Memes and Marketing

by Rob Horning

22 July 2010

Harnessing the way people spread memes is a bit like getting a free media buy, only with far more dynamic potential. Ownership of the mechanisms that harness the value in meme production matters -- people make real money off the free labor of others' "goofing off".

In the most recent NYT Magazine. Rob Walker has an article about the ramifications of internet memes. It’s well worth reading and not merely because it mentions Carles.

Any discussion about internet memes—beyond participating in them by passing them along—is inevitably a discussion about marketing. Meme circulation is an obvious laboratory of persuasion, a sort of testing process that exposes otherwise hidden ways in which the network connects us, revealing the strength of certain circuits and what causes them to fire. For marketers, memes sound-check the microphone and PA system of the internet in preparation for the commercial messages it will be expected to carry; they also allow a census to be taken of what sort of people are listening. Proven memes serve as a marketable demonstration of pure influence, abstracted from the relevance or utility of the message. So in other words, a meme is a pure, formal expression of marketing potentiality.

Not surprisingly, the meme professionals Walker talks to are all in the marketing business in one way or another. Tim Hwang, the organizer of the academic conference on memes that Walker attends (now he works for a branding company, is puzzled by those who challenge the natural marriage of meme-making and marketing: “There’s been this weird push around ‘Did ROFL culture sell out? Who owns all these spaces? ... This isn’t cool anymore because there’s people making money off it.’  ” But those aren’t exactly “weird” questions. Because memes pointedly blur the distinction between consumption and production, they prompt all sorts of concerns about the future of knowledge work, of creativity, of everyday life as a social factory—of who makes “internet awesome,” to borrow the terms Walker picks up on to start the article.
Harnessing the way people spread memes is a bit like getting a free media buy, only with far more dynamic potential. Ownership of the mechanisms that harness the value in meme production matters—people make real money off the free labor of others’ “goofing off”. And that labor supplants work that has in the past been compensated with wages or intellectual property claims. The content of memes can be exploited, as the LOLcats entrepreneurs have managed to do. (And incidentally, why do people criticize LOLcats for being stupid? They are just mainstreamed Barbara Kruger.) And it is certainly not that memes become uncool when their links to marketing become explicit—what makes the connection explicit is the marketers’ own evocation of cool with regard to the process of meme circulation; their insistence that it be turned to account, made use of, made profitable in some way by urging the reconception of memes as culturally significant.

I don’t know if what I mean by that is at all clear. Memes aren’t “cool”—they become cool retroactively when they are reported about, exploited, made to serve another function other than their pure viral transmission, their discharge of an ephemeral need for distraction. The space in which memes are initially generated is noncommercial, almost quasi-utopian. Maybe even postcapitalist. It’s the anonymous space of 4chan that Walker cites, for example, a Bataille-like realm of expenditure, negativity, unredeemed human urges, unrationalized and unassimilated expression. It traces potential routes of circulation that operate outside of commercial influence. Walker mentions the American Indian trickster myth in relation to this, but it also exemplifies Bakhtin’s notions of the heteroglossic and the carnivalesque—in other words, it’s a discourse that subverts or mocks official culture though doesn’t necessarily challenge it (and may in fact reinforce it by venting off popular discontent or surplus creative energies). For better or worse, it’s all about the lulz, as Walker points out.

The “for the lulz” attitude can be more broadly thought of as a rationale for the idea that everything is worth making fun of, nothing should be taken seriously, not even a guy getting punched in the face until he bleeds.

As long as that attitude and the material it produces troubles us, the space of memes retains its peculiar autonomy and can function as a kind of unreflexive social critique, if not a return of the repressed. It has the potential to be something other than what Marcuse calls represssive desublimation—the liberation of formerly suppressed drives as a new mode of social control.

But that is where the meme professionals/marketers step in to play their crucial role. Marketers find such spaces and contrive ways to assimilate them—a function far more important than selling any particular product or idea. They bring tangible social recognition and even money for those savvy enough to game the system that has sucked them in. And in the process the creative and chaotic energy that fuels the generation of memes is neutered, rechanneled toward supporting the status quo.

Something LOLcat honcho Ben Huh says touches on this:

“What interested me the most was there’s this entire community of people devoted to following the rules and the system behind the framework of Lolcats,” Huh, who is 32, told me. “No one ever said, ‘These are the rules.’ But everybody said, ‘I know the rules.’ ”

At first, there are no rules but instead the spontaneous order of the bacchanalia. But then, as metacommentary about memes begins to be distributed through marketing channels rules are codified, and what was a spontaneous expression of collectivity becomes obedience and exploited productivity masquerading as free expression.

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