Right.

[00:12:28] Matt Bailey: It, there’s so much, and, and you talk about this in your article, the recut of memes. That it’s not just sharing, it’s, there’s an active participation in these. Could you go into that?

[00:12:39] Joshua Nieubuurt: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. Well, there’s, there’s a couple of things that need for a meme to be viral or for, there’s four or five things that need to happen. One of them is its ability to be remixed or recut. Taking the same genre or the same idea, and then playing on that for an audience that understands how it works. So, that’s one of them.

Another one is it has to be collaborative, often humorous, something that people are going to agree with or nod their head at or wink, tilt their head at, um, and they often must be absurd and they often blending reality with fiction using fictional characters with reality or utilizing a fictionalized personality of a real human being in an absurd situation.

I think right before I got on this, I saw, uh, a meme that somebody was passing around, which was a GIF and it was, um, former president Donald Trump tossing up heads of politicians and then hitting them with a golf club kind of thing. And it does have reality to it, but it is so absurd and still speaks to this “in group” of people.

Also, they have to kind of act as a celebratory token of life’s unique or unusual activities and insights. So, I see, I get tons of dad memes now on my Facebook feed or Twitter or whatever, and little things that if you are a father and you have a traditional experience, you’re going to come across these ideas and you’re going to feel like you’re part of that “in group.” But they are unique and special activities that only if you have those experiences can you really relate to them. Once again, part of that “in group” kind of thing.

[00:14:10] Matt Bailey: Wow.

[00:14:11] Joshua Nieubuurt: They need to, they can also act as like a empowering form of social commentary. You saw a lot of this with like Black Lives Matter or after January 6th couple of years ago, these things started to pop up a lot and they try to really, you know, raise the crescendo of the music, give you some very, how can I say emotionally engaging visuals and try to comment on some social issue.

Or the last one is they’re like a hoax meant to entertain or stoke emotional flames of the participant and this kind of emotional engagement really makes it easy to share. And there’s tons and tons of studies out there now that show like you’re much more likely to engage with something that you disagree with or that makes you angry, and this is much more likely to have people see it, even if you don’t want people to see it.

The worst thing you can do is engage with it because other people are going to want to see what you said or other people can see what you said, or the algorithms, all of the algorithms in effect are going to say, “Oh, people are enjoying this content,” or maybe, “People are engaging with this content. We need to keep eyes glued to our platform. Therefore, let’s keep these types of things okay and keep them coming.” So, those are just…

[00:15:20] Matt Bailey: Wow.

[00:15:21] Joshua Nieubuurt: …I think, what was that? Five or six things.

[00:15:23] Matt Bailey: Yeah, that was great. I love it. Well, what’s the, what’s the power of emotion in rhetoric? I, I, you know, I’m asking you because I, I love that, that understanding of the, the importance that emotion plays, but yet online, that seems to really elevate that aspect of persuasion.

[00:15:43] Joshua Nieubuurt: Yeah, emotion has always been a key component of rhetoric going way, way back to the ancient Greeks, probably way, way before they documented it, as well. Animals and emotion is one of the ways that we interact with our reality, and it’s one of the things that we have to live with with, you know, a few exceptions of people that don’t have those emotions, but it is a way that kind of bonds us together and keeps us.

Um, it is like, it’s a heuristic in and of itself that has kept us going for generation upon generation upon generation. And it is something that is utilized in rhetoric, whether it’s, you know, visual rhetoric or spoken rhetoric or written rhetoric to kind of convey your idea and help to persuade people for whatever it is that you’re discussing or trying to talk, and it’s been used a lot.

Pretty much any political speech I can think of, any State of the Union, there’s always going to be an element of emotion that plays into it. And it’s acting as kind of a tool to try and build bridges between the speaker and the audience, and, um, now the speaker and the greater audience that is not only there in the situation, but also those that will view it in the future or those that will view it televised or on the internet and so on and so forth. Yeah, it is…

[00:16:53] Matt Bailey: Well…

[00:16:53] Joshua Nieubuurt: …it’s a powerful tool.

[00:16:54] Matt Bailey: It is. Yeah. And, and I’ve seen that happen, and, and so, I want to dig into your paper because the, the, the text of your paper, where you’re going with this is, is talking about the, the meme and its ability to, I, I love how you say, “Sow discord,” uh, very similar to the leaflet propaganda that was used in, I believe World War II, in some of the other operations, Vietnam I think we, you, you highlight here, as well, that the meme is, is very similar in purpose, similar in design to a propaganda leaflet. I was so fascinated by that. Could you maybe explain how did you come about with idea and how do you connect that?

[00:17:41] Joshua Nieubuurt: Well, I think the real big part was de Vesta and her crew came out with a, a really big report about the IRA to Congress and I, I listened to a couple of podcasts and I read the report and I was just so fascinated at how, um, people were utilizing memes or utilizing the internet and kind of PSYOPs or information ops to try and sow discord or change points of view, or how can I say, separate groups of people from each other and create kind of like a wall around them.

