Defining Memes and Their History
Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It ascribed transitory properties to an idea, behaviour or style, communicable from person to person within a culture. In Dawkins’ eyes these behaviours, ideas and skills (being nice to someone, free speech and tying your shoes) were as much an aspect of natural selection as better eyesight, higher intelligence and stronger bones.
In contrast an Internet meme is deliberately changed by human creativity. Unlike genes, or Dawkins’ ‘meme’, there is no attempt at accuracy or verbatim copying. Internet memes are deliberately changed and tampered with, creating engineered evolutionary chains, some gaining longevity, others living fleeting lives.
We unconsciously imitate others, especially parents or ones we admire. In terms of gestures, figures of speech or accents. This imitation is the basis of Dawkins theory on the evolution of the human mind. Does this make Internet memes the evolution of the digital era?
In 2014 Limor Shifman wrote on memes in digital culture, explaining them as:
“a group of digital items that share common characteristics of form and content; that are created with awareness of each other, that are circulated, imitated and transformed via the internet by multiple users.”
Shifman believed a fundamental attribute of a meme was intertextuality: as they often relate to each other in complex, creative and surprising ways. We can see this in the usage of 90s kids TV shows (#only90skidswillremember) such as The Simpsons, Scooby Doo, Jimmy Neutron and Arthur. The language trope from the Scooby Doo Meme “This isn’t weed Shaggy” has been used across different images, seen on Arthur memes and even memes including Eastenders. Limor saw memes as a type of bottom- up expression that blend popular culture references, politics and participation.
The meme encapsulates some of the most fundamental aspects of contemporary Internet culture. Akin to Dawkins description of IRL memes as an evolution of the human mind, URL memes shape and reflect social mindsets. It is this participatory culture that makes them so popular on web 2.0 platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Like many 2.0 applicators memes diffuse from person to person. At any given moment, many memes are searching for the attention of users online, however; only memes suited to a socio-cultural environment are spread successfully, while others become extinct.
Memes as Folk Art
It could be said that conceptual artist Jeremy Deller works in a way that memes do. Much of his work is collaborative and seeks to restrain the idea of the artist ego. This can be likened to memes, which are only kept alive by their collaborative and participatory nature and aren’t made by artists egos but rather creators whose only wish is for the meme to spread through the internet, changing artists hands as it goes.
Folk or popular culture attracts Jeremy Deller’s interest because it combines wit, inventiveness and creativity in a way that distinguishes it clearly from mass culture. This is the same with meme culture, like folk art, combines wit, inventiveness and creativity. People go to the effort of creating and imitating a simple image and caption, to be involved in an online discourse across cultures. Yet with a meme, and to the same extent, folk art, one may relate to one cultural group or even specific person and another not at all.
Jeremy Deller describes folk art the book (co-authored by Alan Kane) Folk Archive as a practise that includes: “humour, modernity, insight, a unique voice or perspective, motifs we recognise, and ones we don’t, attempts to tackle ambitious subjects, refreshing directness or effectiveness, endeavours beyond normal expectation, pathos or just something extra.” He goes on to say that folk art has “one aspect common to all contributions is that they have been authored by individuals who would perhaps not primarily consider themselves artists.” This can be related to memes in the sense that the people making them, may not call themselves artists, yet are being creative and adding to the digital culture that memes live in. They too are humorous and insightful, carry a unique voice and relatable to different communities that make them.
Folk art is generally a cultural product created through individual communities, not through larger educational systems that inform us what it means to be ‘cultured’. You don’t need to attend an art school to make folk art, nor do you need to display it in a gallery to gain recognition from the people who are important to you. Memes are similar, art school graduates might sometimes produce them but no one is asking for qualifications on 4chan.
Equally the tools being employed to make folk art and memes are the ones that are accessible to a given place or time. “I’m using this particular clay because I can dig it out the earth near my house” or “I’m using this editing software because I downloaded it on my laptop”. Nor is a masterful approach required, folk art is appreciated for its personality, often termed naivety, memes for their anti-aesthetic.
There has even become market for meme related paraphernalia: t-shirts, stickers, badges, hats, mugs etc, in a similar way to the commodification of folk art movements. Travel to any post-colonial nation and you might come across people replicating folk art traditions as a cottage industry.
Memes R (us) Democratic
We live in a prosumer society. Web 2.0 has allowed for the creation and dissemination of amateur content. People are no longer satisfied with simply consuming they want to produce too. Today we’re encouraged and enabled to find creative outlets like never before. Memes are part of that opportunity. We share memes that are culturally relevant to us; we become the co-authors of them, giving them a fresh context, to then be passed on. Memes have a plural authorship that gives them anonymity. Anyone can make, share or repost them. It doesn’t matter as long as someone finds a comical value in it or can relate to it, they can have ownership and pass it on. It’s this type of level playing field that makes memes so democratic.
Carl Chen, who wrote The Creation and Meaning of Internet Memes in 4chan, saw memes as the Id of the Internet; he thought that memes let people be free to be creative, but also offensive and depraved. He saw memes on 4chan as a way people could seek freedom on the Internet, as 4chan users are, more often than not, anonymous. Being anonymous online disregards any status or hierarchy, the memeisphere becomes the public sphere. There is no sign up fee to join 4chan and no application process; you simply need a computer and wifi. This celebrates democracy, as most people have access to these components. Anyone can therefore participate if they wish to. Carl Chen went on to say that memes have a positive effect on mass culture, as they weren’t designed to be sold.
URL // IRL
Being online or offline is becoming less and less relevant, they now mirror each other and the lines that differentiate the two are blurred. Pokemon Go for example is a reality technology that easily integrates IRL, from catching a Rattata on a Gameboy to catching one on Rye Lane isn’t seen as a huge conceptual jump. Equally, memes are increasingly IRL. Nowadays people send them to each other on their commutes into work, on their lunch breaks and on the toilet. It’s very IRL.
Irony in the Memeisphere
Token irony has become a badge, to show that you belong in a community. Can you pass the post-irony test and be accepted to a private subreddit for meme production? Who cares? Is this even an interesting thing to be talking about? What is more interesting is the way in which people are interconnecting, producing, and communicating.
words by maisie florence post