Memes as Global Communication

by Cynthia Davidson

While many of our students and faculty are well-traveled to the point of being cosmopolitan, prodigies of negotiating cultures physically, intellectually, and emotionally, traveling physically is not a condition of being a global communicator in the digital age. Global communication is coded into the multimodal system of signs that pervades the internet and traverses barriers of language, nation, region, and culture.

An example of a genre of global text is the much maligned, much loved, and lowly internet meme. When spread virally, memes revise to address the local conditions of their authors while opening themselves to readings flung far from those conditions. Memes, like the cyborg of Donna Haraway’s feminist parable, have no true origin myth; instead they have a multitude of origin points (it is often difficult or nigh impossible to pin down where a popular meme began) and are constantly being reborn through the art of remix.

While memes often seem innocuous, ridiculous, or simplistic compared to other kinds of texts, they frequently wield considerable communicative power. As Josh Fredman states, “The rise of Internet memes has created a new social currency that people can use to relate to one another — giving rise to whole new social structures that help to shape the future of society” ( “The Internet and its Impact on Global Communication”). Military analyst and entrepreneur John Robb believes that memes, which “generate tens of millions of impressions an hour…[s]everal orders of magnitude (100x) more than any other form of political communication,” are incomparable tools of political warfare at the present time in history, “providing a quick emotional hit in comparison to a long winded article with an uncertain payoff”  (“All Hail the Meme”).

Social scientist Rosaria Conté (2000) argues that memes are spread by actors, not some biological imperative or mechanical transmission (a theory which dominated the discussion of memetics in the late twentieth century, ie Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976). Her argument has implications for rhetorical studies of memes as a genre of text with complex relationships  of authorship/audience/purpose/intent and complications especially to ethos.  (Dawkins had argued that memes were cultural transmitters analogical to genes, a theory that was widely criticized due to the incongruity of thought models in biology and cultural analysis.) She defines the effect of memes by breaking it down into components of content, form, and stance.

  • Content –The idea/s and the ideology/ies conveyed by a specific text.
  • Form –The physical formulation of the message, perceived through our senses
  • Stance— Information about the communicative positioning of the addresser in relation to the text/message, the context, and other potential speakers.

In an online interview with Henry Jenkins, Limor Shifman, author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013), states, “While internet memes are all about individuals creating content, they are also all about individuals creating content with awareness of each other. Memes not only involve pervasive mimicry, they are also based on intense collaborative work and complex multi-participant choreographies” and they function to mark members of online communities as knowledgeable of the mores of that group: “In these contexts the duality of being both an individual and a part of a community is flagged on a daily basis: community members are expected to be original, but not too original, when creating memes.”

“pepper spraying cop” by anita hart. Source: https://flic.kr/p/aM3tYz (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“pepper spraying cop” by anita hart. Source: https://flic.kr/p/aM3tYz
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

The highly visual composition of most memes opens them to contrasting readings, as Shifman states: “Whereas in verbal jokes the target of mockery and the scorn expressed towards it are often clear, the openness of visual images and the lack of a clear narrative may invoke contrasting interpretations.” This openness to variant readings allows memes to cross borders easily. These borders may be political or cultural, as in the case of the example of this pepper-spraying cop meme that arose from an incident at the University of California-Davis in 2011. Shifman noticed that there were several divergent pathways for meme-creation in this case: one, as in the image above, was strictly playful (perhaps subtly pointing up the silliness or stupidity of targeting something as nonviolent as a sweater-wearing penguin), while others were more pointedly critical of the police officer by showing him targeting the Constitution or other iconographic images of American freedom. Yet others seemed to be celebrating the psychological “purging” effect of the attack by showing the officer targeting celebrities that they did not approve of, such as Rebecca Black, the maligned creator of the “Fridays” video  (Shifman 2013).

“Makmende Cover.jpg.” Source: http://tinyurl.com/gph2f8k (fair use)

“Makmende Cover.jpg.”
Source: http://tinyurl.com/gph2f8k
(fair use)

What Shifman calls the “international flow” of a meme, however, may call for a more specific type of divergence in creation and interpretation, since images may “need to be replaced or localized to make sense in new territories” (Jenkins 2014). She gives the example of “Successful Black Man,” an American meme showing a clean-cut Black man defying cultural stereotypes of laziness, which was replaced in Israel by “Akiva, the Humanist Ultra–Orthodox,“ an Orthodox Jewish man who defies stereotyping as a traditional male by acting in surprising, feminist ways, such as demanding his wife return to the kitchen only to have cooked her a delicious meal. But the flow of international memes does not always move from the Americas to Eurasia, as made evident by “Gangnam Style”’s massive success. Pop culture website Mental Floss recently published a review of several memes that originated outside of the U.S., including the Kenya-based meme makmende. Loosely based on Clint Eastwood’s DIrty Harry’s line “Make my day,” the word came to mean “toughest hero” or “badass” in the 1980s and went viral as a visual meme after Just a Band, a Kenyan house/funk/disco band, released a music video for their song “Ha-He.” The hero of the video became the visual face of makmende and the foundation of a string of viral variations. For more information, see Ekdale and Tully’s 2014 article, “Makmende Amerudi: Kenya’s Collective Reimagining as a Meme of Aspiration.”

