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Online memes, affinities and cultural production (2018 update to our 2007 chapter) To appear as: Knobel, M. and Lankshear, C. (forthcoming). Memes online, afinidades e produção cultural (2007 – 2018). In Chagas, Viktor (ed.). Estudos sobre Memes: história, política e novas experiências de letramento. 2019.

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Abstract

Voktor Chagas asked us for permission to reprint our memes chapter from DIY Media (Knobel & Lankshear, 2007) and we took it as an opportunity to update the text and comment on memes in current times.
Online memes, affinities and cultural production
(2018 update)
To appear in Portuguese in: Knobel, M. and Lankshear, C. (forthcoming). Memes online,
afinidades e produção cultural (2007 – 2018). In Chagas, Viktor (ed.). Estudos sobre Memes:
história, política e novas experiências de letramento. 2019.
Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear
Background
We first began thinking about “meme-ing” as a (new) literacy practice around 1997 when we
were actively keeping up with David Bennahum’s electronic MEME newsletter (memex.org):
Beneath his evocative newsletter logo, Bennahum summarised the underlying rationale for his
project in the following succinct statement:
meme: (pron. 'meem') A contagious idea that replicates like a virus, passed on from mind
to mind. Memes function the same way genes and viruses do, propagating through
communication networks and face-to-face contact between people. The root of the word
"memetics," a field of study which postulates that the meme is the basic unit of cultural
evolution. Examples of memes include melodies, icons, fashion statements and phrases.
(ibid, bold in original)
At a conference on The New Literacy Studies convened by James Gee at the University of
Wisconsin in 2000, we identified online meme-ing explicitly as a “new literacy,” and further
developed our working understanding of the phenomenon in New literacies: Changing
knowledge and classroom learning (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003, p. 37). We spoke of meme-ing
as a “powerful metalevel literacy” taking the form of an “enactive project” whereby would-be
creators of memes try to “project [their conceptions, values, and visions] into cultural evolution
by imitating the behavioural logic -- replication -- of genes and viruses” (ibid).
For us, online meme-ing involved writing (contagious) ideas into existence and into mass take-
up. Some memes accidentally became contagious--there was simply something about stretch of
video, or flash animation, or a photographic image that caught the popular imagination and took
on a life of its own as an encoded stretch of information taken up in a range of ways--stretching
from sharing a joke, to celebrating eccentricity, through to helping raise awareness of social
issues. Others, however, often were deliberately aimed at achieving a prominent place in the
“attention economy,” which was an emerging idea at the time (Goldhaber, 1997; Adbusters.org).
We saw this idea of “writing contagious ideas into existence” as an active or activist literacy; a
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practice that is based on the principle that if we want to stake a place for our ideas, values or
“ways” and, perhaps, displace or marginalize others, then we need to project them into public
space and do everything we can to try to make them take off. According to the wisdom of the
time, this meant meeting at least two necessary conditions. The first involves ensuring
susceptibility to the idea or vision so that it would become “contagious”. We described this as a
matter of finding alluring “hooks” and “catches” to get behind people’s defences and immunity--
to get inside their heads and catch on (Lankshear & Knobel, 2000, 2003). The second condition
involves finding and exploiting conditions conducive for replication and, of course, electronic
networks were already providing ideal contexts for replication. This, after all, was what
Bennahum’s electronic newsletter was based on.
Anticipating something of the fuller flowering of attention economies under conditions of
massive development of and access to the internet on a global scale, we argued that a range of
new literacies not currently addressed within formal education would likely become increasingly
important for enabling effective participation in an evolving attention economy: notably, meme-
ing (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003, p. 74).
The bulk of this chapter was written in 2006, prior to the explosion of social media as we know
them today. We identified a pool of successful online memes reported in mainstream media
venues such as newspapers, television, online magazines and news-based forums over the 5 year
period between 2001 and 2005--already a substantially different media age compared to now. We
examined these memes from a methodological and purposive standpoint typical of that period.
Discourse analysis methods (e.g., Fairclough, 1992; Gee, 1996; Kress, 2003) and the concept of
“affinity spaces” (Gee, 2004) were employed to address three purposes:
1. To identify and examine qualities that seemingly characterise our exemplars as
successful online memes, and consider the extent to which these reflect or diverge from
the definitive set identified in formal memetics by Richard Dawkins in 1976 (prior to the
emergence of online memes).
