More Than Just LOLCats and Finger-Chomping Babies, Memes Are a Window Into Contemporary Culture

by Hans Rollman

12 September 2014

Thought not always humorous, memes demonstrate the power of whimsical humour to undermine the legitimacy of the most laboriously manufactured control structures.
 
cover art

Memes in Digital Culture

Limor Shifman

(MIT Press)
US: Oct 2013

What makes a meme?

Are memes a form of communication, or a form of ritual?

What’s the difference between a meme, and other forms of viral content?

And what determines whether a meme will be successful? For that matter, what qualifies as success for a meme? The simple act of being viewed? The act of being shared? Or the act of being engaged with – edited, built upon, mimicked and perpetuated?

These – and many others—are the sorts of questions Limor Shifman tackles in Memes in Digital Culture, which describes itself as a primer to the world of memes. In fact, it’s much more thorough and stimulating than a simple introductory text; not surprising, given that Shifman is attempting to introduce the reader to a fairly new field.

Not that the idea of a ‘meme’ itself is new. As she explains, the term was developed in 1976 by Richard Dawkins “to describe small units of culture that spread from person to person by copying or imitation.” Back then the term and concept – associated with the movement to apply biological, evolutionary theory to culture change – sparked extensive debate: What did it mean? What qualified as a meme? Did the concept actually describe something real, something new, something useful?

The academic discussion around memes has been renewed with even greater vigor in recent years, as the Internet has created a whole new medium and arena for the development, transmission and evolution of memes. Memes aren’t a product of the internet, of course – Shifman identifies some ongoing memes that date as far back as World War II. Yet it has provided a heightened environment particularly conducive for the development and spread of memes. The ease with which users can create and alter visual and textual content, and the instant and easy access to millions of other online participants, has taken memes and their study, memetics, to a whole new level.

Indeed, says Shifman, we now live in a hypermemetic era, “in which almost every major public event sparks a stream of memes.” Of course, the interesting thing is that the concept was taken up by Internet users in an almost separate discussion from ongoing debates about memes that were occurring in academic circles. The result has been an even more complex debate about what constitutes memes, one in which academic and popular understandings compete with each other. Books like Shifman’s are an effort to reconcile these complicated and competing meanings.

After exploring the history and debates surrounding the term, Shifman presents her own definition, describing an Internet meme as:

(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which
(b) were created with awareness of each other, and
(c) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.

While the significance of content and form has been established in the literature, Shifman’s own contribution to this definition is the idea of ‘stance’, which she defines as “the ways in which addressers position themselves in relation to the text, its linguistic codes, the addressees, and other potential speakers… users can decide to imitate a certain position that they find appealing or use an utterly different discursive orientation.”

For example, considering the infamous “Leave Britney Alone” meme originally created by blogger Chris Crocker, those who build on it can adopt various stances. They, like Crocker, can use it to ostensibly defend a celebrity. Or, they can use it to make fun of a celebrity by pretending to defend them. Or, they can use it to make fun of Crocker himself. Shifman analyses this, and several other examples of memes to understand how they are used.

But the work covers a lot of territory, and it’s not just about defining memes. She tries to determine what the difference is between memes and viral content. Simply put, the viral is a single cultural unit while memes comprise a collection of texts, according to Shifman. Viral content is often considered ‘passive’ (you simply share a story or photo) and memes as ‘active’ (you engage with it, alter it, make your own, adding to the broader collection of texts comprising that meme). Yet Shifman suggests that while distinct, they’re both part of the same dynamic, and that viral content involves user engagement as well. After all, even when you simply share an item without altering it, you’re making a statement.

This taps into a broader debate: do we analyze viral content and memes in terms of transmission (how far, fast, widely and successfully they spread across our internet and our culture) or as ritual (how we use them to say things about ourselves, to establish our identity, and to construct or alter shared values)?

These are the sorts of complex debates Shifman explores in her book. For a ‘primer’, it covers a lot of ground. And, while it’s a smart, intellectual text, it’s still quite accessible for the reader who doesn’t have a background in communications or cultural theory. In that sense, although it’s not a simple book, it is a good introduction to the field.

Of course, Shifman gets into the fun stuff, as well. What makes a successful meme? For that matter, how do we define success? Do we judge success based on number of views, number of shares, longevity, or on users’ creative engagement and participation in producing altered forms of the meme? Drawing on a range of studies – her own and others’ – she makes some interesting observations. While slick, expensive corporate produced items – music videos for instance – might receive the highest number of views on sites like YouTube, it is the much simpler, basic, user-produced content that is most conducive to becoming memes that people share with each other (not surprising – it’s easier to put on some lipstick and pin a white sheet as background, than to emulate some of the expensive sets featured in music videos).

