Understanding the “Internet Meme”

4 03 2009


All non scholarly references will be made in-line via hyperlinks. Scholarly references will be included in a references section at the end of the case study.

Understanding the “Internet Meme”

What is a meme? What is meant by the term meme, or what does one even look like? To those savvy with specific communities of the internet, a meme is easily recognizable, but at this juncture two understandings will have to be made. The first is of the meme as the “internet meme”, that of the “inside joke” passed on through the web (Such as Dramatica’s definition I will outline later). The second is of the meme as coined by Richard Dawkins, which I will return to later. This distinction will allow for a more understandable analysis of the two concepts later on in the study. While the internet meme is a subject that could fill a book with a thorough analysis, I will attempt to assess the concept in a manner that provides a detailed outline of some of the key issues surrounding it. Essentially, this case study will boil down to an analysis of the legitimacy of the term meme as a descriptor for the notion of the “internet meme” and find that a better framework is needed for analysis of these cultural objects as merely placing the notion of the “internet meme” into current frameworks becomes problematic.

Being that this is a gaming culture website I will attempt to justify this essay beforehand. Often within gaming culture memes will become commonplace within gaming culture, and reside on gaming forums and other make way into other gaming locales. Because of this I feel that an analysis into “internet memes” is a justified one for this blog.

What Are Internet Memes?
Firstly, why the internet? While the memes in this case have a specific locale, the internet, that is not always the case as will be seen later. However I want to focus on the memes that have originated from specific cultures on the internet as to avoid branching out too far and causing confusion. So what is an internet meme? To begin to answer this I will first turn to a look at what I have found through my experience traversing web sites that carry an understanding of the “internet meme” in their culture

Before continuing I want to warn that the two websites I am going to mention are very not safe for work or “NSFW” as it is known. The websites are known for containing racism, sexism, pornography and many other forms of offensive material. Please only follow the links to these sites at your own risk. Any further “not safe for work” links will be tagged with (NSFW). Links to these sites will not be given unless specific reference is made to their content. The two sites I will speak of are known as 4chan.org, specifically the /b/ section. 4chan is an “image board” where users may post images and comments, which often results in the formation, propagation, and replication of internet memes. The /b/ section is the “Random” section of the website, which I have found to be the most referenced in my travels on the internet. In this section users may post random things to the site, which can often be offensive content, leading the board to have an adult’s only disclaimer prior to entering the site. The other site is Encyclopedia Dramatica (henceforth referred to as Dramatica) which according to Wikipedia is a wiki site that catalogs, among other things, the memes of 4chan and other sites.

I want to mention these sites for two reasons. One is that some may feel that these are the most important sites when discussing internet memes and that leaving the sites out of this case study would raise concerns from others. The second reason is to analyse their appropriation of the notion of the internet meme. The point of this will be to ultimately exemplify how the internet meme has forms and structures of distribution that are separate from the internet culture that surrounds it and as well, a culture surrounding memes. It has recently come to my attention after writing this that Greg Urban also wrote of “structures” in discussing cultural transmission, but the definition used by me here is separate from that of Urban’s and is only used to describe how I see the phenomenon working to the reader, rather than provide any concrete theory about it (Urban 31). Any other terms found in my consideration of the composition of an internet meme should also be considered as such.

Meme Culture
Some internet websites such as 4chan and Dramatica have specific language surrounding the use of memes. While I cannot for certain maintain the link between Dramatica and 4chan on the specific language used surrounding memes, I want to stress that this is not the important issue. The references to what language belongs to what website on Dramatica is ambiguous, it could be specifically the language of Dramatica or 4chan, as 4chan is often referenced (NSFW) in articles as one of, or the dominant site of meme production. However, Dramatica stresses that it is not an “extension of /b/” (NSFW). What can be gained from a look at this particular language is not only a first look into internet memes as defined by others, but an example of how the culture surrounding internet memes is separate of their form and structure of distribution when compared to other sites that make use of internet memes. In this case, the comparison will be made to Neogaf, a popular gaming forum on the internet.