And I started to think about this, and I was already following like different types of propaganda or reading into it or looking into it just as something that I found interesting and exciting as a form of rhetoric. Leaflet propaganda really looked like a meme like we would have now, right? Pre-internet times how would you get your information? It would be televised, or it’d be on paper and, or spoken, word of mouth.

And it occurred to me that these things are being used in the same exact way, but nobody had really side-by-side and said, “Well, let’s look closer at these and then let’s look closer at the activities of historical PSYOPs or information ops and see how they work together in tandem.”

Or the research question coming into it was, “Are, is our internet memes, like, a new iteration of leaflet prop, uh, propaganda?” And I’m sure your audience knows, but they used to be dropped out a plane or left on the battlefield and they could be anything. But just like how memes are used now, the audience that was targeted plays a huge role in how they’re interpreted.

If you are giving something that is totally unbelievable to them, even if it is true, people are not going to believe it. If you’re talking about an issue that is not important to them, people are just going to throw it away. One example, um, this is from memory, so please don’t trust me too much on this one. Uh, but during, I think it was during the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein tried to use some leaflet propaganda as well, and it related to cartoon characters. I, I think it was Bart Simpson was in one of them.

[00:19:40] Matt Bailey: Yes.

[00:19:40] Joshua Nieubuurt: And, um, they were saying things like “Bart Simpson is copulating…”

[00:19:45] Matt Bailey: Right. Yes, yes.

[00:19:46] Joshua Nieubuurt: And uh, were collecting these and keeping them as kind of like tokens and kind of fun things, because they were so late to the reality that they were living. And so, they do run parallel to them, or at least they are being used, and even agencies such as DARPA did actually produce studies on memes and their ability to be used in psychological warfare or information operations.

[00:20:00] So, they, they do seem to be this new thing, not really new, just a new remix, just like, um, we talked about remix ability earlier. They’re just a remix of an older technology, um, being brought to the masses on a much larger scale without having to worry about planes or all of the other real material things that were utilized.

[00:20:36] Matt Bailey: Yeah. I like how you brought out, especially in Okinawa, that the purpose of the leaflets were to discredit their leadership and make the Japanese soldiers think twice about this and are you really going to go through with this? Are you, you know, really bringing doubt and questioning that that was the purpose of the propaganda? And, and I was reading through that, I’m like, “This is the same thing.”

It’s, memes are meant to either reinforce or make you question, like you said, they’re not extensive works of rhetoric that are going to persuade you, but maybe there’s something, and, and, and I’m trying to think of an example of maybe where I saw when it did make me think twice, but yet, I feel like they’re, they’re so polarizing that, that it’s hard to maybe find a meme that maybe has changed your mind about something, because it is a, a polarizing thing.

It is, I’m, I’m trying to imagine a soldier seeing one of these and you’re going to react one of the other way. I don’t think there’s a, a middle ground in that. Did you see anything like that where it, I, I mean, you gave a great example of a non-effective propaganda leaflet, but was there any study into, you know, how soldiers reacted to these or, you, you know, was it just a, a, a polarized, “I’m this way or that way and that helped me reaffirm something rather than change?”

[00:22:05] Joshua Nieubuurt: I can’t think of anything offhand, but it does seem either, um, or it’s meant to keep you in or meant to make you rethink the way that you’re thinking about things. And there are times where they did attempt these things, particularly with leaflet propaganda in World War where they were kind of testing, they’d find POW’s and they’d ask them, “Well, what do you think about this? Would this be something that would convince people?”

And I think one of the points, I mentioned something about all breakfast or like eggs with their breakfast or something like that and the prisoners laughed. They knew it was real, they were receiving these, like, meals, but they said, “There’s no way that a frontline soldier is going to believe that you are going to, breakfast, right? Or breakfast with eggs, because it’s just too absurd even if it is part of reality.

So, I think those are the only things that I can really think of that would not necessarily hit them, but I don’t think they’re intended to kind of be that middle ground, either. I think either, as I mentioned before, humorous or meant to pull, to rethink the world around you. And so, I, with their intention, I don’t think they have that affordance, or if they do have that affordance, it would probably be something that the audience wouldn’t recognize and will just skip over.

[00:23:22] Matt Bailey: What are, I guess some of the limitations, you, you talk about limitations of audience targeting in the propaganda leaflets. What were some of those limitations that you found? I, now I, I kind of, when you gave the eggs with breakfast example, I, I’m, I used to be in the military and, now I didn’t see any combat, but knowing friends of mine that, that did, the possibility of having a hot meal if you’ve been sitting out in the field for weeks, that’s an attractive offer.

