When I was a senior in undergrad, I wrote a paper about one of my favorite topics: memes. Some students in my class wrote about important topics like food safety, the debate around women in military combat, and American foreign policy. And I wrote about memes, about Doge and Sneople and all that. If those names sound familiar you might spend too much time on Tumblr, like I do.
If those names mean nothing to you, then you’re about to get a crash course in memes and meme theory. I wanted to turn some sections of my paper into a blog post, so here we are. I’ll be explaining what a meme is, why we should study them, and how I think memetics and meme theory could be improved.
I think memes should be studied because they, like movies or books, are cultural artifacts. Memes are art. They may seem silly, or even nonsensical at times, but they have something to say about pop culture and current events. Memes are part of the zeitgeist of the digital era.
(And if you’re wondering, yes, I turned in my paper with a doge meme on the very first page.)
WHAT IS AN INTERNET MEME?
The above image is meant to provoke a number of things, emotions, thoughts, and questions. You may be asking the following: What is this grammatical abomination? Why is there a random picture of a dog? What does it mean? Or you may be laughing, rolling your eyes, or smiling in a moment of solidarity. If you understand the image above, you may feel you are privy to some kind of insider knowledge, an inside joke that millions of people worldwide are in on.
This image is a meme, specifically an iteration of the “doge meme” that involves an image of a shiba inu paired with grammatically incorrect phrases that evoke feelings of surprise and confusion. I would argue that the doge meme, and other incoherent Internet memes like it, are an integral part of Internet culture and communication. Why? As previously stated, memes are cultural artifacts. They say something about our current society. Internet memes in general, whether they be nonsensical, serious, or politically charged, are important cultural artifacts that can be excavated and analyzed. Just as scholars and historians study letters, pamphlets, and other forms of correspondence, so should memes be given the same amount of validity. They are woven into the very fabric of the Internet, they are a form of linguistic currency, they are an informational virus that easily spreads.
But what is a meme? And what is an Internet meme? Scott Atran explains that “the concept of meme, introduced by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in The Selfish Gene, is now defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation’.” Like a gene, a meme is replicated until it either achieves dominance or is killed off by other, more popular memes.
A meme can be any cultural artifact that is passed from person to person, from mind to mind. It can be an image, a phrase, an expression, a fashion trend, an ideology, a belief, an art style, a song, or even a thought. The list is almost endless. An Internet meme is simply a meme that was born on or is part of the Internet. All memes, whether Internet based or not, are rooted in the metaphor that, like genetic material, memes replicate and experience natural selection. Andrew Chesterman makes an intriguing point when he says that “the trend for jeans, we might say, has spread like genes.”
Many comparisons have been made between memes and evolution. Scientific rhetoric and jargon is often used to explain what a meme is. Memetics is criticized for this very reason, and has been explained away as pseudoscience because, unlike an actual human gene, memes do not have an independent existence. Memetics is also criticized because “emotional behaviors do not imitate well or at all.” But I am not here to support or refute memetics or meme theory, I am here to explain how I view memes and propose that a new metaphor be used. If we look at memes through a more humanities focused lens, rather than a scientific one, we might be able to avoid these common criticisms of memetics and meme theory.
MEDIA ECOLOGY, MEMES, AND MCLUHAN
According to communication scholar, Neil Postman, “Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival.” Media ecology focuses on media environments, rich landscapes that are populated by different mediums. The assumption of media ecology is the media and technology have a profound impact on human interaction. Using this lens, it can be said that memes are part of the Internet environment. As parts of the environment, they can impact humans in different ways. The doge meme causes confusion in some and laughter in others. No matter what emotions it spawns, it is successfully shared and passed around the Internet. The fact that it is a meme is what makes it so memorable, if doge was the star of an advertisement or a cartoon character, it would have a different meaning. This harkens back to the idea of extensions, first proposed by Marshall McLuhan.
An extension is anything that extends ourselves, that extends a human being. A car is an extension of your legs, a telephone is an extension of your voice. A meme could either be an extension of your mind or your DNA, depending on the metaphor you want to use. I will refer to it as an extension of human imagination. McLuhan states that mediums, or extensions of ourselves, make the message. He writes, “The ‘medium is the message.’ This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” The meme shapes the Internet and the Internet user. All of these Internet memes would not have the same effect if they were something else.
HIERARCHY OF “MEME” ING
Many scholars have dissected memes at an almost molecular level, comparing them to self-replicating DNA. I see Internet memes as visual and textual symbols that are imbedded in culture and rely on participation in said culture to be understood. I categorize memes in the form of an inverted pyramid, with logic as the base and nonsense as the pinnacle. Internet memes range from direct commentary on current events to abstract collections of nonsense that are almost indecipherable. Memes that are understood by many affect the public sphere the most. The infamous and now extremely outdated Dress Meme that inspired a nation-wide debate about the correct color of a dress was so popular that it made it to the White House. This meme had a huge effect on the public sphere, as it interrupted newscasts and sparked public discourse.
On the other hand, a meme like Take Me to Snurch, which combines the lyrics of Hozier’s Take Me to Church with a Tumblr meme that references a cartoon called Steven Universe, is nonsensical to anyone that does not understand the layers of context, thus it has little to no effect on the public sphere. Context does not matter to all memes, but for most, context is key. Without it, the meme cannot be understood and the meaning is lost. Below is my own Hierarchy of “Meme”ing:
All Internet memes, whether they are concrete, transient, or absurd, have some sort of effect on the public sphere. Determining whether or not these effects are minor ripples or transformative tsunamis is up to history, the people, and you. Most memes may only touch the many micro-spheres of the Internet, but they still do something, they still impact someone. Memes are details, they are the minute pieces that make up Internet culture, but they can tell us a lot about cultural trends. I can safely bet that Internet historians will someday pore over Take Me to Snurch the same way we pore over Shakespearean Sonnets. And if our ancestors had lived during the Digital Age, they would be making memes right alongside us.
Atran Scott, “THE TROUBLE WITH MEMES Inference versus Imitation in Cultural Creation”, Human Nature 12 (2001): 351-381, accessed December 28, 2016, doi: 10.1007/s12110-001-1003-0.
CheezBurger. “#TheDress / What Color Is This Dress?” Know Your Meme. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/thedress-what-color-is-this-dress.
CheezBurger. “Sneople”. Know Your Meme. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/sneople
Chesterman Andrew, Memes of Translation: The spread of ideas in translation theory (Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co, 1997).
Fig. 1 Made by MC Gayoso in p5.js
Fig.2 Made by MC Gayoso on memegenerator.net
Fig. 3 Made by MC Gayoso on Microsoft Word
Neil Postman, “The Reformed English Curriculum”, High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education (1970).