Dramatica has a number of ways of talking about memes that would be useful for a breakdown of the basic notion of the internet meme however I cannot cover all of the language for obvious reasons. Dramatica defines a meme as (NSFW) a simple word for describing an internet phenomena or idea, an “inside joke” passed around the internet. Dramatica also defines the notions of old, forced memes and “in real life” memes, which will be looked at briefly. Dramatica notes an old meme (NSFW) as a meme that has been overused, noting these as “tired old jokes” that continue to spread through the net. Forced memes (NSFW) are ones that are intentionally started by someone for the purpose of the meme gaining popularity. Finally they note an “in real life” meme (NSFW) as one that exists socially among small groups, commonly referred to as “inside jokes” that aren’t passed through the web.

What can be seen from this language is that the Dramatica community has an understanding of memes that defines its role within the community, integrating internet memes into its culture. As Malin Sveningsson Elm notes “the internet has become more diversified” (3). What is meant by this is that online environments and the users of these online environments are “diverse and multifaceted” (Sveningsson Elm 5). She notes that the internet has became an “infinite” amount of differing subcultures which overlap each other (Sveningsson Elm 3). The significance of Svenginsson Elms point can further my argument that the language used by Dramatica is insufficient for analysis of internet memes. While as exemplified previously, the language does explain some basic concepts of internet memes, it fails to realise that the understanding of internet memes does not transgress its own specific community on the internet. Further understanding of this however would be best understood after an analysis of the composition of an internet meme.

"lolcats" are image based memes which form is known as a macro

"lolcats" are image based memes which form is known as a macro

The Composition of an Internet Meme
Internet memes take many different forms, they can be images, text, even video to name a few. These internet memes are essentially “ideas” to borrow a basic word from Dramatica for now (NSFW), which are either fabricated for the specific purpose of becoming a meme, referenced for the specific purpose of becoming a meme, or an “idea” simply catches on and spreads throughout an internet community (NSFW) and possibly finds its way to other internet communities. An internet meme is either incorporated into the culture of the community or discarded. The success of the meme on the community seems to be a deciding factor of whether or not it will move to other communities. Internet memes can succeed for a number of reasons, but humour seems to be the dominant reason for a memes success. Here is an instance where Dramatica states “old memes” as unfunny (NSFW), which I consider a testament to humours role in internet meme propagation. Success of an internet meme however, is based on the consensus of a community, whether it is stated or not. If there is no reason to propagate a meme, then it will not be propagated, the participation of others in the “inside joke” is an essential motivating factor in propagating a meme.

This participation is based on the structure of distribution of the internet meme, the community it is being propagated to or within, the toolset and skills of the participator, the form of the internet meme and the meaning of the internet meme. The structure of distribution of the internet meme may influence how an individual may go about participating within the replication, or propagation of a meme. For example a video of Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” can be propagated through the internet by tricking users into clicking on a link leading users to the video. Those who clicked on the link were under the assumption the link was to direct them elsewhere. This is called Rickrolling, which is seemingly done for humorous reasons. Rickrolling will be returned to often in this essay as it transgresses many borders I wish to cover.

Is Rick Astley a separate meme from Rickrolling?

Is Rick Astley a separate meme from Rickrolling?

To return to my point, this meme is mainly recognized in its video form. Things become confusing when considering what the internet meme really is. To further clear things up, should Rick Astley the person be considered a separate meme from the notion of Rickrolling? Matt Tomlinson also has a similar dilemma which I will refer to later (189). I would argue that they should be separate memes. A participator in internet meme culture might not consider the act of mentioning Rick Astley in a forum or an image with the lyrics to his song an act of Rickrolling someone. Perhaps maybe they would however if the image contained the lyrics to the song and was perhaps set up to trick an individual. This is where the notion of internet memes become problematic, internet memes become arbitrarily defined by their audience, as the specific definition, outlined by Dawkins, is not relied upon. Is it really Rickrolling an individual if one links to an image of Rick Astley dancing or the lyrics of his song? What about images that mention the notion of Rickrolling? Do they fall under the internet meme of Rickrolling or do they perhaps encompass a whole new meme? Take for example this individuals who suggests he “Rickroll’d” a telemarketer over the phone.