And so, I don’t think that was so far off, but yeah, it’s not, you know, it’s one of those things that logically, you may say, “That, that can’t happen,” but yet there is this in, inside of you, something that says, “That’s not a bad deal, that’s, that’s got to be happening.”

[00:24:09] Joshua Nieubuurt: Exactly.

[00:24:09] Matt Bailey: But what are some other things…

[00:24:11] Joshua Nieubuurt: Too good to be true.

[00:24:12] Matt Bailey: Right, right. But there’s a point to be had there. What are some examples of, of like completely targeting the wrong audience with, with a propaganda leaflet?

[00:24:23] Joshua Nieubuurt: I think it would be much more with analytics and all the data that is available on people, I think you can target a small group, or you can target an individual. I think it’s too far gone to say, like, it would be ineffective. But as I mentioned before, if it doesn’t live up to the things that I mentioned, it would be ineffective.

Different languages or even different aspects of culture that you don’t share such as religion or political party or even just hitting the mark wrong with the words that you use could alter the way that people look at it and people would say, “Oh, this is trash. I’m not going to waste my time on this.” The other side of the coin, certain things can be used also to kind of cheat engagement, right? You’ll see lots of memes with words spelled wrong. A lot of times those are spelled wrong on purpose because people will like to comment on them, right? “Well, you can’t even spell whatever word,” right?

And, or, or the grammar’s bad to meant to pull in your engagement, right? It’s kind of thinking about things from the opposite, rather than saying, “This is perfect.” It’s not going to always be that way because they realize that this does get engagement. It’s like the memes that you see on Facebook, like, uh, “The only word that start, that has two e’s in the middle is weed. Prove me wrong,” kind of thing, right?

And those things will get huge amounts of engagement because of people trying to, you know, prove them wrong, right? And you’ll see a thousand different words with two double, two e’s in it, and people know that…

[00:25:45] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:25:47] Joshua Nieubuurt: …will feel compulsed to comment on them or share them. And so, that’s kind of throwing a much wider net there.

[00:25:54] Matt Bailey: It does. And it, it certainly takes advantage of the popularity algorithm when you can drive that much, I, I like to, quote unquote “engagement” and, and, and it, I, it was interesting. I had someone earlier talking about email and we talked about a campaign where there was a misspelling in the subject line of the email. And the response rate to the email went up significantly but they increased the amount of sales that they made, and the VP was asking, “Well, should we put a misspelling in every email subject line?”

You, you know, thinking that, you know, maybe this is a strategy rather, you know, and, and we’re trying to talk them down off of, you know, “Professionally, I’m not sure you want to do that.” This was a one-off because there’s a, there’s nature in people to want to correct. To want to, my kids bought me a shirt of, “Internet Debate Team,” and the tagline is, “Someone on the Internet is Wrong,” because there’s this, this need, I think of people to correct or to, you know, disprove or I, I, I believe that there’s got to be a lot of people running around thinking, “People can’t be this dumb. And I’m going to teach them what’s right.” That seems to be a part of this whole thing.

[00:27:11] Joshua Nieubuurt: One way or another.

[00:27:12] Matt Bailey: Yeah, right. Yeah. So, now we’ve also seen where we, we talked briefly about politics, how they’re, they’re using memes more and more, and you even go into this, as well, about how this has become really kind of a major force of using memes to again, insulate a group and make them, I, I think, you know, we see a lot that, that enthusiasm gap, our core group get closer together and increase enthusiasm. But also, you talk about, you know, disguising as, as maybe some grassroots behavior through use of memes.

[00:27:54] Joshua Nieubuurt: Political astroturfing is the term, and it’s used by, um, political campaign that are actions and it looks spontaneous like it’s grassroots behavior. All of these people are coming together for this great idea, but in reality, it’s actually carried out by, you know, one person or an organization or a group of people trying to, once again, use rhetoric to convince people or persuade people and to kind of once again, build on those, um, heuristics and biases.

Port or to kind of raise or something like that. And it is a potentially very dangerous idea. Grassroots are, are the people, you know. They are where change really, really, really starts until it moves up the chain, especially in large government organizations, it’s going to take time to bring these ideas up, but if you have an idea and you have the means to do it, and you don’t want to be seen as the person, all need to do this kind of, then maybe astroturfing is a strategy that be used and is certainly used to kind of either plant, I, I don’t want to say, like, let me, let me rephrase what I’m going to say. Kind of plant seeds in people’s minds of, “This could be a possibility.” And hopefully…

[00:29:11] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:29:11] Joshua Nieubuurt: …if they’re watered and if those seeds are taken care of, to continue the metaphor, they will bloom into whatever it is that you’re hoping they bloom into. And your organization or your idea will kind of be the sun for them to keep growing and keep it.

[00:29:26] Matt Bailey: That, like you said, that’s dense. That, there’s a lot of information packed into a meme to communicate that level of information. How much of memes is the audience interpreting or putting their desire or their expectation on a meme like that, rather than it being solely one way communication that the receiver is adding more of what they want to see?

