The meme is arguably the latest ruler of the online world. We find them on Twitter, Instagram, and most social networking platforms that encourage online communities. They are viewed, shared, commented on and “liked” by millions of Internet users daily. They are typically funny, accessible and rebellious, and prime examples of viral content that we tend to accept without criticism or analysis, which begs the question: why do we love memes? Upon consideration, further questions emerge: What permits the humour of a meme? What makes them effective? Are we aware of the systems through which memes operate online and offline? A critical observation of the meme is an exploit into its visible and hidden social powers, where we might consider how the meme can engage with us as viewers and we engage with it as active content. Throughout this study, I will ask how memes might simultaneously encourage social activity and enable social passivity. Ultimately, this critique seeks to explore the ways in which we see memes, and how we might see them critically as active cultural mechanisms in social relations.
Meme: Historical and Contemporary Definitions
The term “meme” dates back to 1976, first used in a book on cultural evolution by biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins coined the term “meme” to identify various cultural units birthed, developed and replicated in contemporary social settings. These units exist in countless variants including (and not limited to) slang, catchphrases, fashion trends, technological developments, and abstract concepts such as religious beliefs (Piata 39). Michele Knobel recognizes memes as “contagious patterns of cultural information that are passed from mind to mind and which directly shape and transmit key actions and mindsets of a social group” (411). Knobel’s definition focuses on the element of transmission and the social impact of widely transmitted information, a concept which plays a large role in the online world through which the meme of subject operates. Presently, our social world is paralleled, if not eclipsed, by a virtual one with the online platform of the Internet. Considering Internet culture’s substantial impact on the history and evolution of social interaction, one might understand how any particular cultural unit is now spread more rapidly than ever, and how this virility might determine the prevalence of the meme in today’s digital domains.
The Internet meme, like the etymological term from which it derives, can exist in multiple formats and therefore carries rather flexible definitions. At its most basic, the Internet meme is “a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission” (Davison, in Marwick 12), or a cultural unit spread amongst users rapidly enough to become a “shared social phenomenon” (Schifman, in Marwick 12). At face value, we see the Internet meme as an image or a short, looped video superimposed with text. In most cases, the image and caption are not directly related, but together invite the viewer to connect a textual reference with a visual one to create new meaning. A caption typically describes an ordinary experience and is applied to an unrelated image, employing the image as a punchline. New meaning is produced, and the meme is consequently shared or replicated at a rate that corresponds with the level of accessibility (“relatability”) and comedy of this new meaning. Consider Figure 1, which pairs the caption “Every time I see a dog” with a still image of actor Chris Pratt bearing a large, childish smile. Here, new meaning is produced in the intersection of caption and image. The punchline is crafted to demonstrate a person’s overwhelming joy in experiencing an otherwise average occurrence.
In examining the mechanics of meaning-making within a meme, Akane Kanai highlights intertextuality and awareness as necessary conditions for producing a punchline. She identifies a meme as “a set of digital items sharing common characteristics, created with awareness of each other…circulated, imitated, and adapted by many users online” (Kanai 2). While similar to previous definitions, Kanai’s own explains that most memes are intertextualized with otherwise disconnected pieces of information, then facilitated to offer one cohesive new meaning. This intertextuality can be demonstrated in Figure 2, which sees a man of colour glancing out a window while holding a machine gun in defense, matched with a caption that reads, “When the cops come and you only got Coca-Cola in the fridge.” Here, the texts are notably disjointed but come together in its allusion to an ongoing controversy concerning a distasteful Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner. Successful memes like this one “fulfill a cultural need or are uniquely suited to a specific circumstance” (Jenkins, in Marwick 12). Figure 2 exemplifies how memes of a timely and acerbic nature can accomplish humour through irony and intertextuality—in this case assigning Jenner as the problematic “white saviour” archetype against an image of a armed black man looking to be rescued. Therefore, in the format of a small visual document designed to appoint humour, the meme also offers a social criticism and summons further commentary from online users.
