An Investigation of Memes, Meaning, and Linguistic Competence Online and IRL
OUT OF OFFICE
@jayemsey x dr. anastasia kārkliņa gabriel
Published June 1st, 2021
• Our notes are in the comments of this deck, so make sure to read them for more context!
• We’re Jenny, a cultural intelligence strategist, writer, and Very Online™ person, currently at Nonfiction Research in New York City (you may know me from What We Owe to Each Other and the Practical Value of Empathy, my exploration of moral obligation and pandemic culture using the sitcom The Good Place); and Anastasia, a PhD-trained cultural strategist and brand consultant
For more on linguistic competence in meme construction and interpretation, and the practice of memeing responsibly, watch our talk at Digital Void’s “The Meme in the Moment” Festival, “Please Meme Responsibly: Language, Memes, and Meaning” 🐸
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The internet is a weird and wonderful place, and now more than ever, we rely on it as an anchoring presence in our lives; everyone and everything is on it, and its utility is inescapable.
Now, we’re left to examine our digital legacy and speculate about where we go from here—how we have shaped the internet and how it has shaped us.
In this deck we’ll explore where internet memes come from and their effects on language and communication: how ideas form, how they spread, and why they go viral.
THE WILD WEST OF THE INTERNET 🤠
• “The 50 Greatest Moments in Internet History” (Esquire)
Klein is a cultural theorist and strategist, whose work focuses on the psychosocial implications of technology on human behavior.
He also wrote his thesis on virality and writes a newsletter called ZINE that examines the intersection of cultural trends, cyberpsychology, and marketing, so his input was the perfect complement to our research.
You can follow him on Twitter and read his interview in full here.
SPECIAL THANKS TO:GUEST EDITOR MATT KLEIN 🤖
We tend to think of memes as purely digital modes of expression, or at an even more basic level, image macros, but the meaning of the word has since expanded. Today, the dictionary definition is simply “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.”
Memes are cultural and linguistic media that serve as a kind of shorthand for taste, style, or personality. Functionally, they are images that are remixed and circulated, but in essence they are a shortcut to social acceptance: a shared language of relatability, and a surface-level way of signaling something about yourself and your interests to facilitate connection with other people, without divulging too much personal information.
Phrases like “Looking for a partner in crime!” “Let’s go on an adventure!” and “Here to find the Pam to my Jim!” are so common that they’ve come to signal a specific type of partner-seeker who is defined by their lack of unique interests ... [it is] evidence that these near-universal traits are, in fact, the most interesting elements of their personalities—or at least the only ones they’re willing to share with the internet.
WHAT’S IN A MEME? 🌮
“Why is everyone on Tinder so obsessed with tacos?” (Vox)
• Memes don’t just have to be images or videos; they can be feelings (AKA “vibes”) and ideas
• Thrillist offered its own set of defining characteristics for memes:
• Message: There needs to be a clearly definable, central message or reference that’s understood, and relatable by commonly shared knowledge or experience. The medium of the message isn’t relegated to an image and text; it can be either, or both. Or video, or solely audio.
• Evolution: The meme cannot remain static. It must be adopted and remixed by a community of people that embrace it.
• Malleability: It must aid in its own evolution by having defined characteristics that can be changed while maintaining and preserving some semblance of the original message.
• Effect: It has to reach a certain level of popularity and understanding, or the message won’t matter. (“I Found the World's First Meme With Help From Meme Historians,” Thrillist)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ONE: A History of Memes ⏳
TWO: Modern Memes & Communication 📱
THREE: Cultural Impact 💥
FOUR: The Future of Memes 🔮
FIVE: Final Thoughts ✨
*Hot tip: Click on the chapter links to skip around
A HISTORY OF MEMES ⏳
THE SCIENTIFIC ORIGIN OF MEMES 🧬
THE DIGITAL (R)EVOLUTION 👾
*Hot tip: Click on the sub-topic links to skip around
“A brief history of memes” (BBC Ideas), Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (René Girard)
The word “meme” was coined by legendary evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, in which he noted:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
He created this word as an abbreviation of the Greek root mimeme which refers to something imitated, to convey the idea of “a unit of cultural transmission.”
