Drawing on material and consumer culture studies, Valerie Ng explores memes and their place in everyday life.
With the way memes are deployed on social media, discussion threads and personal conversations, it can be hard to see them as anything other than “insignificant embodiments of silliness and whimsicality” (Shifman 2014). Yet, as memes steadily entrench themselves in both virtual and real discourse, it has become increasingly important to see them as serious cultural objects. Oxford Living Dictionaries defines a meme as “an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations”. What stands out is the occupation and spread of memes through virtual networks, and the fact that they are constantly mutating – ‘formats’, rather than permanent objects.
It is necessary – albeit a little too obvious – to state that a defining characteristic and operating mechanism of meme culture is user participation. After all, this is how they propagate and exist. As inherently semiotic and linguistic tools of self-expression (Cannizzaro 2016), users (amateur and professional) employ them in the strategic curation of blogs, feeds and conversations. The adoption of meme culture as a corporate marketing strategy is testament to its appeal and influence:
Social media platforms not only enable producers of new memes to gain initial audiences (with the Surprised Pikachu meme created by a Tumblr user), but also facilitate the partly organic, partly algorithmic spread of memes by consumers to more consumers. This participation can be recast as prosumption, where users are both consumers and producers of content (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). They consume memes online, and in turn post their own using these established formats, contributing labour to produce and circulate them.
It gets even more complicated with the monetisation of memes, such as ad-supported YouTube meme channels trafficking in their own as well as other people’s memes, driving further consumption by their audience, while also consuming the latest trends in order to produce. YouTuber Gabbie Hanna took advantage of online mockery of her awkward high notes in a video promoting her music by sharing compilations of videos edited by viewers replacing her voice with sounds such as animal squeals (Gehring 2018), and even producing related merchandise (Hanna 2018). Whether this move exhibits her business acumen or naked greed, it is fascinating to see the loop of content from consumption of Hanna’s music and video production by fans, and back to the consumption of said videos and production of publicity by Hanna. The blurring of the lines between consumer and producer is part of the wider ability and agency to produce, discuss and share content that are inherently embedded in social networks.
It’s one thing to adapt popular meme formats for one’s own use, but how are the originals created? More importantly, how are they acknowledged as memes in the first place? How does the hive mind of the Internet come together to decide what sparks joy? These questions interest scholars and marketers alike; in the end, we have to recognise that these objects can and do take on lives of their own. Hanna’s promotional video was not intended to be humorous; the mockery and subsequent ‘meme-ing’ of the video through edits was rooted in meaning created entirely by unaffiliated viewers of the video. Those seconds of singing were imbued with the humour that everyone else saw and brought out of context into videos and soundbites that proliferated across the Internet. This change in meaning was co-constituted with a change in the video’s own physicality (editing), turning it into an explicitly-created humorous object.
Everything discussed so far has been made possible by this unique (im)materiality of memes. For most objects such as furniture or artificial lights, there is a design and manufacturing process, up to the final product being consumed. However, with memes, there is no final product. Drawing on Bruns (2007), memes belong to a group of “temporary” and “unfinished” objects that evolve through revision. Yet, unlike Bruns’ example of crowdsourced Wikipedia pages, where there is ultimately still one product site, memes exist in as many places as they are posted. Further, the spread of a meme almost always involves the original format and its varied adaptations. Thus, Shifman contends, memes must be studied in groups, for they are difficult to interpret “in isolation from a broader array of memes that [they reference] and [are] in reference to” (Lehman et al. 2016). One such group is that of the Distracted Boyfriend meme which portrays a boyfriend’s wandering eyes in front of his partner, serving as a metaphor for other situations, including:
What is unique to memes in general as objects is their iterative nature, which is linked to their temporality and construction. Focusing on photo-based memes such as the Distracted Boyfriend format, we can see how the imitation and editing of variants rely heavily on the format’s features; the obvious editing of the image (black text on white labels on a stock photo) becomes a proof of work that invites future adaptation. The impact of the highly visual nature of the prosumption of memes is made articulate in Shifman’s (2014) concept of “prospective photography”, where such images are perceived “as the raw material…for future incarnations”. Online meme-generators serve as catalogues of blank templates awaiting witty captioning or graphic manipulation. Shifman’s declaration that “the memetic photo is essentially a living object” touches on the defining characteristic of memes: their mutation. Some (if not all) prosumers of memes have internalised this continual iterative process embedded in and implied by the meme format’s very materiality …and it shows.
In the end, it is still difficult to wholly pin down what memes are, although it is important to recognise its unique participatory element, which incorporates both the sharing of memes but also invitations to produce iterations and variations. They have become jokes, social media tools, and cultural products across generations, geographies, and the political spectrum. We have barely scratched the surface of its implications and role in modern society; the future of memes, their form, function and effect, evolve every moment and remain to be seen.
This is a very brief introduction into memes as a material/immaterial object, inspired by the SO313 Material Culture and Everyday Life course. Do look out for future posts examining the crossing over of memes into real, physical life, and engaging with its applications in comedy and the alt-right movement, among others! But for now, thanks for coming to my TED talk.
Valerie Ng is an undergraduate student in the LSE Sociology Department, with research interests in memes, personal productivity and self-tracking movements. She can be reached at email@example.com.
- Bruns, Axel (2007) Produsage: Towards a Broader Framework for User-Led Content Creation. In Proceedings Creativity & Cognition 6, Washington, DC
- Cannizzaro, S. (2016) ‘Internet memes as internet signs: A semiotic view of digital culture’, Sign Systems Studies, 44(4), pp. 562-586
- Gehring, M. (2018) ‘Gabbie Hanna Fully Embraces Her “What If I’m A Monster” Meme Status’, MTV News. [online] Available at: http://www.mtv.com/news/3106450/gabbie-hanna-what-if-im-a-monster-meme/ [Accessed on 14 May 2019]
- Lehman, C., Rowland, N. J., and Knapp, J. A. (2016) ‘Memes in Digital Culture, edited by Limor Shifman. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014 x + 200 pp. $15.95 paper.’, The Information Society, 32(2), pp. 162-163
- Ritzer, G. and Jurgenson, N. (2010) ‘Production, Consumption, Prosumption’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 10(1), pp. 13-36
- Shifman, L. (2014) ‘The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres’, Journal of Visual Culture, 13(3), pp. 340-358
- Figure 1
Denny’s (@DennysDiner). (2019) ‘daughter: mom, why is my name Petunia?’, Twitter. [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/DennysDiner/status/1134504288141664256 [Accessed on 16 May 2019]
- Figure 2
Distracted Boyfriend meme. (2017) In Know Your Meme. [online] Available at: https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1287559-distracted-boyfriend [Accessed on 16 May 2019]
- Figure 3
Peters, L. (2017) ‘The Best “Disloyal Man” Meme Tweets Just Made Cheating On Bae Cool Again’, Bustle. [online] Available at: https://www.bustle.com/p/the-best-disloyal-man-meme-tweets-just-made-cheating-on-bae-cool-again-78711 [Accessed on 16 May 2019]