Cultural Mechanisms: Memes as Meaning Makers for the Collective Conscious
The vast network of meme sharing is not as chaotic and random as it may appear online. Most Internet users—particularly those who frequent social media applications—will have most likely exposed to memes on any platform, as they represents an entirely new and wildly popular form of humour exchange amongst social groups. Alice Marwick suggests that memes are products of the participatory culture of the Internet, which is regularly increasing in size and fluctuating in content (12). A. Nissenbaum and L. Shifman refer to them as “product[s] of societal and communal coordination” (in Ross and Rivers 2), which indicates that they exist not only as products of their creator, but as commodities of a culture that demands them. The “success” of a meme, then, might be determined by its number of online shares, “likes” and comments. Though humour plays an important role in establishing a successful meme, without a surge of shares, “likes” and comments, the image will not invade the social media sphere. Thus, its success greatly depends on its ability to produce meaning to which large amounts of online users can identify.
While a meme might originate as an individual’s expression of comedic strife, it carries the potential to bloom into a common collective conscious through massive online sharing. The author’s issue then represents a social group’s issue as users share and digest its production of meaning. G. Grant (1990) argues that a meme’s success within a social group is entirely dependent on that particular group’s set of values and beliefs (in Knobel 413). The replication or transmission of a meme hinges on its appeal to the subcultures in the mammoth culture of active Internet/social media users. The image’s content, perhaps a joke directed at or indicative of one particular social group, can thus “encapsulate social practices of belonging and identification” (Kanai 3), as well as propagate social relations and ideas (Knobel 411-12). The image and text together act as a microcosm of sociocultural dialogue as exhibited in Figure 3, a meme that harmlessly reflects the attitudes of restaurant servers in how they both plead for the opportunity to make money as well as try desperately to avoid hard work and social interaction. This microcosm can also reflect sociocultural conflict, however, as in Figure 4, which perpetuates privileged, white maleness in a patriarchal society and commends the act of sexual exhibitionism in a crowd of people fighting for equality. While these two images achieve a similar effect by acknowledging and propagating social behaviour distinct to two social groups (restaurant servers and “tasteless” men), the didactic difference illustrates the hazards in which dialogues might be promoted. Ultimately, and perhaps surreptitiously, the meme is a subversive and powerful mechanism that can regulate ways of personal, social and cultural thinking.
Social Phenomenon: Transforming Data into Online Social Action
If the meaning authored by memes is a form of social action, then a new question arises: does the act of viewing enable social passivity or encourage social activity? In current studies that examine meme content online, both qualitative and quantitative methods are used to catalog the visual and textual information in each. The image, text and author are compressed into data, which is then itemized and numbered. R. M. Milner’s studies observe a prevalence of young, privileged, white males in both the production of memes and in their content (in Segev, Nissenbaum and Stolero 420). Similarly, Kanai notes the “ontological expansiveness” of white privilege that is emphasized in meme creation, concerning the virtual control of non-white bodies by white bodies. By compressing non-white and non-male bodies into visual data, the white males risk perpetuating racist, sexist ideologies grounded on their own cultural position (8). However, Kanai continues to explain that not every white-authored meme serves as problematic. When the “relations between bodies are flattened and simplified” and the context is notably void of racial or gendered commentary, bodies can become “free stock” to be used freely as a form “database logic” (Kanai 8). As in Figure 5, the discernible race, gender and age of the subject are unrelated to the meme’s overall context, which demonstrates the comedy in replying honestly at a job interview. In many cases, the meme exists as a “micro-power, enabling certain forms of collective identity practice while disabling and regulating others” and participates in the social construction of an ideal or “normal” subject (Kanai 2). In effect, the author carries the power to facilitate productive and destructive conversations on social relations. Therefore, regardless of authorial intention, the power of the meme and its prevalence in social media contributes to a new phenomenon that regulates specific social relations.
Politics of the Meme: Transmitting Humour into Online Political Reform
In recognizing memes as active cultural mechanisms amidst social relations, there also appears significant political power in their nature of persuasion. While most adhere to a form of comedy as their primary means of entertainment, the content within the comedy can determine the power of the meme. Humour is a persuasive tool in rhetoric, and many memes operate on a rhetorical level when their content is of the political kind. In some cases, fundamental distinctions of identity including race, class, gender, and (dis)ability may be visible or concealed but are naturally mobilized to execute a punchline (Kanai 2). The negotiation of humour within a meme often depends on the its rhetorical tools, such as the utilization of metaphor and parody, both of which are influential in political discourse. These tools allow for “creative exploitation and imaginative playfulness”, perhaps confirming the meme’s goal to offer a political critique. (Piata 40). Further, L. Shifman’s (2011) scholarship on internet memes suggests that their humour is a manifestation of intertextuality and most often adheres to three features: playfulness (rather than solemnity), incongruity (in the connection of image and text), and superiority (audience positioned as superior) (Piata 41). Ultimately, we can observe the satire or parody of the meme as an offer of critique. Hence, when the content engages with major political figures, memes play a key role in destabilizing political discourse and crafting online political reform.