It is here that I will begin to outline the notion of the internet meme as problematic, and would offer an attempt at moving toward a scholarly understanding of the notion of internet memes by pointing out scholarly notions found in semiotics/semiology and an examination of what the notion of metaculture can offer. However I will return to this after finishing my analysis of the composition of internet memes.

The cover of Wolverine #60

The cover of Wolverine #60

Thus an individual may participate in this meme by tricking others by linking them to the Rick Astley video. This can be done across many sites, and is not necessarily restricted to one website, as the meaning can be universal. Participation however is also based on the community it is being propagated to or within, as some communities do indeed share inside jokes, such as this example of the Neogaf.com forum using image editing tools to manipulate the cover of Wolverine #60. Members of the community found this particularly funny and ran with it, creating a meme that revolved around edited images. However if this internet meme, both its structure of distribution and form, are propagated to another community it may or may not catch on as intended. It is possible however if all the members find something particularly interesting about the image (such as finding it humorous) and decide to edit the image in the same vein as Neogaf.

As a side note to promote further understanding of the cultural conception of the internet meme, editing images has long been a ritual of many internet communities, such as Fark.com. Why is it now that some communities decide to denotate these as memes? Neogaf does. It would seem then that the community or individual might not need to recognize the phenomena of internet memes in order to participate in their propagation. Infact, as some memes even cross over to other mediums such as television or even “real life” how could one expect the viewers of the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade who got Rickrolled to even understand what a meme is. What if they don’t even use the internet? Does this mean the term of meme used by some communities is irrelevant? Unlikely, as Dramatica notes (NSFW) it is a simple connotation, but this further demonstrates that the term is a specific cultural understanding separate from the motions carried out by the internet meme

This edit of the original Wolverine #60 can be known as an "exploitable"

This edit of the original Wolverine #60 can be known as an "exploitable"

Limor Shifman notes as a new internet based humour type “maniphotos” which are humorous images which have been manipulated (Shifman 196-198). For Shifman, maniphotos are separate from just simply a funny photo and it must be clear that the photo has been maniupulated to be a maniphoto (Shifman 198). Shifman also notes the skill required to create maniphotos and further suggests that maniphotos became popular with the rise of tools such as Photoshop and as well, “much more humour oriented” (Shifman198). Editing images as I have noted requires specific software and skills. This could be a hindrance to the individual’s participation, or an improvement, as worse tools combined with a lack of skills are used (Such as MS Paint instead of Photoshop or GIMP) Impact on viewers and participators of the internet meme may go up or down. Similarly with better tools and skills, impact may go up or down. When noting this, I am referring to the humour I have experienced viewing a poorly edited image, and conversely a very well edited image. On this note, when discussing skills, some memes have a structure that allows individuals to produce “exploitables” (NSFW), as Dramatica would identify them, to aid others in the participation of the internet meme. Neogaf’s Wolverine internet meme original forum topic saw an individual create an image of just the head of “O face Wolverine” for easy editing onto other images. Further “exploitables” were made from this head as well, allowing individuals to be faster in creating edited images and require less skill to create those edits.

That is not to say tools and skills are a key factor in propagating internet memes, but an individuals tools and skills become crucial when considering the form of the meme in relation to the participation in the propagation of an internet meme by individuals. If many individuals in a community lack the skills to propagate an outside meme, such as Neogaf’s Wolverine “O face” if it were to ever leave Neogaf, it may not succeed as it did if it were say posted on a forum where individuals lacked the skills and tools to replicate and propagate it.

However, it should be considered if simply reposting images already created (as being done in this study) could be considered propagating a meme. I would argue that this is not propagation but replication, which could also become propagation when considering the structure and form of the internet meme. For example, if the first image of the Wolverine cover was simply posted and laughed at, it would not become a meme, until it has reached popularity and its structure has been defined. On Neogaf a common practice is to post images in response to an individuals posting that could be considered a response in itself. An example of this would be an image of a “shocked” individual in relation to a post that a user considered “shocking”.