[00:29:54] Joshua Nieubuurt: That’s a really good question. And I think memes in and of themselves are agents, right? And they’re passed from one person to the next person to the next person, whether for the, for humor or for political action. And as that, you’re, when you share it, when you share it, right, most people I know are just sharing for humor or people who do have kind of polarized views are certainly sharing for whatever team that they happen to be on in their own minds.

[00:30:00] And so, I’m not sure how deep people are actually digging on these things. And there are scholars that are looking at them and they have found that certain types of memes don’t require as much cognitive thinking or don’t require as much, um, depth when you’re showing them. For example, like, uh, memes that have, uh, cute babies or cute animals and something kind of fluffy to say, people are not really engaging with them in a dense way.

But I just recently came across this study, I think last year from communications scholars from Penn State and UC Santa Barbara, studying memes and COVID, and they found that when dealing with kind of stress inducing things such as COVID, people are actually thinking deeper about them and utilizing much more deep cognitive functions along with it.

But they also found that by using these memes or viewing these memes or sharing these memes, that their participants are releasing their stress, they’re used as kind of a form of, and they felt less stressed by viewing them, having a laugh at them and, you know, continuing on with their stance. And so, they certainly can be used as catharsis, and they certainly can be viewed deeply. I’m reminded of the, I can’t remember what it is. What is it, like Stoner Steve or something?

[00:31:32] Matt Bailey: Yes.

[00:31:34] Joshua Nieubuurt: One of the old memes like, “Whoa, dude,” kind of things. Um, but people are engaging with them or think about them. And if you ever get into like history memes, people are really, really deeply engaging with history memes, talking about the history or talking about what this meme is not covering, or maybe adding more to the story, which is super, super interesting that just a meme can engage so many people to add so much to the conversation and, um, always double check what they say, of course, but it really, really does become participatory and it really can lead to deeper conversations or exploration or unique things, particularly if you think, “This is interesting, but I don’t quite get it. Let me spend 5, 10 minutes, 20 minutes digging into my own hole here and then finding the rabbit hole at the bottom and going even deeper into it.”

[00:32:25] Matt Bailey: That, yeah, absolutely. I’ve seen that with the history memes that yeah, that’s a whole ‘nother area that you, you could really dive into. And I, I think that’s maybe a way for making history fun, I, is, is getting some of these and, and I, I’ve seen some educators even working with, you know, high school students to create a meme about history, which now they’re, they’re able to incorporate something that they see as fun. And also, you know, researching memes can’t be bad. I mean, this had to be a fun project to put together, I got to, I got to tell you.

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[00:34:58] Joshua Nieubuurt: I totally, totally agree. I have some colleagues that I went to graduate school or undergraduate school and they’re teachers now, high school teachers, university teachers, and, uh, they do incorporate these types of multimodality into their courses. Somebody shared something recently about their students making tweets for Shakespeare characters and…

[00:35:14] Matt Bailey: Oh, nice.

[00:35:14] Joshua Nieubuurt: …going along with the story, but instead of in Shakespearian language or adapted modern English to Shakespearian language, they’re using memes or using or whatever it is, um, that they decided on, and it was, it was hilarious. And, um, it was a really unique way to kind of utilize literature memes and the internet all at the same time.

[00:35:36] Matt Bailey: That is great. And what a way to engage kids, I, I mean, and, and bring it into their own culture, bring it into their own, you know, their daily life and really study and then interpret it. I, that is such a powerful way to teach. I love it. I love it.

[00:35:53] Joshua Nieubuurt: Right.

[00:35:53] Matt Bailey: Well, you brought up…

[00:35:54] Joshua Nieubuurt: Meet them where they are.

[00:35:55] Matt Bailey: Absolutely. You brought up dealing with the pandemic through memes and I, I laugh because in your paper, you, you’ve got an Oregon Trail meme of, “You, you died because you failed to horde enough,” and there’s a big roll of toilet paper. I mean, I got to imagine that through this pandemic and, and I even, I’m thinking back just, I mean, that has been, you’ve got to laugh about something, and memes have really filled that gap that, you know, the news is depressing. The, anything you’re getting information from is, is overwhelming.

And it’s like memes have been the only thing that are providing something that you can just laugh at. And wow, thank goodness for that, because that is that catharsis. I mean, it’s, it’s almost, have you seen this as well where like meme culture just went off during the pandemic…

[00:36:50] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, for sure.

[00:36:51] Matt Bailey: …and it’s a good thing that it did for our mental health?

[00:36:54] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, totally agree. But, but with other things as well, depression or being a veteran, or I know the, the veteran community shares a huge amount of memes reflecting on their time in the military. And a lot of it seems to be cathartic in its roots or kind of nostalgic, as well.

