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The Culture Hack Curriculum

Deep Dive: The Hack

In this module, we will learn how to translate our new narrative frames into messages & memes. These can be embedded into a variety of formats and propagated throughout the public conversation: media campaigns, images, videos, etc. The intention here is to create a viral message that can spread and shape the narrative space. There are five steps in this process that allow us to hack cultural narratives. Taking into account the narrative strategy we created in Module 7, we can now step into the process of creating communication artefacts for the hack.

This module outlines 5 steps:

Step 1: The Message 

Step 2: The Meme (the hashtag or slogan)

Step 3: The Tone (the emotions we want to convey)

Step 4: The Media (creative content & modes of communication)

Step 5: The Moment (scale and appropriate moment to intervene)

Step 1: The Message

The first step in the process is to build a series of messages on the basis of the narrative frames we have identified. By way of reminder, while a narrative frame contains our deepest logics – those which guide the expression of our ideas and actions – messages are the actual manifestation of those narrative frames in the material world (the tip of the iceberg). 

Language is a key building block of any message. And, indeed, linguistics teaches us that our choice of word matters. Depending on the adjectives and verbs we choose or whether we use the active or the passive voice, the impact of the message on our audience will be different. How we choose and assemble words enables us to highlight certain things and hide others. With carefully selected language, a message can maximise the potential of the narrative frames. 

For this step, we advise taking account of the following elements when crafting The Message:

  • Adjectives & nouns
  • Subjects/Objects
  • Passive/Active voice
  • Verbs

To understand why this is important, consider the following two messages., 

Message #1: “Every person deserves access to free and universal healthcare.”

Message #2: “Healthcare is a human right that should be enjoyed by every person.”

If we compare the subject and object in each message, Message #1 brings focus on “persons” as opposed to Message #2 where the focus is brought on “healthcare.”  Similarly, look at the adjectives & nouns, Message #2 emphasises human rights whereas  Message #1 emphasises the notion of free and universal service. 

This seems anecdotal but you are orienting the reader’s attention, drawing their focus to what you believe is most important. To determine which way to go, it is important to consider your target audience. What do they respond to? What motivates them? What angers them? What do they seek? Ultimately, it is important to try and test your message. There is no magic recipe that can tell you what will work best until you are able to test your messages with your audience. Some key things to consider:

  • From your existing reframe and according to your narrative strategy create a message that you want to spread.
  • With your message are you activating the right metaphor, frame, ideology, and truth constructs?

Step 2: The Meme

The second step in the process is to look for a meme that captures our messages and spreads them fast and efficiently and has the potential to go viral. A “meme” is a unit of culture that has the capacity to self-replicate and spread rapidly from person to person. We are, of course, familiar with the memes we share online every day, but what makes a meme a meme is its virality, which acts as a super spreader for the idea it contains. This phenomenon existed long before the internet. 

Our culture contains a multiplicity of memes. A meme can be a hashtag (“Black Lives Matter”), an image (a black square posted on social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement), a fashion garment (the green bandana of the feminist movement in Latin America), a tune (for many of us born before the internet, we associate the internet with the sound the router used to make when it connected). These are mere examples. A meme can exist in a variety of forms. 

A meme will most likely use an existing symbol or create a new iteration. So, to find a meme, we must look for symbols and try to use or replace these symbols. Symbols are socially accepted conventions that establish a relationship between an identity and a reality. As a result, symbols evoke and represent that reality. There are longstanding symbols, for instance, a country flag represents a nationality. The dove represents peace. There are also symbols that are being created every day. An artist like Banksy has created symbols like rats and monkeys to represent the human race and critique society. 

To find existing symbols, ask yourself:

  • What symbols are being widely shared and used in relation to our topic?
  • What symbols are important for the audience we seek to reach?
  • How do people react to these symbols? 

You can then consider using this symbol or you can replace them to generate a different reaction from the audience. When changing symbols, the goal is to replace mental associations with other ones. Metaphors can be useful in finding new symbols. For example, a thumbs up (symbol) rests upon the metaphor that “up” is “good” and “down” is “bad”. “Dark” can signify absence or silence. It can also be associated with death, so it can thus be used to protest, to refuse to engage, or to boycott a platform in protest. This is partly how we can interpret “BlackOutTuesday”, the black square on social media that went viral and whose original intent was to protest against the art industry for profiting off of black artists and yet not saying anything in support of Black Lives Matter. 