The Wolverine #60 internet meme and Star Trek TNG internet meme merge on Neogaf

The Wolverine #60 internet meme and Star Trek TNG internet meme merge on Neogaf

Thus the internet memes structure would become that of a response image and its form would be an image. As such, simply pasting an internet meme that has the form of an image in another community would have no meaning as an internet meme (unless it was specifically identified as an established internet meme) (NSFW) to the other community until they defined meaning for it, thus simply replicating an internet meme. Propagation here would be defined by success. The Rick Astley video is a simple replication where individuals are linked to a video. Participators send the video, and participators watch the video, it is only propagated when those who watched the video found meaning in the video and choose to send the video. In theory participators could just post the same image over and over, but this might quickly defeat the memes popularity among communities.

Some communities are even based around specific memes, such as Icanhascheezburger.com with “lolcats” which are images of cats edited into “macros” (NSFW) as displayed earlier in the study. Macros are simply images with words on them that convey meaning. In direct opposition to this however it is also possible for internet memes to merge into one such as this picture of Wolverines “O face” edited onto Jean Luc Picard’s face. Star Trek TNG is a common internet meme on Neogaf. However, what can be inferred then is that an internet meme is subject to the mental processes of those in the community, where it may be appropriated by an individual, and then negotiated through interaction with communities.

Memes and the Mental Process
What influences these mental processes? Why participate in the propagation of memes at all? To begin to answer this I want to look at the notion of commercial memes, ones that are propagated by larger corporations. For example, Dramatica notices the memes propagated through television commercials as “forced memes” (NSFW), and points out some old popular ones such as the Budweiser “Wassup” commercials. Dramatica also notices this as viral marketing. Mark Deuze, when talking about participation in relation to big media and the individual on the internet, noted a quote from the American Press Institute which argued that media companies need to “reimagine storytelling forms to vie for consumer attention… and they must react to the consumer’s creation of content with awe and respect” (67). This is in relation to a consideration of participatory news media by Dueze. He notes through Jenkins that this would create a “new participatory folk culture” for news media and allow individuals the tools to archive, annotate and the ones which I consider important to this argument at least, appropriate and recirculate content (Dueze 67). He follows by suggesting that this generates low cost content for companies as well as consumer loyalty (Dueze 67).

While Dueze may be referring to internet news when discussing these points I feel they refer to the notion of “internet memes” as viral tools of organizations as well, viral is a notion that will be returned to later as well with a discussion of Dawkins’ meme. For an example of the viral effect it is possible to see a new reference to the Wassup “forced meme” on Youtube with an updated version of the Wassup commercial (shown below) by 60Frames which is seemingly meant to promote Obama’s presidency. The video has over seventeen thousand comments and over six million views as of this posting. It is hard to tell however whether or not this has to do with the references made to the “old meme” as Dramatica would put it, or the controversial statements made within the imagery of the video. However it can be seen how the video uses old references or “memes” to tell its story. Thus “internet memes” can be appropriated and re-circulated in a “new participatory folk culture”. Those that stand to benefit from this sort of participation are those who “forced” this “meme” and those who would benefit from the meaning attached to the propagation of this internet meme, that being a positive one for Obama. Thus it can be inferred that someone stands to benefit from the production of an internet meme.

Another example of this is the production of the BBC Television show Doctor Who. Neil Perryman notes that within this show there was the phrase “Bad Wolf” which was used in every episode in some fashion (26). Perryman notes that Doctor Who fan sites were actively participating in discussions of the meme and even other media sources such as The Times was reporting on this (27). The two previous examples of Doctor Who and “Wassup” are examples of reasons individuals may find to participate in an internet meme. For those participating in the discussion of the “Wassup” meme, the draw to the old references may have lured them in to the message which would promote Obama, and possibly triggered discussion. For Doctor Who fans, the meme became an interest of the individuals as it was directly related to their interest in the Doctor Who television program. Having explained possibilities for an individuals reasoning for participation in internet meme propagation, a move to analysis of the theoretical understandings of this function is needed.