Yeah, just about any, you know, thing that could be considered difficult has memes about it, and it is kind of geared towards that cathartic experience of sharing in this commonality. Once again, if you’re part of that group, you’re part of that “in group,” there are going to be other people out there that have that same or similar experience that you can reach out to and share a meme, have a laugh, and both of you will know, “We share this experience,” and that’s a very powerful feeling knowing that you’re not alone.

Even if you, you can’t vocalize it, or you don’t feel like sharing it, or, you know, one of a million other things that keeps you from expressing it, the meme can express it for you and let people know where you’re at or let people know that they’re not alone in feeling what they feel or experiencing what they’ve experienced, as well.

[00:37:56] Matt Bailey: Yeah, that has been, I, I think probably one of the areas where I, I think I even subscribed to COVID memes just because it, it, and, and that’s the thing. You’re getting both, you know, I would say the left and right or the, the conservative liberal, or you see both together and, and I feel like I’m not in those groups, but as an outsider, I’m looking at it going, “You people are insane.”

And, and, and, and again, I’m elevating myself, you know, into another tribe of, “I’m looking at you two fighting each other and, and it’s ridiculous. Grow up.” So, like there’s another layer there that’s got to be something we’re looking at, but…

[00:38:38] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, for sure.

[00:38:39] Matt Bailey: …just the, you know, what the pandemic has created in terms of both political, but also dealing with the, the strangeness of the situation is, I, I love the, the hoarding meme, the, and, and, and really going back to Oregon Trail, you really went back in the archives there.

[00:38:57] Joshua Nieubuurt: Yeah, I have, I came across that one early on in the research, maybe it was later on in the research, but it was just as though the pandemic was hitting before I had to submit it and these, they were coming out so, so fast and things were moving so quick and everybody was really, really unsure of what was going to happen next. And they really came in at a good time to kind of change the conversation, to kind of look at, take a step back, exercise some self-reflexivity and say, “Wow, what exactly are we doing? Is this the right decision?”

And then most people… doing, but it did offer an opportunity to reflect on it. And as you mentioned before, there is that third space where you’re neither on the left or the right, or A side or B side, and there are lots of people in that third space kind of looking back and forth and wondering like, “What’s going on here? I don’t necessarily align with either of these. Maybe I see some good points here, some good points here, some bad points here, some bad points here.”

Um, but memes do offer that, that ability to kind of pick and choose what you identify with or what you find funny. And if you don’t find it funny, you know, you don’t need to spread that jam on your toast, so it’s okay.

[00:40:00] Matt Bailey: But yeah, I love that because the humor aspect seems to be the core trait of it all. Um, I, I just, I, I look back and, you know, in your paper you’ve got the Wonka, the condescending Wonka meme, which, oh my goodness. That one has got a history on it. That’s, I love it. But I also find, and, and maybe you’re doing this too. The, now that the phones in their group chats or in their texts, integrating the ability to put a meme now in the chat, I don’t have to go search…

[00:40:36] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, yeah.

[00:40:36] Matt Bailey: …for it and copy it and paste it into the chat, it’s now part of the keyboard, that I find I don’t respond in text. I’ll go find a meme that has the attitude I’m trying to convey, and I’ll post that rather than the text, because it’s, the text it’s words. It’s, it’s, there, there’s no attachment to them. They could be misinterpreted. Whereas the meme has the attitude and, and maybe the message as well that I want to convey.

And I find in, in a number of groups, I, I went back and looked, I’m like, like 80% of what I’m posting here is a meme as a reaction to what’s being said. And like, now it’s, it’s being used as communication rather than as a symbol.

[00:41:25] Joshua Nieubuurt: Yeah, that’s fascinating. If you look back, I’m sure that we share a similar experience with cell phones, uh, to be used and you had to use the keyboards to make a smiley face or a wink face…

[00:41:34] Matt Bailey: Oh…

[00:41:34] Joshua Nieubuurt: …or something like that, right? And then came in the digital emojis. And then now we have GIFs or memes or things like that. And I have to laugh at your situation because there are certainly conversations that, uh, if I look on my phone, there’s going to be 15, 20, 30 memes and nobody saying anything.

[00:41:49] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:41:50] Joshua Nieubuurt: Um, just show it for a laugh or just continuing on like a silly conversation through GIFs that would make no sense. As you said, it does have that attitude, and even if it’s interpreted wrong, people are going to give it the benefit of a doubt like, “Maybe I just don’t get this,” and, uh, they’ll throw up another GIF or a meme that’s like, “What are you, what are you talking about?”

And I think they do, the multimodality of them does offer a lot of opportunity to really express yourself outside of just pure text-based language, which can often be interpreted so wrong so many times without tone or body, uh, language or things like that. But they see the meme, they can maybe understand it, and if they don’t, they can always send another meme back in return, you know, throwing up hands or questioning what you’re saying.

