key concepts in social research
by alice marwick
The Internet is a bastion of folk culture. Insider slang, chain emails, and trendy videos fill inboxes and news feeds, cir- culating from user to user. If someone uploads a photo of her cat, another adds a poorly-spelled caption and posts it to a message board, and months (or years) later, someone else changes the caption, this string of reappropriated words and images is called a “meme,” in Internet parlance. The term is vague enough to encompass such varied digital artifacts as Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” music video, collections of funny yearbook quotes, and animated GIFs of a dancing ham- ster. Memes reveal much about what communications scholar Henry Jenkins refers to as the participatory culture of the Internet, which is constantly in flux.
According to Patrick Davison, “an Internet meme is a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission.” Limor Schifman defines them as “cultural infor- mation that passes along from person to person, yet gradually scales into a shared social phenomenon.” The availability of social media means that any piece of
Memes propagate themselves by leaping from brain to brain.
Internet content has the potential for an enormous audience. Websites like Know Your Meme chronicle popular Internet trends almost as quickly as they emerge. The term “meme” was coined by evolutionary biologist (and famed atheist) Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. Though the book is
mainly concerned with the propa- gation of genetic material, Dawkins briefly turned his attention to the propagation of cultural mate- rial. He observed that fashion and customs evolve rapidly, resembling the ways genes evolve. Curious as to how such influ- ential norms could change so quickly, Dawkins broke
Memes such as “Paula Deen’s Riding Things,” a comment on the celebrity chef’s food festival antics, draw upon pop culture cultural products
imagery, slicing and dicing them for Internet consumption. down into units called memes, including “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” Just as genes propagate themselves by leaping from body to body, he wrote, so “memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense,
can be called imitation.”
Dawkins identified three key ele- ments of a successful genetic variant: copy-fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. In relation to memes, copy-fidelity is the ability to replicate accurately; fecundity is its speed of replication; and longevity its stability over time. Certain memes, he
said, will be more successful than others because they fulfill a cultural need or are uniquely suited to a specific circumstance.
moving to memetics
Dawkin’s theory laid dormant until it was popularized in the late 1990s with the advent of memetics. Memes were a fitting metaphor for Internet culture, affording exact copies of digital artifacts, rapid person-to-person spread, and enor- mous storage capacity—a perfect storm of copy-fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. Marketers, theorists, and pundits seized upon the term as a description for Inter- net trends that made an average person like the “Tron Guy” or “Numa Numa Kid” an overnight sensation.
Memetics is a contested field. Many anthropologists and sociologists see memetics as limited in its capacity
Memes to understand how cultural artifacts are
harness the participatory poten- rooted in complex sociohistorical con-
tial of the Internet and typify modern texts. They charge that memetics sees
popular culture. “culture” as a series of discrete individual
Studying Internet chain letters, dance units, and that it blurs the lines between
crazes, catchphrases, and slideshows of metaphor and biology. Dawkins wrote in
cute dogs may seem trivial, much as 1976, “When you plant a fertile meme in
studying television or pop music did a gen- my mind you literally parasitize my brain,
eration ago. But media scholars believe turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s
memes typify the shift from a culture of propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.” While he emphasized that
When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you
memes were only a metaphor, the idea that cultural diffusion has a biological
literally parasitize my brain.
basis was popularized with the rise of the terms “computer virus” and “viral market-
consumption to one of production. While ing.” Seth Godin’s 2001 book Unleashing
teenagers might once have spent their the Ideavirus argued that marketers and
free time watching television, a young corporations could use the power of
person today may get creative, using their the Internet to create “ideaviruses” that
laptop and Wi-Fi to overlay witty text on spread from person-to-person without any
a photo of a cat. Though it’s not exactly push from the creator—“word of mouth
intense intellectual labor, media scholar marketing.” Thus, going beyond Dawkins’
Clay Shirky is clear: even lolcats consti- original notion, memetics became a way
tute creative work. Memes are the closest for business people to describe new forms
thing to a native cultural form the Internet of marketing, particularly those tied to
has, and, as such, they demonstrate the the Internet.
sprawling variety of the medium.
Alice Marwick is in the communication and media Contemporary memes can be
studies department at Fordham University. She is the
roughly divided into two groups. A
author of Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Brand-
study of YouTube memes by Shifman
ing in the Social Media Age.
distinguishes between “viral videos” (for instance, the video for Korean pop star Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which was a huge hit in his home country and became a world-wide phenomenon on
Contexts, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 12-13. ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2013 American Sociological Association. http://contexts.sagepub.com. DOI 10.1177/1536504213511210
Memes, like the omnipresent “Grumpy Cat,” encourage imitation and satire, and spawn thousands of variants.
the Internet) and “memetic videos,” which spur “extensive creative user engagement in the form of parody, pastiche, mash-ups or other derivative work.” Davison calls the former “big like McDonald’s” (something enjoyed by many, but not co-created) vs. “big like Emoji” the popular pictographic lan- guage built into iPhones and used in new
and creative ways by text-aficionados. In other words, while some memes are just trendy pictures or videos that get passed around verbatim, others encourage a type of iteration, imitation, parody, and satire that can spawn literally thousands of variants. Memes, then, can become raw material for creativity. Think of the myriad “image macros” that let anyone slap a funny caption on the same image, or people uploading YouTube videos of themselves enacting the latest dance craze (the Harlem Shake, twerking, or even elaborate, choreographed wedding dances).
Memes harness what are really the “key logics,” as Shifman puts it, of online culture: sociability, replicability, and participation. They spread, according to Claudia Leigh, via a social, affective bond, and circulate through everyday communi- cation channels like Facebook or Gchat.
13 FALL 2013 contexts