Discussion of the internet is often polarized between those who stress the personalized or individualistic nature of net culture and those who see the network as a form of collective behavior. How might the idea of the meme clarify this discussion?
I think that the idea of internet memes is so powerful precisely because it bridges these two perceptions. 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. Moreover, studies conducted by Ryan Milner, Assaf Nissenbaum and Kate Miltner show that memes function as a type of cultural capital: knowledge about memes and the “right” ways to use them have become a marker of membership in some communities. 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.
Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on the visual nature of the meme as a mode of communication. What do you see as the implications of this shift towards the visual in contemporary net culture?
The implications of the visual turn are pervasive, going way beyond my somewhat narrow emphasis on memes. Within the scope of the book I discuss this issue mainly in the political context. I claim that visual display allows greater integration between politics and pop culture, as it becomes extremely easy to Photoshop the US president’s head on the body of a Jedi knight, for instance. A second implication of the visual nature of internet memes relates to their polysemic potential, that is, their tendency to be open to multiple readings. 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. A third implication relates to memes’ global spread: Images may potentially cross international borders much more easily than words. However, such international flows still depend on local norms and conversions: In some cases, images need to be replaced or localized to make sense in new territories. For example, in the book I describe the migration of the American “Successful Black Guy” meme to Israel, which resulted in a local take titled “Akiva, the Humanist Ultra-Orthodox“. I am currently exploring some other implications of this, focusing on photo-based memes. It seems that meme creators subvert some of the fundamental roles traditionally associated with photography, such as the notion of photographs as “windows to reality”. But I’ve just started thinking about these issues so I hope to have more to say in a couple of months…
Let’s talk a bit about what gets excluded in a meme culture. Are there some groups or individuals who are excluded — either implicitly or explicitly — from meme culture? Is it easier to use memes to support dominant frames of reference rather than to challenge existing structures of belief?
This is a crucial issue which I address only briefly in the book. It would certainly appear that many groups and individuals are excluded from meme culture. Ryan Milner’s current work on memes traces some of the racist and misogynist modes of discourse emerging in 4chan and reddit—prominent meme hubs that seem to be governed by white, privileged men. He shows that both gender and race representations in these websites are dominated by familiar hegemonic stereotypes. The framing of these stereotypes as ironic lulz is used in many cases to whitewash exclusion. At the very same time, Milner notes that at least in relation to gender, misogynistic framings are often resisted and attacked by many participants. It is extremely important to continue thinking about these issues and broaden our scope of investigation beyond the major meme hubs. Phenomena such as “Shit X says”, which generated heated debates about sensitive issues, may constitute interesting cases for further research.
My main assertion in the book is that we should take memes seriously. And doing that also means – to a large extent – critically examining the power dynamics that constitute memes and that are constituted by them.
Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.