[00:42:37] Matt Bailey: Well, there’s one thing that, and, and I’m going to bring this up to you. This is completely off, off base, maybe. I, I noticed in one of my groups, and, and there’s been a sub conversation. There’s a secondary group going on about the primary group, there, because there’s one person in there that, it’s like they don’t understand how to use memes. And every time they will use a meme, the rest of us are trying to figure out, “What are they trying to do?” because it, it doesn’t fit.

And, and part of us were wondering, “Does he understand the meme that he’s using?” Because the, the words in the meme might fit, but the meme itself, the history of the meme, the, the image, the, you know, the GIF that’s going on, it’s like, “I don’t think he understands what this means or what he’s trying to communicate.” Have you ever met anyone like that and, and where, you probably call it the same, the “meme game.” Is the “meme game” strong…

[00:43:31] Joshua Nieubuurt: Yeah, for sure.

[00:43:31] Matt Bailey: …or are there people that just can’t figure out the “meme game?”

[00:43:37] Joshua Nieubuurt: I can figure out, you know, people communicate in different ways and some people are verbal, some people are visual, some people are, you know, a good balance of both. And sometimes people just don’t have the back knowledge to understand, you know, what this genre of memes actually means. And, uh, you’ll see this a lot on political posts, as well. People will use the wrong meme…

[00:43:55] Matt Bailey: Yes.

[00:43:55] Joshua Nieubuurt: …which once again, could be used as a tool to engage you, um, but they’ll share it unironically and it’s meant to be ironic. I see this a lot and yeah, people just might not understand or people, maybe your friend is just bored and yanking your chain. I don’t know.

[00:44:09] Matt Bailey: Oh no. No. He doesn’t know. It, it’s obvious. Yeah, I love that. I’ve seen that, as well. Yes, especially in the political that it, it, and again, “It fits my preconceived idea, so I’m going to use it without knowing the background,” and it absolutely backfires in them. It seems like there’s this rush to score points.

But like any other quote or work of literature, if you don’t understand the author’s intent, if you don’t understand what’s that and you appropriate it to your viewpoint, you need to be aware that it could backfire. And I think memes are, they, they’ve got that history now that it does require some level of competence when, when utilizing that.

[00:44:57] Joshua Nieubuurt: Yeah, totally agree with you. And it, it does have its own literacy, especially as meme culture grows, and there’s more types of genres, more things to talk about, more connections to media that people might not have come in contact, or if you go international, people might not understand that this actor is famous for this thing and that’s why they’re being used here with this.

I have flashbacks of DiCaprio in Django being used incorrectly now, but yeah, they require a, a level of literacy that does take time and experience just like reading or riding a bike or just communicating in general. And if you don’t have that experience or you’re not part of that in, this “in group,” it’d be very difficult.

And, but I don’t think it has so much to do with like age or things like that. …years old and as you mentioned, “meme game,” her meme game is far, far too strong, I think. Some of the things that she shares are just hilarious and I have to step back and say, “Is that, is that my grandmother?” And there’s, there’s no way I can say them here, but most of them are rather risqué. So, yeah, it’s, it’s not an age thing, I think. It’s just…

[00:46:03] Matt Bailey: It’s…

[00:46:03] Joshua Nieubuurt: …an understanding of culture.

[00:46:05] Matt Bailey: That’s great. As long as it’s not minions, I, I, I, there’s one thing that I could eliminate from memes, it would be the minions because I think they’ve, I don’t know what, what people think that just adding a minion automatically gives them credibility or makes it funny. I, I just, I’m anti-minion meme. But that is great to hear your grandmother’s on point with that. I love it. Let me, let me ask, Josh, what are you, what’s maybe the earliest meme you remember?

[00:46:35] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, the earliest one, before I came on I wrote this down ’cause I was trying to think about this, too. Is the Hamster Dance? Yeah, the Hamster Dance and it was, uh, 1998.

[00:46:45] Matt Bailey: Wow.

[00:46:45] Joshua Nieubuurt: It’s just basically a flash, almost a GIF of hamsters dancing and, um, just this really, like, high pitch song. Yeah. I have a link to it if, if you’re interested, I can send it to you.

[00:46:57] Matt Bailey: Oh, oh, oh, the show notes are going to be off the charts with this one because I’m going, I, I, Peanut Butter Jelly Time. That…

[00:47:03] Joshua Nieubuurt: I, I looked that up today, as well.

[00:47:06] Matt Bailey: And then they redid it in Family Guy. And I remember some, someone sent that to me, the clip, and I’m watching this going, “Who knows this? Who remembers that from the day?” And, and, like, my kids know Peanut Butter Jelly Time, because it, it comes up every once in a while, and none of their friends have a clue what they’re talking about. And so, they get to introduce, now, their friends to Peanut Butter Jelly Time and it, it’s great to see this, this passing down of the meme.