2. To establish some key categories of successful online memes so as to better understand
the online “memescape” in terms of purposes, uses and appeal.
3. To explore possible ways teachers might take up memes as a “new” literacy within
school-based learning contexts.
Frankly, this methodological and purposive standpoint already seems quaint; having at best some
“historical” interest--which is the most we would claim for this work. In many ways the
contemporary memes scene is radically different from what we explored more than a decade ago.
Accordingly, we will present our original investigation in the body of this chapter, and then
provide a summary overview of some of the major changes in meme practices and in the “work”
of online memes as contagious ideas and carriers of cultural information we discern today. This
overview will map with broad brush strokes some of the trends and themes we intend to explore
at greater length in the future, and which might be useful grist for others to examine as well.
Introduction
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Memes are contagious patterns of “cultural information” that get passed from mind to mind and
directly generate and shape mindsets and significant forms of behaviour and actions of a social
group. They include things like catch-phrases, clothing fashions, architectural styles, ways of
doing things, icons, jingles, musical riffs and licks, and the like.
We need to distinguish the level at which we discuss online memes here from the way memes are
talked about within the formal discourse of memetics. There are some broad surface similarities
between theorized conceptions of memes within memetics and “popular” appropriations of
“meme” as a word to describe particular “infectious” phenomena. These similarities, however,
do not run very deep. It is highly unlikely that many, if any, so-called internet memes of the kinds
addressed here will have even remotely the kind of shelf life and cultural influence that serious
memeticists assign to memes. And whereas traditional memes and the conditions of their success
have been identified post facto by memeticists, many attempts to create online memes have been
attempts to reverse engineer the characteristics of successful memes in calculating and/or
opportunistic ways. By the same token, participants in popular practices of online “meme-ing”
would not typically be interested in buying into the deep issues that engage serious students and
theorists of memes, such as whether or not memes are actually associated with physical neural
manifestations in human brains, or have a kind of independent agency in terms of replication etc.
Nonetheless, there are interesting and worthwhile points to be discussed around online memes,
some of which resonate structurally – albeit on a rather superficial level – with “hard core”
conceptions of memes. It is these points that are of interest to us here.
Memes: The concept
Occasional talk of “memes” as contagious or inheritable units of cultural information first
appeared almost a century ago in biological studies of memory persistence in organisms (Semon,
1924), and surfaced within “diffusion of innovations” theory in the 1960s (cf. Rogers, 1962).
Current interest in memes and ongoing development of the idea, however, dates back to ideas
advanced by the geneticist Richard Dawkins in 1976. In The Selfish Gene Dawkins proposed a
substantial evolutionary model of cultural development and change grounded in the replication
of ideas, knowledge, and other cultural information through imitation and transfer. His definition
of “memes” posited actual biological changes in brain neurons when minds became infected with
memes. He even allotted agency to memes, arguing that memes have ‘some influence or power
over their own probability of replication’ (Dawkins, 1999, p. xvi). Dawkins’ position is
controversial among formal students and theorists of memes, and has triggered a range of
“mutations” in how they are conceptualized and studied. For example, biological conceptions of
memes tend to focus on the effects memes have on behavior (Aunger, 2002; Brodie, 1996).
Psychological and cognitive conceptions of memes typically pay closer attention to decision-
making processes prior to action (Aunger, 2002, p. 37). Sociological and cultural definitions of
memes like those informing this chapter downplay any suggestion that memes have physical
neural presence, emphasizing the roles memes play within particular cultural spaces (Knobel,
2006).
Memes as objective and distinct social phenomena
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A cursory online search reveals that “meme” is a popular term for describing “catchy” and
widely propagated ideas or phenomena. Marketing strategies from the late nineteenth century
can be described retrospectively in terms of selling memes to consumers. Today’s advertisers use
the term ‘viral marketing’ to describe successful advertising campaigns. To reduce the study of
memes to marketing strategies alone is, however, to miss the potential fruitfulness of this concept
for understanding mindsets, new forms of power and social processes, new forms of social
participation and activism, and new distributed networks of communication and relationship –
among other social phenomena (cf., Blackmore, 1999: Brodie, 1996; Downes, 1999).