Much has been made of the flattening effects of globalization (Friedman 2006); while his theorizing that community content, increased access to information, and developing technology flatten our societal structures is still debated, it can be theorized that the ease of the flow of memes across cultural, political, and even linguistic borders can potentially flatten the meanings woven across them. In classrooms, however, those flattening effects can be countered with reflection, research, and analysis. Designing assignments that ask students to treat the memes that wash across their screens as serious multimodal texts with global impact is a way to facilitate this. For example, when teaching textual analysis, instructors can ask students to:

  • analyze memes as multimodal texts, using the New London Group’s (1996) model for linguistic, visual, spatial, gestural, and aural (in the case of videos or songs/jingles) modalities (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • examine the rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, context, genre of a memetic text in the context in which they find it (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • examine design elements (emphasis, contrast, alignment, proximity, and organization) (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • research the history or lore of the meme, being aware it may have multiple “origins”
  • check the rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, context, and genre of any texts that were poached or remixed in the making of a memetic text as a part of the process of determining how it was meant to be taken/read
  • examine adjacent content and design to determine context of the meme’s delivery
  • discover implicit arguments through the analysis of the modalities and design elements used in constructing the meme
  • examine how context can provide ways to uncover racist, sexist, or xenophobic meanings coded into the construction of memes or their responses
  • research the cultural meanings of memes depending on the context in which it is found, and infer how readings might change as memes traverse social, political, and cultural boundaries
  • research and analyze reactions to memes on social media sites and others delivery contexts

After analysis, or as a part of process of analysis itself, a student could create their own meme as a response to the argument discovered through analysis using remix and write a reflection on their own choices as they relate to rhetorical features such as rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, genre, design elements, and argument. This is a fun and creative yet intellectually rigorous assignment that engages students on many levels.

Post-election 2016 addendum: I wrote this post before the Presidential election. I just wanted to add that in light of the role of political memes in the election cycle, this post may seem somewhat disengaged from current events, but I feel even more strongly that there is so much work to be done in responding to memetic cycling in a reflective, thoughtful, critical, and non-reactive manner by scholars, teachers, writers, and students across the globe.

For example, I have been reviewing the probable connection between the results of the election and anti-feminist memetic turns that were spread primarily through social media; these were out in the open, unhidden, for the most part, yet few were aware of their impact. These memes are also local and global. No one factor causes an election to occur, and this is only one meme cycle among countless others. The bottom line, as far as I can see, is that we all need to review and reflect upon points of view that may trigger us or turn us off, and understand for whom, and why, they are effective communicators.

What is your experience with memes either inside or outside the classroom? How do you feel that this medium for cultural expression can and should be used to positive rather than negative effect? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Works Cited

Arola, Kristin, Cheryl E. Ball, and Jennifer Sheppard. Writer/Designer. 1st ed., Bedford-St. Martins, 2014.

Conté, Rosaria. “Memes Through (Social) Minds.” Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, edited by R. Aunger, Oxford UP, 2000. pp. 83-120.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford UP, 2006.*

Ekdale, Brian, and Melissa Tully. “Makmende Amerudi: Kenya’s Collective Reimagining as a Meme of Aspiration.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 31, no. 4, 2014, pp. 283-298, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15295036.2013.858823. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Fredman, Josh. “The Internet & Its Impact on Global Communication.Tech in Our Everyday Life, 2016, techin.oureverydaylife.com/internet-its-impact-global-communication-2961.html. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, 1991, pp.149-181.

Jenkins, Henry. “A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview With Limor Shifman (Part 1).Confessions of an ACA-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, February 17, 2014, henryjenkins.org/2014/02/a-meme-is-a-terrible-thing-to-waste-an-interview-with-limor-shifman-part-one.html. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Just A Band–Ha-He.” YouTube, uploaded by justabandwidth, 14 March 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mG1vIeETHc.

Miss Cellania. “International Internet Memes.” Mental Floss, April 9, 2013, mentalfloss.com/article/49977/international-internet-memes. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.”  Harvard Educational Review, vol. 66, no. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 60-92, newarcproject.pbworks.com/f/Pedagogy%2Bof%2BMultiliteracies_New%2BLondon%2BGroup.pdf. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Robb, John. “All Hail the Meme, the New King of Political Communications.” Global Guerrillas, 16 August 2016, globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2016/08/the-mediaglyph.html. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Shifman, Limor. “Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling With a Conceptual Troublemaker.Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 18, 2013, pp. 362–377. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016,  doi:10.1111/jcc4.12013.

*original edition 1976

Image credits:

“Makmende Cover.jpg.”  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Album_Makmende_Cover.jpg  (fair use)

“pepper spraying cop” by anita hart. Source: https://flic.kr/p/aM3tYz  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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About josephtlabriola

Joe Labriola is an author, blogger, and lecturer of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. He enjoys writing, swimming, and cooking crazy Joe-coctions. His more eccentric hobbies include collecting beach glass, reading great books at bars, and describing himself in the third person when writing "about me" biographies. Please visit some of his very professional social media sites for more info!
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