[00:47:39] Joshua Nieubuurt: Forget Shakespeare, forget the great works of philosophy, I’ve got this meme for you. Check this out.

[00:47:45] Matt Bailey: Oh, well, and, and yeah, I mean, I, we sometimes, you know, I remember when my kids, you know, were a little younger, we would show them. So, I, you know, it, it, I feel like it’s a rite of passage for every employee that I have, it’s, you’ve got to see Techno Viking. There is just…

[00:48:00] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh yeah.

[00:48:00] Matt Bailey: …no, no argument. You have to see this because it is one of those…

[00:48:04] Joshua Nieubuurt: Every time it comes up on my feed, I’m like, it’s, it happens again. I know exactly what happens. I can hear it without even watching it, but I’m going to watch it again.

[00:48:12] Matt Bailey: Yes.

[00:48:12] Joshua Nieubuurt: And, uh, and my, I have my kids watch, my kids are very, very young and the only thing my, my daughter could say was like, “Daddy, why does he have no shirt?” And um…

[00:48:20] Matt Bailey: Could you repeat that? You cut out. I’m sorry, Josh, but you cut out just a bunch like…

[00:48:24] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, sorry. I had my young daughter watching, I had my young daughter watch it and the only thing she could say, she didn’t really get it, of course, but she was like, “Why does he have no shirt on daddy? Has a shirt on?” And, uh, yeah, she, that’s all she could say and then walked away leaving her father sitting there, ruminating about it.

[00:48:40] Matt Bailey: Absolutely.

[00:48:41] Joshua Nieubuurt: It’s Techno Viking, come on.

[00:48:43] Matt Bailey: Yeah. Yeah. This is, this is classic. This is classic internet. Absolutely. Oh my goodness. Yeah, and you know, the Grumpy Cat, which that just created, I think that was probably one of the first characters that just commercialized right off the bat. Not only did it become a meme, but then whoever the owner of the cat was, I don’t know if they got a copyright or anything like that, but now, you know, here I am with a grumpy cat mouse pad, but it was everywhere and just took over.

Uh, so yeah, it, it, it’s just amazing the, the appeal of this and also, I, I, I’m in marketing. And so, it was interesting the other day someone sent me a, a, a quote for services and one of the line items is, “And it will go viral.” And I had to laugh like, “Virality is now a line item?” you know, “What? Are you serious?” I, memes are the absolute essential part of that is the virality of it. Especially when you have a meme generator where you can actually go create your own and…

[00:49:48] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, for sure.

[00:49:48] Matt Bailey: …then apply that. That, I think, just leveraged everything into a whole ‘nother world.

[00:49:54] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, without a doubt, yeah. The, the virality is incredible, and the people, the memesmiths, the people who are actually producing these, especially the novel ones, are amazing at what they do. They have, you know, their thumb on the pulse of society and they’re able to really, really do this well, and it’s incredible how they can pull disparate pieces of culture together and then kind of unite it with the rhetorical or the rhetorical situation and put it out to the world and then it’s embraced.

[00:50:00] It’s, it’s really neat to see. And yeah, I could see how that could be something somebody would want. “I want this to go viral,” but it, it can be a much more complex equation than just, “I want it to go viral period.”

[00:50:33] Matt Bailey: Right, right. Right. And yeah, it, it’s fascinating. Like you said, do, like, I remember seeing some of these, like, “Who came up with this?” and, and even though I may have seen the meme a hundred times with, with those words, at this point to use that meme, and, as an observation on this event. Like, “Who’s doing this? Who’s making this happen?” And there’s this, I, I, for me, a real sense of appreciation that someone is brilliant in coming up with this. It, it’s an amazing, “Who is this person?” I don’t know who they are or, or, or if maybe just a million memes are created and this one rose to the top. I, I really don’t know how that happens. It’s just amazing to see it in action, though.

[00:51:20] Joshua Nieubuurt: It really is. Yeah, they are, they’re amazing. They’re still hiding in the shadows for the most part. Some of, some of them are, um, pretty well-known, uh, memesmiths, but, uh, lot they’re making incredible things and just letting them go, you know, out into the world. And they there are making a change, even if it’s just a chuckle or somebody de-stressing or somebody getting up in arms and throwing their computer at the wall, like, they are creating change and ripples in the world through these unique creations that they have. And it is, it’s a fascinating thing to see unfold.

[00:51:53] Matt Bailey: It is, and, and probably the most real time, and one of my daughters was doing this, is we were watching the opening ceremonies to, uh, not the last Olympics, but one before. And she has her phone because she wants to see the memes that are being generated real time from the opening ceremonies.

[00:52:14] Joshua Nieubuurt: That’s incredible.