The varying accounts of memes that can be found in the literature convey a sense of discreteness
or boundedness attaching to memes. Memeticists use terms like “unit,” “pattern,” “idea,”
“structure,” and “set” when describing memes--suggesting memes have “edges,” even if these
are blurry in practice. This accords with our approach here, which views memes as recognizable,
bounded phenomena that have material effects in the world and can be scrutinised. Dawkins’
original examples of memes – tunes, good ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making
pots or building arches – still serve as useful guides for identifying and analysing online memes.
Characteristics of memes
Dawkins (1976) identified three key characteristics of successful memes: fidelity, fecundity and
longevity. These remain the definitive set of characteristics, providing a useful starting point for
studying online memes. Fidelity refers to qualities of the meme that enable it to be readily copied
and passed from mind to mind relatively intact. Fidelity has very little to do with truth per se and
memes often are successful because they are memorable, rather than because they are important
or useful (Blackmore, 1999, p. 57). Ideas that make intuitive “sense” and are meaningful to
individuals in ways that allow them to be imitated or reproduced readily and easily stand a much
better chance of becoming memes than do ideas that are not easily copied or understood by a
large numbers of people.
Fecundity refers to the rate at which an idea or pattern is copied and spread. The more quickly a
meme spreads the more likely it is to capture robust and sustained attention and be replicated and
distributed (Brodie, 1996, p. 38). Susceptibility is an important dimension of meme fecundity as
well, although Dawkins himself did not address it. Rather, susceptibility is indicated in the work
of memeticists who build directly on his work, and is now widely recognised as a factor in meme
fecundity (cf., Brodie, 1996; Vajik, 1989). Susceptibility refers to the “timing” or “location” of a
meme with respect to people’s openness to the meme and their propensity to be ‘infected’ by it.
Susceptibility is enhanced by the meme’s relevance to current events, its relation to established
memes, and the interests and values of those using the spaces in which the meme is unleashed.
Ideal conditions of susceptibility will let the ‘hooks’ and ‘selection attractors’ built consciously
or unconsciously into the design and function of a meme take hold more easily and in ways that
maximize the possibilities for the meme to ‘catch on’ and be transmitted rapidly from person to
person without being hindered or slowed by mental filters or other forms of cultural immunity
(cf., Bennahum in Lankshear & Knobel, 2003).
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Longevity is the third key characteristic of a successful meme. The longer a meme survives the
more it can be copied and passed on to fresh minds, thereby ensuring its ongoing transmission.
Longevity assumes optimal conditions for a meme’s replication and innovation.
Internet memes
Among internet insiders, “meme” is a popular term for describing the rapid uptake and spread of
a particular idea presented as a written text, image, language “move,” or some other unit of
cultural “stuff.” This use of the term begs the question of longevity – since in terms of serious
meme time the internet has not been around long enough for any kind of evolutionary longevity
to have been established. Indeed, using “meme” to describe online phenomena of the kind
discussed in this chapter can blur the distinction between a meme per se and a new vehicle for an
old meme, as the Nigerian letter scam meme attests. The email versions of this letter vary in
terms of contextual details, but the gist remains constant: a relative of, or an ex-government
official associated with, a deposed dictator of an African country needs to launder an enormous
amount of misappropriated funds through a mediating bank account and offers the reader a
generous proportion of the total sum for providing a temporary holding account for the money.
Victims provide bank account numbers and soon find their own accounts are emptied and the
“relative” or “dignitary” is nowhere to be found (Glasner, 2002; Wired, 2002). The purpose of
the Nigerian letter scam meme itself is as old as recorded time: to get rich quick. What is new is
the vehicle; dressing the old meme up in contemporary garb which, in this case, ranges from
using email to trading on money laundering as a high profile everyday focus.
Notwithstanding such slippages, which doubtless incline some serious students of memes to
frown on populist appropriations of a concept that should be taken altogether more seriously, it is
interesting and informative from the standpoint of literacy practices to consider some examples
of relatively successful memes carried via the internet. Many of these memes have become
internet lore, and even though all of them are relatively “new” in terms of longevity, all of them
draw deeply on popular internet culture where, after all, 10 nanoseconds might be quite a long
time, and 5 minutes – as the saying goes – can seem like more or less forever.