Seeing the meme as powerful in this way does not necessarily equate it to a political segment on a public news television station, nor do I intend for this comparison to be made. However, there is significance in noting the commentary it does provide, especially when authored by a common Internet user rather than a professional journalist or broadcast news anchor. In a study conducted in 2016, Andrew S. Ross and Damian J. Rivers investigated memes that concerned electoral candidates for America’s next presidency. Their focus was on how these memes criticized Trump and Clinton “in relation to some of the more controversial aspects of their respective campaigns” (Ross and Rivers 1). For example, Figure 6 demonstrates concerns over Trump’s lack of political knowledge despite the dangerous level of power through which he operates. Similarly, Figure 7 attacks Clinton for the controversy regarding her use of personal emails. Here, we can observe politically inclined memes as mechanisms of social and political action. If a document on the internet garners over half a million “likes” (note: posts do not show how many viewers it attracts overall) as in Figure 6 with over 700 000, it might be considered a substantial form of public knowledge when nearly one million viewers confirmed to have appreciated its critique. In a simply visual form, memes can operate as humourous texts that tackle political issues, and on a larger scale, they can operate as political mechanisms themselves, employing critiques that destabilize the formality of political discourse.
Future of Memes
The internet meme is a primary example of how we might alter the way we observe social phenomena and the particular cultural units we habitually accept without scrutiny. In the last several years, memes have become increasingly prevalent online and have even been commodified into a material card/board game (“What Do You Meme?” by FuckJerry) due to their rising popularity. Thus, there appears a profound power in the prevalence of the meme in both the real world and its virtual counterpart, as any action online encourages some form of social action offline. Like most other contemporary media, the form of the meme offers critique on any discourse subject to its content, and in turn, the prevalence of the meme should suggest these innumerable critiques be taken seriously. Despite their comedic, informal approach, the meme remains “a figurative phenomenon par excellence” (Piata 40). Ultimately, we should continue to be critical of the images placed before us no matter the medium, since memes, when looked at critically, are evidently agents of great social influence.
“Cashier: Would you like a 10% discount on your purchase today?” hollywoodsquares, Instagram, 23 Nov. 2016.
“Every time I see a dog.” betches, Instagram, 8 Apr. 2017.
Gesese, Daquan. “So why should we hire you?” daquan, Instagram, 4 Apr. 2017.
Kanai, Akane. “Sociality and Classification: Reading Gender, Race, and Class in a Humorous Meme.” Social Media + Society, vol. 2, iss. 4, October 2016, pp. 1-12
Knobel, Michele. “Memes and Affinity Spaces: Some Implications for Policy and Digital Divides in Education.” E–Learning, vol. 3, no. 3, 2006, pp. 411-427.
Madison III, Ira. “When the cops come and you only got Coca-Cola in the fridge.” beigecardigan, Instagram, 5 Apr. 2017.
Marwick, Alice. “Memes.”Contexts, vol. 12, iss. 4, 15 November 2013, pp. 12 – 13
“Me begging for tables vs when people walk into the restaurant.” server_life, Instagram, 4 Apr. 2017.
“Never forget the guy who pulled out his dick in front of 3 thousand feminist protestors.” thetastelessgentlemen, Instagram, 1 Apr. 2017.
Piata, Anna. “When metaphor becomes a joke: Metaphor journeys from political ads to internet memes.” Journal of Pragmatics, vol. 106, December 2016, pp. 39–56.
Ross, Andrew S., and Damian J. Rivers. “Digital cultures of political participation: Internet memes and the discursive delegitimization of the 2016 U.S Presidential candidates.” Discourse, Context & Media, vol. 16, April 2017, pp. 1–11.
Segev, Elad, Asaf Nissenbaum, and Nathan Stolero. “Families and Networks of Internet Memes: The Relationship between Cohesiveness, Uniqueness, and Quiddity Concreteness.” Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, vol. 20, no. 4, 2015, pp. 417-33.
Tebele, Elliot. “What does the president…” fuckjerry, Instagram, 9 Nov. 2016.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.