THE SCIENTIFIC ORIGIN OF MEMES 🧬
The resulting field of study, memetics, is an evolutionary theory of the dissemination of information and culture (though Dawkins has not contributed to this research since). There’s also the theory of mimetic desire, proposed by French philosopher René Girard, which posits that we assign value to things that we know other people value.
Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desire.
• How memetics relates to mimetic desire: “Like genes, memes can undergo small, random adaptations as they move through a culture—but those adaptations are never the result of an intentional process ... here are three key points to know in terms of their relationship to mimesis:
A — Memes seek to imitate or replicate themselves perfectly
B — Memes don’t care who their host is
C — In meme theory, imitation is viewed as positive because only what is imitated survives” (“Mimetic Desire 102,” Anti-Mimetic)
• “But experience shows the opposite is true: people are models that endow random objects with value and make them worthy of imitation. Would people have been belting out the song “Shallow” in bars in 2019 if they’d first heard it from some busker in Santa Monica instead of as a duet between Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the film A Star Is Born? ... A more immediate example is this: why do some people wear MAGA hats and why would others not wear a MAGA hat if their lives depended on it? This is an example of negative imitation. The determination never to wear a hat that says “Make American Great Again” has nothing to do with the color red, nor a political critique of the idea of American greatness. It has to do with the person modeling the hat: Donald Trump.” (“Memetic Theory versus Mimetic Theory,” Mimetic Theory)
The concept of internet memes, pieces of media copied and quickly spread online, was introduced by attorney and internet law expert Mike Godwin in 1994, who posited that memes are ideas that function “in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a “viral meme”) may leap from mind to mind, much as viruses leap from body to body.”
Godwin noticed that online discussions were filled with casual hyperbolic comparisons to Nazis, from debates about birth control to gun rights. So he developed a “counter-meme,” which he called the Godwin’s Law—“As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1”—which he then posted to any group gratuitously using Nazi references.
And thus, the first internet meme was born.
“Meme, Counter-meme” (WIRED)
THE DIGITAL (R)EVOLUTION 👾
• “How did we get here? In the olden days of internet memes, circa the early 2010s, formats like ragecomics had enormous staying power (and, in fact, are seeing somewhat of a nostalgia-fueled resurgence). Perhaps this was because there were more bottlenecks to meme production: internet speeds were slower, limiting what you could upload, and image-editing software was worse. Fewer people were on the internet making things. As a result, good memes had limited competition and a lot of tinder to burn through, meaning stuff that was of reasonable quality stuck around.” (“Memes are dying faster than ever,” Dirt)
• “The Shepard Fairey OBEY logo (circa ‘89), the Lord of the Rings-inspired “Frodo Lives” graffiti (circa 1970), and the Church of the SubGenius (circa '59) are all prime examples; other transferable doodles like “Kilroy was here” and the “stussy S” spread through textbooks, walls, and basically every other surface you could mark as a counterculture statement and a precious in-joke.” (“I Found the World's First Meme With Help From Meme Historians,” Thrillist)
“Talking to the Man Behind ‘Loss,’ the Internet’s Longest-Running Miscarriage ‘Joke’” (New York Magazine), “Cottagecore Was Just the Beginning” (The Atlantic)
Kaitlyn Tiffany of The Atlantic notes that “the impulse for classification is a staple of internet life”—essentially, people enjoy using memes because they are recognizable to a specific subset of people, signaling belonging to a specific group or subscribing to a specific aesthetic, like a large-scale inside joke. Memes used to be built on niche context, like the infamous “Loss” comic (and its many iterations), but now they are predicated on pop culture context. They possess a quality called “intertextuality,” or that their meaning references an exi