To change symbols ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What symbols can we use to represent the metaphors of our new narrative frames? 
  • What symbols can we use to represent our message?

Be nimble, specific, and minimalist. #LessIsMore. A meme is more easily shared when it is simple & easy to understand by a number of people. It is easier to share a GIF than a dissertation. 

Step 3: The Tone 

The third step in the process is tone. It is important to think of the emotions you wish to evoke when spreading your meme & your messages. If you think about movies, the acting, the music, and the camera setting are all elements that make a comedy funny and a horror movie scary. Likewise, a photograph will generate different emotions depending on its colour contrast and saturation. These elements are more often than not, intentional, and at the very least they are intuitive. The same applies to a culture hack. 

We must understand and analyse the sentiments of a public conversation, as this gives us an indication of where we can intervene. In this regard, there are two things to pay attention to (1) general patterns of emotion (sentiment) that exist over time within the narrative communities (2) temporary emotional reactions or public responses to a particular event. Understanding sentiment in the narrative communities you want to target should inform the tone of your message. We want to find the triggers that spur emotional reactions and impact the general sentiments of the conversation. Questions to consider: 

  • What are the most recurrent sentiments we can identify in public conversation? E.g. optimism, love, submission, fear, disappointment, regrets, etc.
  • What emotions do we want to trigger? 
  • Using Plutchik’s wheel of emotion wheel (below) identify what emotions will be activated by your message. Pick one or two emotions and pick their level of intensity. 

Activating emotions 

Robert Plutchik devised the psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion which helps us categorise emotions into primary emotions and the emotional responses to these primary emotions. He argued that our primary emotions are an evolutionary development and that the response to each emotion is the one that is likely to deliver the highest level of survival possibility. The model is simple and there are greater emotional nuances not captured within it, but we can use this as a starting point for narrative hacking.

In this theory, the most influential role of emotions is to help us survive. And so emotions can be an important component when we want to generate a specific reaction in our audiences. To create triggers that generate certain emotions, we must think of creative content and visual narratives that can allow us to convey these emotions. This is a crucial moment to bring in creatives and artists who know how to translate emotions into material forms: poets, musicians, radio people, filmmakers, designers, dancers…

Step 4: The Media

Now that we have crafted the messages, identified the meme and the emotion we seek to foster, we must find the right media to spread the messages. The appropriate media is the one that will achieve the most impact among the audiences you want to communicate to. It is the format that is the most likely to be understood and shared by the audience you have picked. As a result, the fourth step in the process involves knowing your audience well enough to select the most appropriate media of communication to reach the target narrative communities. For this, we must use the information we gathered during your listening model as well as in your narrative strategy where we have built profile-types of the audience we want to target according to age range, gender, political opinions, and socio-economic situations. 

This information should allow us to determine the following:

  • The modes of communication/media platforms that are most used by your audience
  • The media formats that are the most impactful for your narrative objectives.

Is this online, offline, or both? Is it Twitter, Instagram, or another social media platform? Is it more mainstream media like TV, or the press? Or are there other forms of communication like protests, street arts, chants, etc? It is important to find the best formats and designs for your messages: visual design, sounds, film, or something completely different such as fashion, food, art, etc. It is also important to think of the commonalities within the audience. Some questions to consider:

  • What is the media commonly used by the public to express and represent ideas and sentiments?
  • What content is the most viral, the most shared? 
  • What is the content that generates the most exchanges? 
  • What is the most used language (English, Spanish, etc?)? 
  • Finally, and importantly, what creative medium can we use to speak to the audience: written, visual, audiovisual, sound, food, fashion, any other types of artistic expression? 

Step 5: The Moment & Space 

Space and scale are as important as the message, the meme, the tone and the media when planning a culture hack. Choosing the space for your culture hack is akin to a political declaration because power dynamics exist both in private and public spaces. Through hacking narratives, we can shift the power dynamics of a space by asking the following questions:

  • Should we hack a public or private space? 
  • Is the space physical or virtual? 
  • What kind of political declaration are we trying to achieve when we hack this space?

