Chances are, you probably have seen memes before. These digital texts, known as image macros, circulate widely on the Internet these days, blown about by the attention-grabbing winds of likes, shares, re-tweets, and…the occasional blog post.
In fact, when the winds of attention get to be really high, these images get their own storm warning–they become their own “meme.” Whether political or non-political, public or personal, funny, disturbing, or a combination of both, memestorms have overtaken the Internet.
The squally nature of these digital artifacts is unsurprising, given their controversial history.
Coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to explain the process of cultural evolution, the term “meme” was causing upsets in academia long before it hit the pages of the Internet.
Analogous to the biological concept of a gene, Dawkins (1976/2016) created the “meme” to describe basic units of culture (e.g., tunes, ideas, catchphrases, fashions, etc.) that are transmitted from person to person via means of imitation.
His concept, which was intended as a metaphor, was taken literally by some scholars who developed the science of memetics. Needless to say, the status of this science remains controversial. At the centre of the controversy lies the question:
If culture is the product of self-replicating ideas and behaviours that often propagate at an unconscious level, do humans have any agency at all when it comes to their own thoughts and actions?
While the “Internet meme” is an appropriation of Dawkins’s original concept, it too, leads us to question the role of human agency in the creation, dissemination, and reception of digital texts.
On the one hand, Internet memes are presented as a liberating form of active communication that facilitates human agency through self-expression and social dialogue. Memes can be modified to share funny insights and highlight new opinions and perspectives on various issues.
On the other hand, there is the realization that Internet memes are spread through means of imitation, which can lead to a passive sharing of the original message and a failure to interrogate it on a deep level. The circulation of ideas can become stale when they take the form of ideological propaganda. More importantly, they can have extremely harmful effects.
Balancing these facts in each of our hands, we are left with the questions: How do we responsibly handle the messages being spread online? How do we embrace free speech while watching out for one-sided dialogues?
Well, we can begin by questioning the ideas, attitudes, and behaviours we are imitating and sharing with the world.
Instead of reading a meme from a “me-me” point of view, we can consider other perspectives outside of our own.
Media scholar Limor Shifman (2014) defines Internet memes as “(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, or stance, which (b) were created with awareness of each other, and (c) were circulated, imitated, and transformed via the Internet by many users” (p. 41).
The cultural forecast seems to be that memes are here to stay. When the next storm hits, remember that “awareness” is crucial to navigating the winds of words, sounds, and images that blow ideas your way. Knowing this can make the difference between a [meme]ingful and a [meme]ingless life.
My research on nonsense literature has led me to study Internet memes as digital texts that are representative of the sense-making processes of Internet users. Like nonsense literature, the humorous, playful aspects of Internet memes often lead people to dismiss them as trivial. But what exactly are we trivializing? That is a question I intend to keep thinking about and I encourage you to think about it as well.
Dawkins, R. (2016). The selfish gene (40th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (Original work published in 1976)
Shifman, L. (2014). Memes in digital culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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