Furthermore, successful memes are most likely to involve ‘ordinary people’. While some certainly involve celebrities, the majority of the most widespread memes are user-generated and involve average people; there is a certain “You-ness” to them, suggesting that for many users, sites like YouTube are more about building community than they are about providing a platform for content.

There are other interesting observations, as well. The majority of the most successful memes involve men as their central character, but engage with ‘flawed masculinity’, presenting characters who “fail to meet prevalent expectations of masculinity either in appearance or behavior.” They’re overweight, bumbling, effeminate, and share other characteristics at odds with traditionally idealized forms of masculinity. This, says Shifman, is a response to “the so-called crisis of masculinity in Western society”, and in that sense she says these memes bear a similarity to the growing number of television sitcoms which also portray characters who rebel in some way against hegemonic masculinity. The difference, of course, is that unlike sitcoms, other users can engage with memes – mocking or mimicking or otherwise building on the original meme.

Some observations are not surprising: humour is central to most successful memes. And not just humor, but whimsical humor, presenting the bizarre and unexpected and incongruous. This, of course, poses a problem to internet marketers – humor works, but it works best when it has no discernible theme. Positive and upbeat items are more likely to be successful than negative ones, although memes that provoke a strong emotional reaction – including that of shock or outrage – are also likely to achieve success. Some observations are more sinister: people appear to like memes which make them feel a sense of superiority to the character in the meme.

Shifman couples theoretical discussion with plenty of real-life examples and analyses, from the Pepper-Spraying Cop to Charlie Bit My Finger. Videos like Kony 2012 demonstrate the double-edged sword of memetic success. While the video was widely criticized and lambasted for presenting a dangerously selective, Westernized and overly simplified message about Ugandan politics, as a meme it was an almost perfect technical success. Its message was simple, it offered a participatory action, it aroused a strong emotional response and it spread wider and faster than Susan Boyle.

Likewise, the criteria she draws up helps explain the success of something like Psy’s Gangnam Style video. Psy appeared to many K-Pop insiders as the least likely candidate to achieve breakout success: he was considered a bit of a “weird bird” in the industry who did not conform to prevailing standards of beauty and technical perfection, and who was seen more as a joke than a serious musician. Yet his video had all the qualities for memetic success: he seemed like an average guy, the few English phrases – ‘sexy lady’ and ‘Gangnam style’—are emphasized with constant repetition, and although the slick, hard-to-copy backdrop is at odds with the more basic backdrop that characterizes most viral videos, what was more important and prominent than the backdrop was the strange horse-like dance, which could be easily and universally emulated. And so it was.

Several other memes are analyzed, as well; in fact Shifman devotes an entire chapter to breaking memes down into various genres (i.e., ‘Reaction Photoshops’, ‘Misheard Lyrics’, ‘Recut Trailers’, etc). This is the sort of book that features a lot of categories and sub-categories; lists and sub-lists; but it’s all in the aim of identifying broad patterns and breaking them down into their constituent units, and it’s all done in quite an accessible and understandable manner, and with copious examples from the ‘memesphere’.

There are lots of thought-provoking ideas here. She describes a shift in our society from a material economy to an ‘attention economy’ (in which memes bear important value); her discussion of ‘user-generated globalization’ (which she considers as distinct from globalization occurring through mass media and other institutional structures) is also fascinating. And of course Shifman spends some time analyzing the political uses of memes as well.

Usefully, she adopts a holistic approach, examining the usage of memes both in democratic political contexts (Barack Obama’s election campaign, the Occupy Wall Street protests) and non-democratic political contexts (China). Shifman examines these separately, but what is striking in reading her analysis is that key to both contexts seems to be an element of one-upmanship on the part of Internet users.

In electoral politics, meme-effectiveness requires users to stay one step ahead of the campaign spin doctors and marketing specialists, thus delivering an authentic message that other users recognize as non-manufactured, and therefore more meaningful. In non-democratic contexts, successful use of political memes requires users to stay one step ahead of the censors, always manipulating easily recognizable cultural symbols in ways that mock the censors and powers-that-be, but so subtly and incongruously that they don’t immediately recognize it, and so humorously that it’s difficult for them to figure out how to respond when they do.

Memes – although certainly not always humorous – demonstrate the power of whimsical humour to undermine the legitimacy of the most laboriously manufactured control structures (both democratic and non).

Memes in Digital Culture is a superb overview of the study, power and potential of memes. Shifman has done an exemplary job of balancing an analytical overview of her subject with forays into fascinating conceptual debates. The book is smart yet accessible, balanced yet provocative. For those seeking to take their engagement with digital culture to the next level – or even just to understand what all those cat photos are about – Memes in Digital Culture is a must-read.

* * *

Image: Still from Charlie Zombie Bit My Finger video, below

Memes in Digital Culture

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Topics: memes
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