Here are some instances of spaces where you can hack into, and what they represent:

  • Spaces of production (a monoculture field, a factory)
  • Spaces of extraction and destruction (a mine, a forest where trees are being chopped)
  • Spaces of consumption (a store, a mall)
  • Spaces of decisional power (a government office, a corporate office)
  • Symbolic places (a statue or a monument) 
  • Spaces of communication (a social network, TV)
  • Spaces of counter culture (spaces that have been taken by social movements seeking to reclaim power: anti-monuments, memorials)
  • Spaces of imagination (spaces where streets and networks are in dialogue. In social movements like Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, Chile uprising and YoSoy132, the public space has been mobilised to enact actions and imagine alternative worlds. Contrary to traditional and vertical spaces, these spaces are decentralised and horizontal)

Choosing the scale means choosing how small or big the message needs to be to reach the audience you have identified. It means choosing who gets to see the message, where the message is placed and how often it is repeated. If we think like a graffiti artist for example, a graffiti tag inside a train will be consistently seen by passengers inside the train. A graffiti “bombing” on the outside of the train will be consistently seen by people passing by in a car or those who live near train tracks. Some questions to consider here:

  • How small or how big does the message need to be to be relevant? 
  • Do we want the public to pay attention because the message is a stand alone unique message or because it is being repeated over and over?
  • Do we want a message that can be placed and diffused everywhere (a social media post, a radio announcement, etc.) or a message that takes up space and therefore can only be seen a number of times (like painting Black Lives Matter letters on the road).

Time has to do with the moment in the conversation where we decide to share our message. Conversations are made of peaks and dips. It is important to identify the moment where a message is most likely to get picked up and shared.  Monitoring a conversation allows us to identify this moment, and we started this monitoring during our listening model.

To identify the appropriate moment, ask yourself:

  • Are we in a moment where the conversation is static or is there a lot of movement and exchanges? It is useful to identify the events that may be causing such movements in the conversation. For instance, people may be more ready to talk about climate change if there has just been a natural disaster or if there is a recent climate summit.  How relevant is your message in this moment of the conversation? 
  • If there is no momentum in the conversation, we may need to create it. Do we know if or can we anticipate when the conversation will be more active in the near future or do we need to create the conditions to open up the space for your message? 

Activity – Hacking with care

What we have until now is a strategy, a message, a meme, the tone, the correct medium and the moment and space for doing your narrative intervention. As we have mentioned before, culture hacking is a modular method that can be used for a small group of activists or for a massive social movement. Before launching, remember that with great culture hacks come great responsibility. Always ask, is this in service for me, my community, the planet? Is this serving life? This activity can be answered collectively, however, in the first question, space must be given to self-criticism and honesty in terms of individual capacities and needs. 

In doing your culture hack, please consider the following:

  1. Media: do we have access to these media formats and platforms or should we partner with someone who is part of them?
  1. Tone: to create the emotional stimulus we are looking for, do we need other expertise in our team? Like artists, musicians, poets etc. Are we handling with care the emotions we are trying to evoke and not retraumatize/victimise. 
  1. Space: Does the intervention point we have chosen have security implications or does it put our integrity at risk?
  1. Momentum: What repercussions can our narrative intervention have if it works well? Are we prepared for what may come next? 
  1. Ongoing learning: If you do not achieve your narrative objective, what have you learned? Do we have a resilient community?

Further reading


  1. Plutchik, R. (1980). A general psychoevolutionary theory of emotion. In R. Plutchik & H. Kellerman (Eds.), Emotion: Theory, research, and experience: Vol. 1. Theories of emotion (pp. 3-33). New York: Academic; Schulze, R., Roberts, R. D., Zeidner, M., & Matthews, G. (2005). Theory, Measurement, and Applications of Emotional Intelligence: Frames of Reference. In R. Schulze & R. D. Roberts (Eds.), Emotional intelligence: An international handbook (pp. 3–29). Hogrefe & Huber Publishers. More information on Plutchik’s framework. Primary Emotions: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness, Anticipation, Joy, Surprise, Trust. Each primary emotion is paired with another and is a polar opposite of that pair. Anticipation + Joy = Optimism (with its opposite being Disapproval). Other emotions are simply a combination of these 8 basic emotions or are derived from one (or more) of these basic emotions. Emotions exist in varying degrees of intensity.