[00:52:16] Matt Bailey: And I’m just fascinated by this, that this is amazing that now not only is it a subculture, it’s a subtext behind the main event that’s happening and how many memes can we pump out and create based on a real time event that’s happening. And it’s become a real, you know, phenomenon of, you, the, you know, we’re, we’re gearing up to watch the next round of Olympics and, whoo, the memes are coming. The Super Bowl, the memes are coming.

[00:52:42] Joshua Nieubuurt: The Super Bowl, right. Yeah.

[00:52:43] Matt Bailey: We’ll see, yeah. It, it’s just fascinating that there is a, a, almost a real time industry of meme production during specific events.

[00:52:52] Joshua Nieubuurt: Yeah, that’s, that’s totally, it is part of the equation now, right? In the past you’d have to get your news or information or entertainment from somebody else, but people are the creators now. People are putting them out there to the world, whether it’s on Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, you know, wherever, Twitter. And it is really, really participatory and it really does have the potential to bring people together for good, for fun, or potentially malevolent ends. And that’s kind of the double-edged sword that memes represent.

[00:53:21] Matt Bailey: Now there, I don’t want to end on a down note, but your last sentence I think was in, in, in your paper was really, I think, a great way to sum up both the podcast, but also your view here. I, I love how you said it, you know, perhaps for the time, it’s best to try and have a laugh and share some memes, “But perhaps it’s, it’s best to enjoy the laugh for the world of tomorrow may look back and find internet memes nothing to joke about.” Why did you end with that sentence? What, what was it that was on your mind or that it, it, that you wanted to get across as a summary there?

[00:53:55] Joshua Nieubuurt: I think in the moment, we kind of forget that, you know, we’re carving out a future and if, you know, we have the decision, you know, which way we want to go personally, as a group, and of course there’s going to be obstacles and things like that. But if we can share this laugh and stay on that high note, perhaps we can end up in a better place than we are. Perhaps we can dig out of the situations that we know exist but feel powerless to do anything against.

And part of that could be just expressing these ideas and these memes, but it can also go the opposite direction, as well, and people in the future may look back and say, “Wow. They had all these warnings, they had all these ideas. Why didn’t they do anything except for laugh at cats on the internet and try to think?” So, I think it’s just best to laugh if you don’t know what to do.

[00:54:39] Matt Bailey: Great. Oh, Joshua, that was a great, great way to end. Hey, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time, Joshua. Before you go, I have to ask, what is your, are you a tea drinker? What is your, uh, beverage of choice?

[00:54:53] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, it’s coffee for sure. I am, I, I think my body is 70% coffee at this point.

[00:54:58] Matt Bailey: Great, great. I, I am, this morning I am having a, I just opened a, a new package of Costa Rican Las Lajas, and I have to say, it has been a phenomenal cup to enjoy while talking with you, so…

[00:55:11] Joshua Nieubuurt: I think I can smell it from here. It smells delicious.

[00:55:15] Matt Bailey: We’ll have to make sure, well, I mean, you’re in Japan. How, how’s the coffee over there? What, I got to ask you.

[00:55:21] Joshua Nieubuurt: Oh, it’s, it’s great. Even like, even the convenience store coffee, where you go to the convenience store and it’s their brand, you buy it and it’s, it’s great. It’s delicious. There’s also a lot of different brands here from beans all over the world. My, my, my mom came, she was like, “I got to buy like five, six packages from the convenience store.” And I was like, “This isn’t even really good coffee. What are you doing?”

But she loves it. Even now she’ll talk to me and says, “Send me some coffee.” But yeah, it is, it’s excellent here and, you know, it is a globalized country, so we can, we have access to everything. So, yeah.

[00:55:51] Matt Bailey: That’s fantastic. I love it. I love it. Joshua, thank you so much for your time. It has been a great, great conversation. I may call you again…

[00:56:00] Joshua Nieubuurt: Pleasure’s all mine.

[00:56:00] Matt Bailey: …when the subject of memes comes up.

[00:56:02] Joshua Nieubuurt: Alright, I’ll be here waiting, okay? And I’ll have a couple more memes for you.

[00:56:06] Matt Bailey: Beautiful. Thank you, Joshua. And thank you, dear listener for tuning into another episode of the Endless Coffee Cup. Really appreciate your time, and we’ll talk to you again soon.

[00:56:23] Sponsor: This podcast is heard along the Marketing Podcast Network. For more great marketing podcasts, visit

Featured Guest:

Joshua Nieubuurt

Joshua Nieubuurt

Adjunct Instructor, PhD student

Joshua Nieubuurt is an adjunct instructor at several universities teaching language acquisition, Humanities, English, and Writing. He is also a PhD student at Old Dominion University focusing on the intersections (some may say elegant dance) of Rhetoric with media and technology. He is currently committing reckless acts of Bravado across Okinawa, Japan. You can contact him on his semi-abandoned Twitter @joshneebs

LinkedIn profile: Joshua Neibuurt | LinkedIn