Editors Note: This post is based on a presentation at the upcoming Theorizing the Web 2015 conference. It will be part of “The Feel World” panel.
Internet memes are arguably the most recognisable form of online vernacular; a proliferation of expressive pictorial and / or textual compositions, frequently characterised by running jokes expressed via informality and intended errors. The pervasiveness of humour within memes might make it easy to dismiss them as trivial, but this would be an oversight. In fact understanding the function of humour within memes discloses much; illuminating the relationship between memes and their antecedents, as well as the ways in which web-enabled social dynamics and vernaculars develop. Memetic behaviour is not novel but its current prevalence, as supported by networked culture, is remarkable. This post, a historicisation of meme usage as a communicative practice, attempts put into relief their idiosyncratic characteristics, and address the role memes may play in cultural analyses.
Memes demonstrate ideas in quick and effective ways, yet themselves are complicated articles. Aptly described by Limor Shifman as ‘conceptual troublemakers’ , they are the product of a confluence of social, linguistic and technological circumstances. Sociolinguistic analyses of extant memes are telling, shedding light on a breadth of topics; from the development of localised dialects, to the acquisition of online reputational capital. But as a communicative practice supported – and indeed afforded – by hardware and software, couching memes within a lineage of technologically driven precursors proves a revealing exercise.
The practice of Faxlore is particularly relevant to this end. Originating in the 1970s, Faxlore describes the circulation of humorous cartoons, texts, poetry, art, memoranda and urban legends via fax machine. This cultural phenomenon has been well documented by folklorists who aligned it to the folk tradition; notably Michael Preston, and Alan Dundes, who highlighted the ways in which participants formed networked communities and their own vernacular based primarily around humour and shared, often banal, experiences. Faxlore itself is part of a heritage; as explained by Michael J. Preston in his 1994 essay ‘Traditional Humor from the Fax Machine: All of a Kind’, by intervening in the transmission of folk articles, fax machines functioned for text and image based humour much in the way that telephones did for oral jokes.
Thinking in these terms makes apparent the ways in which contemporary meme cultures too have recognisable folk-like traits; the prevalence of humour and wordplay therein, the role humour plays in their transmission (as riff or remix), as well as the recurrent use of prepatterned language structures. Memes are also causal of corresponding effects; establishing communities; fostering etiquette; utilizing communicative play to create, constitute and inform a textured language, and legitimising discourse. It is worth being be mindful of questions of access and possible exclusion in this regard. Consider how Faxlore circulated between office employees – arguably a similar demographic to what Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti describes as the ‘bored at work network’; a social group who share a range of socioeconomic markers, cultural interests and importantly, hardware and software access.
Faxlore shows the success of the form limited by the platform, with jokes passed on from worker to worker, office to office, at a restricted pace, and within restricted groupings. Contemporary digital networks of course allow participants to broadcast messages, with missives potentially subject to uncontrolled spread, functioning variously as monologues, dialogues, or something in between. However, as a medium the Internet too is host to idiosyncratic affordances and constraints which lend memes their own distinct qualities. Theorists have begun to interpret how genre-shaping frameworks have informed the form and texture of memetic vernacular, which raises questions around the potential for forms of bias to be embedded as a result.
Jason Eppink recently analysed the portability of the GIF format in terms of persistence and consequent potential for expression and ‘identity making’, whilst Kate Brideau and Charles Berret categorized the Impact typeface as a recurrent, communicative memetic component, historicizing its inclusion within image macro meme series in terms of affordances of software. Similarly, Patrick Davison has explored how the formal properties MS Paint had consequences for meme production: acknowledging Paint’s technical limitations and consequential influence on a set of web aesthetics, Davison contextualises the Rage Comic memes series – which persistently and purposefully utilise Paint’s crude asethetic – in terms of remediation. Eppink et al neatly encapsulate how a meme can reveal a lot about the history of its platform, a helpful thought exercise when unpacking the ways in which web culture is bound up in meme production.
Whether Paint, GIF or Impact, the point is that contemporary users have far more choice when it comes to programme, file format, or typeface. But these forms have developed a grammar of their own, becoming recursively meaningful. By understanding this meta-register, it is possible to tacitly claim authenticity or demonstrate social expertise. Language structures of the digital realm are recursive – self-informed and self-perpetuating. And here is where the added complexity in interpreting internet memes arises; whereby Faxlore could only transform as fast as an individual could remix and transmit, the form and the content of the meme are inseparable, allowing them to transform as they transmit, thus establishing hyper-discrete meanings with startling rapidity. This poses serious – and exciting – challenges to analyses of memes, especially since covert forms of humour such as irony are algorithmically unreadable. When viewed in relief of Faxloric praxis, the scope of the challenges posed when tracing and translating memetic vernacular becomes apparent. This perspective is a necessary one, for when language as a whole can be viewed as commodifiable data, it highlights how power is not so much tied up in data transfer, but in interpretation.
Hannah Barton is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, researching memes as a form of vernacular online discourse. Friday April 17th at Theorizing the Web 2015.