Memes and Signs
Author Matt Tomlinson outlines the notion of the meme of memetics fame. Through Blackmore, he notes that memes are “instructions for carrying out behaviour”, they are “selfish replicators” (Tomlinson 185). These replicators are like genes in that they “survive” with differing levels of success within differing environments (Tomlinson 185). He notes the more defined notion that Blackmore puts forward with the notion that “Memes are instructions for carrying out behaviour, stored in brains (or other objects) and passed on by imitation” (Tomlinson 186). A meme can be anything that can be reproduced or “replicated” between humans (Tomlinson 186). The transaction has led to the use of metaphors of the meme as parasitic or virus like in nature (Tomlinson 186). Tomlinson notes through Blackmore that the aim of memetics is to use the notion of genetics in understandings of social life (186). Tomlinson’s concern is raised by the notion of agency when he (in my opinion) rightfully notices the move of agency from human beings to the notion of the meme (Tomlinson 187).

He suggests that memes are supposedly interested (he notes, metaphorically) in their own survival (Tomlinson 187). This notion leads Blackmore to argue that the internet is merely a creation by memes and not humans to ensure the memes reproduction (Tomlinson 187). Tomlinson also points out the trouble with the concept of the meme. As he is analysing the spread of the meme “failed businessman” he wonders if it is really a meme, or if perhaps the notion of failure is a meme, and as well the notion of businessman (Tomlinson 189). He then questions if those two terms are indeed the meme and that the notion of failed businessman is a “memeplex”, an “agglomeration” of memes, an example of which, used by Blackmore and noted in Tomlinson, could be a political ideology (Tomlinson 189). Tomlinson then points out the notions that are inherent in the terms failure, businessman, and the notion one must understand when combining the two in regards to the specific Fiji case he is examining, that George Speight threw over the government in Fiji because he was a failed businessman (Tomlinson 190). This is an unstated association (Tomlinson 190). Thus he argues that memetics does not understand the specific cultural complexities that exist to give meaning to metaphor by analyzing the lack of success of the meme within Fiji itself to it’s success outside of Fiji (Tomlinson 190-191).

Tomlinson returns to his concern with memetics lack of agency and lack of place for innovation (191). He suggests that a successful theory of the “circulation of cultural products” needs to seriously consider notions of human agency as well as desire (192). With this, Tomlinson turns to Urban’s notion of metaculture. He suggests that metaculture is an understanding of the “cultural commentary” on the products (formerly memes) that move through cultural discourse (Tomlinson 192). Tomlinson suggests that it is cultural commentary because the commentary would be “informed” by culture (192). Tomlinson argues that metaculture is a “product” that comments on facets of culture and that this action moves notions through discursive space (192). With this he uses the example of positive film reviews helping ticket sales, and in turn affecting the way individuals incorporate that film catches on in public life (catchphrases etc) (Tomlinson 192). Things are deemed successful or not when compared with prior examples in relation to “cultural criteria” (193). It must also be evaluated, which would help circulate the “cultural product” commented on, circulate itself and also other related “forms of discourse” (193). With this he argues that success judgements are “fundamentally metacultural” (193).

Tomlinson makes a strong argument for the notion of metaculture in explaining the circulation of cultural products. I feel however that this may also be supplemented by the notions found in semiotics/semiology, as the notion of “internet memes” carry much information not only through individuals, but through products of those individuals as well. Take for example the Wolverine images on Neogaf. These images speak through the cultural understandings of the viewer. While comments may be made about the image which may very much influence the interpretation of the image, this possibility cannot always be assumed. Thus something must be said about how the cultural objects interact with our cultural understandings. I first want to look at an argument made by Erkki Kilpinen.

Kilpinen argues that the notion of the meme is an inferior notion to that of the sign from semiotics (215). He notes semiotics as a discipline that could unite the studies of both culture and nature (216). Through Thomas Sebeok, he points out that this is possible when understanding language or linguistics as being born of signs, and not the other way around (216). In further comparison to memes, Kilpinen argues that semiotics reached the notion of evolution in culture prior to memetics and he further notes that the human mind in semiotics can be seen as a “creation of signs” as opposed to memes as memetics would have it (224). It is also pointed out how Susan Langer discusses something similar to what was mentioned earlier in this study, where signs make the avenue for distribution of cultural objects (224).

The rules to "the game", of which you apparently just lost

The rules to "the game", of which you apparently just lost

My issue begins where Kilpinen points out that Saussure’s notion of signified does not have an equal to the general semiotics notion of “object” (225). He notes different languages words for “dog” as having equal conceptual content in Saussures notion, but suggests that general semiotics goes so far to relate the sign to an object, such as a the living dog, suggesting that the importance of this lies in the fact that the dog could possibly bite you but the concept can’t (225-226). Some internet memes such as “the game” (NSFW) do not refer to a specific object at all, but rather focus on individuals’ internal mechanisms, where the individual must remember not to think of the game, and when the game is thought of, they have lost the game. For perspective, Kilpinen then argues that reality is not a construction but its representations are (226).

While I do not want to get into a discussion of the notion of reality, I want to argue that these models (both memetics and semiotics) do not seem to point out the specific internet culture understanding of what an internet meme is or how internet memes function. For example they do not define the “structures of distribution” that I have pointed out. However, the terms in semiotics/semiology may still be useful in analysis of the “signs” “internet memes” produce. Thus an internet meme may be understood differently through different cultures as noted earlier and the notion of an internet meme itself, that is its structure of distribution and form I described is a specific cultural understanding.

To conclude I want to look at the work of Alex Walter. He argues that memes are not like genes because they “do not create their own means of replication and so there is nothing for a virus to hijack” (Walter 17). He notes that “memes are dependant on representation content” (4). This representational content is referring to ideas and suggests that when ideas are of a possibly “transmissible nature”, those ideas are memes (4). With this it is possible to see that there are avenues where memetics meets eye to eye with the notion of internet memes, thus providing insight as to why the metaphor was used for the notion of internet memes. But there are flaws in memetics that relate to the notion of the internet memes. Walter points out that Dan Sperber objected to the replication thesis of memetics saying representations between individuals are not identical, and identical memes are required for replication that is similar to identical gene replication (6). Certainly this notion could be true for memes such as the Rickroll, but what of ones such as “the game”, or Neogaf’s “Wolverine”?

To conclude he suggests that disciplines should use the appropriate “toolboxes” for the appropriate tasks and I believe this to be true (18). I would argue that consideration needs to be made of internet memes further than applying the old traditional tools. Is the term “meme” useless? Not at all, for specific cultural groups it holds meaning to a process which is understood and sought to be defined for those specific cultural groups. For those wishing to delve deeper into the notion of the internet meme, I hope this study has shown that a specific “toolkit”, to borrow Walters word, will need to be composed.

Scholarly References
Deuze, Mark. “Participation, Remediation, Bricolage: Considering Principal Components of a Digital Culture.” The Information Society 22 (2006): 63-75.

Kilpinen, Erkki. “Memes versus signs: On the use of meaning concepts about nature and culture.” Semiotica 171.1-4 (2008): 215-237.

Perryman, Neil. “Doctor Who and the Convergence of Media.” Convergence: The Internation Journal of Research Into New Media Technologies 14.1 (2008): 21-39.

Shifman, Limor. “Humor in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Continuity and Change in Internet-Based Comic Texts.” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007): 187-209.

Sveningsson Elm, Malin. “Understanding and Studying Internet Culture(s): Hybridity and Interdisciplinarity.” NORDICOM Review 29.2 (2008): 85-90.

Tomlinson, Matt. “Memes and Metaculture: The Politics of Discourse Circulation in Fiji.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology 15.2 (2004): 185-197.

Walter, Alex “The trouble with memes: deconstructing Dawkins’s monster.” Social Science Information 46.4 (2007): 691-709.




5 responses

29 11 2009

aww… I just lost the game! THANKS!

2 11 2010
The Internet Meme « Montalope'in

[…] and keyboard playing cats, to surreal videos of men in crates being chased by marauding thugs! Internet memes are again ideas that catch on, become supremely popular gags and are then flung across cyber space […]

23 11 2010

[…] and keyboard playing cats, to surreal videos of men in crates being chased by marauding thugs! Internet memes are again ideas that catch on, become supremely popular gags and are then flung across cyber space […]

30 09 2011
Courage Wolf says: Punch Paper in the face. Make it write itself. « COMM 200 – Fall 2011

[…] I skipped over it and scrolled down the page and clicked on this diddy …PERFECT, almost. Well it goes way more into memes than I’ve ever even thought about, like […]

12 03 2012

Wanting to cite this essay, who is the author?

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