In the Spring semester of my third year of college I had a stats class that really took the life out of me. One day I elected to take a brief nap in a dorm lounge. The picture above was taken shortly after I laid down, and subsequently posted on Facebook. Out of context, it appears as though I am planking- an internet meme in which individuals are photographed intentionally laying face-down in strange places. It has popped in an out of the global media for almost a decade but resurfaced over this summer into a world-wide activity. It has since inspired similar activities including owling, Batmanning, and stocking. I will refer to the entire trend collectively as “performative memes.” Unlike Anthropology Major Fox or lolcatz, these memes are about performing a certain embodied act, not producing an image for visual consumption. All around the world, friends are taking pictures of each other doing strange stunts and posting them on the internet. What exactly are we doing -socially- when we engage in performative internet memes?
Even though I am laying facedown, and someone has photographed me, I am not engaged in planking. I have not defined my activity as planking, (it wasn’t even called planking in 2008) and I did not intend to share this activity with anyone else (even though the photographer did). And even if I were planking, it would be a relatively unimpressive instance of planking, since many of the most popular occur in strange and dangerous places. So dangerous in fact, that one young man in Australia died after falling seven stories in an attempt to plank on the ledge of a balcony.What is it about this activity that compels individuals to risk arrest, injury, or even death? Certainly there is the usual dose of bravado that goes with any kind of intentionally public stunt. The possibility of internet fame has also been known to encourage questionable behavior, but neither danger nor fame fully explains the sheer number and variety of individual efforts. If danger and fame were the only motivating factors, new posts on the planking Facebook page would get increasingly more dangerous and outlandish. Instead, we get multiple instances of planking at weddings, planking in store aisles, and a wide range of planking-related media. There is a spoof movie trailer, a touchdown plank, and even t-shirts.
What sort of theory can we bring to bear to describe performative memes? Chris Kelty, in his book Two Bits, concludes that free software communities form something called a “recursive public.” A recursive public is a group that is organized to create the very means by which it constitutes itself. Free software makers make free software so that they can use the source code to communicate and make more free software. Planking does not create the means by which one shares their planking activities, but it does create the context in which the activity gains meaning. By participating in performative memes we show others that we are a part of the same international community. By engaging in performative memes, participants constitute a social imaginary that gives meaning and context to the actions of subsequent and existing participants. When someone goes owling in an art museum, I might owl in a natural history museum and post my picture as a response. We are communicating a shared idea, and we derive pleasure from the shared experience. More than just a shot at internet fame or recognition (although that is a motivating factor), performative memes are a way to nonverbally communicate a shared cultural practice. In hopes that I may reflexively push performative memes in the direction of recursive publics, I submit for the internet’s approval my attempt at stocking with a photo of an owl: