What does it all Meme? The whys and wherefores of a modern communication phenomenon.



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By Kay Oddone.

An internet meme is that thing that everyone is talking about. The blue/gold dress. Charlie bit my finger. LOLCats. Some of the most well known internet memes are the image with a pithy quote overlaid. They can be in turns hilariously funny, insightful or just crude, however they are a contemporary form of communication which many young people seem to instinctively ‘get’ and which leave many adults feeling like they are missing the joke.

The term meme was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, as a way of using evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena such as melodies, catchphrases or fashion. These small units of culture were spread through imitation and innovation upon an original idea – a spread that is similar to a virus, as they go through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success.

The meme above, known as ‘One does not simply’ is a good example. Drawn from a quote from The Lord of the Rings, where the character Boromir makes the quote “One does not simply walk into Mordor”.


The meme spread across sites such as Reddit, Tumblr and Imgur, with variations firstly on the word walk –

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and became so well known it was included as an Easter Egg on Google Maps:
Google_Maps_'Mordor'_easter_egg

Now, the phrase “one does not simply” is well known enough that memes such as the one shared at the beginning of this post can be applied to a wide range of scenarios, with an underlying understanding of the context – that whatever is being suggested is no simple matter.

It is this rich intertextuality that makes memes both worthwhile, yet challenging. One must know the context of the initial post before the meme truly makes sense, but if the shared understanding is strong enough, the meme becomes a powerful and viral mode of communication.

Internet memes, and their viral spread, are an example of participatory culture, as the reproduction, imitation and re-interpretation of these nuggets of society are practices which have become a huge part of contemporary digital culture. In fact, Limor Shifman, in her text Memes in Digital Culture goes so far as to say that we live in an era driven by a hypermemetic logic, where almost every major public event sprouts a stream of memes. He argues that although at first glance they appear to be trivial pieces of pop culture, upon deeper reflection one sees that they play an integral part in some of the defining events of the 21st century.

Limor Shifman also takes the time to define internet memes differently to the original concept of a single cultural unit as described by Dawkins. Her definition describes an internet memes  as

(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users. – http://henryjenkins.org/2014/02/a-meme-is-a-terrible-thing-to-waste-an-interview-with-limor-shifman-part-one.html#sthash.NfZt8OrC.dpuf

So why do educators need to be aware of memes and their role in communicating culture? They don’t. Educators don’t NEED to be aware of memes, anymore than they must play Minecraft or read Twilight. However, there are several compelling reasons to consider taking the time to think about memes and how they might play a role in teaching – particularly of older students.

Reason One: Engagement

It is true – memes are fun. They can be playful, humorous and, well, there is a reason they spread so quickly. Select use of memes can hook students in, and challenging students to create a meme actually demands higher order thinking at a level students often are not required to meet. The need to not only respond to a context, but respond creatively and concisely is difficult, and the most successful internet memes are often actually very clever. This is not to say all memes are clever; like everything online, there are many in poor taste, and with little depth. However an example of inferential comprehension required to understand a meme is evident with the popular ‘Soon’ meme:


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What appears to be an innocent cow in a field is rendered threatening by the simple addition of the word ‘Soon’…why is this so?

Reason Two: Information Literacy

Dr Alec Couros argues that the digital participatory culture within which students communicate, socialise and learn provides essential opportunities for information literacy, and suggests that memes are a powerful way of discussing many different aspects of this literacy. He begins by suggesting that students examine memes with a view to understanding how information travels and is distributed online. The viral nature of memes means that whether by merit, messenger or manipulation, a chunk of information/culture/art may be spread via networks at an astonishingly fast pace. Students who understand this are not only more likely to be aware of their responsibilities when sharing online, but are also more prepared for a world where marketing is pervasive.

Reason Three: Critical understanding of current world events

The Australian controversy with our previous Federal Parliamentary speaker is a very recent example of current events becoming a viral meme (helicopters anyone?).


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One which we can examine with the benefit of hindsight is below:


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In a hypermemetic world, it is completely possible that current events filter into our Facebook feed as a meme before we even realise the deeper story behind them. A case in point is the Pepper Spray Cop (also known as “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop”) –
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which went viral after the image of a police officer casually pepper spraying a group of Occupy protesters at the University of California  was captured in 2011.
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The image was photoshopped into a variety of contexts, which enflamed what was already a very tense political situation, and when the police officer’s contact details were made public online, he was the target of a huge text and email campaign critiquing his actions. This meme influenced news reports, customer reviews of pepper spray available for sale on Amazon and spawned songs and videos. The repercussions of this single (questionable) action resulted in the resignation of the police chief and the loss of the police officers job, as well as compensation claims and legal suits. The full detail of this meme can be read on Know Your Meme, however it is clear that a much larger and more serious story lies behind what many probably thought was a humorous internet joke.

Internet memes are an interpretation of the fad joke that has always been there, however with the power of the crowd and the potential to manipulate and remix in the hands of so many, they have become a much larger part of internet and general culture. It is important to be aware of the complexity behind many of these simple jokes (and be able to enjoy the ones that are indeed just simple jokes).

Have you taught using Memes? Please share your experiences and resources in the comments!

 

References:

Couros, A. (n.d.). open thinking [Blog]. Retrieved 11 August 2015, from http://educationaltechnology.ca/couros/
Gladwell, M. (2002). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Back Bay Books.
Internet Meme Database | Know Your Meme. (n.d.). Retrieved 11 August 2015, from http://knowyourmeme.com/
Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.

 

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8 thoughts on “What does it all Meme? The whys and wherefores of a modern communication phenomenon.

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