Memes as a new literacy practice
While memes as phenomena are as old as human cultures, they have only relatively recently
been named and theorized. As literacy researchers and writers working from a sociocultural
perspective, we are interested in exploring online/internet memes with a view to better
understanding them as cultural phenomena and as new literacy practices, and to more carefully
consider what they might “mean” for literacy education.
Methodology
The data set for the study reported here comprises a “meme pool” which we generated using
online search engines available in 2005 and which we thought would obtain maximum coverage
of likely meme conduits (e.g., website archives, blogs, broadcast media sites). We mainly used
Google.com, to search websites in general, and Technorati.com, to search weblogs in particular.
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These wide-ranging searches were supplemented by targeted searches. We trawled Wikipedia.org
which, had excellent coverage of popular culture phenomena (Scholz, 2004). We also searched
through popular image and animation archives and forums like Somethingawful.com,
Milkandcookies.org and Fark.org for mention of popular internet phenomena. Selection criteria
for finalizing the data set began with Dawkins’ characteristics of successful memes (fidelity,
fecundity and susceptibility, and longevity). We also made selections on the basis of whether
the meme was more or less wholly transmitted via electronic vehicles (e.g., email,
websites, online discussion forums, chat spaces); and
could be deemed “successful” in respect of being sufficiently strong and salient to capture
online and offline broadcast media attention in the form of full-blown reports through to
side-bar mentions in newspapers, television news reports or talk shows, widely-read trade
publications or general-audience magazines.
The initial data pool was bounded by a 5 year period (i.e., 2001-2005) to ensure a robust set of
online memes that post-dated the widespread take-up of internet practices by the general public
(at least within developed countries), or the more widespread possibilities of access to the
internet that can be dated from roughly 2000 onwards (cf., demographic reports published by
Nielsen-Netratings.com). This meant, however, that certain popular but early online memes like
the Dancing Baby (c. 1996) and Dancing Hamster (c. 1999) animations, along with Mahir
Cagri’s “I Kiss You” website (c. 1999), were excluded from the pool. These “types” of successful
memes are, however, amply represented within the final pool.
Data set
General and focused searches identified a total of 19 instances or sets of instances that seemed to
be regarded by the internet community as distinct and popular memes or contagious ideas that
began much of their “life” online and which became well enough known to have been reported in
broadcast media venues (see Table 1).
Memes are ordered from least recent to most recent.
Oolong the Rabbit (2001)
Nike Sweatshop Shoes (2001)
All Your Base Are Belong To Us (2001)
Bert is Evil (2001)
Tourist of Death (2001)
Bonsai Kitten (2002)
Ellen Feiss (2002)
Star Wars Kid (2002)
Black People Like Us (2002)
“Every time you masturbate… God kills a kitten” (2002)
“Girl A”/Nevada-tan (2003)
Badger, Badger, Badger (2003)
Read My Lips’ “Bush-Blair Love Song” (2003)
The Tron Guy (2003)
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Lost Frog/Hopkin Green Frog (2004)
JibJab’s “This Land is My Land” (2004)
Numa Numa Dance (2004)
Dog Poop Girl (2005)
Flying Spaghetti Monster/Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (2005)
Table 1: The online meme pool identified as the data set for this study.
All 19 memes received mentions in regional and/or national and newspapers and magazines. The
Star Wars Kid was mentioned in Time Magazine, Wired Magazine, BBC reports, Canada’s Globe
and Mail newspaper and the U.S.’s New York Times newspaper. The Numa Numa Dance video
meme was the focus of several New York Times articles, was mentioned on CNN (a major U.S.
news broadcast network) and also played on the Today Show and Countdown television shows in
the U.S. Each meme in the final data pool has generated a range of homage or spoof websites or
other artefacts (including themed merchandise).
While meeting our criteria for selecting online memes for this study, the final meme pool
nonetheless remains selective and non-definitive. In several cases establishing a date for a meme
was difficult. Some memes lay dormant online for a period before becoming truly contagious. In
other cases dates are disputed. We triangulated dates as best we could in these instances, or else
appealed to Wikipedia as the source likely to have the most reliable information. For example,
the “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” meme is difficult to pin down in terms of date, but in 2006
Wikipedia identified it as an “internet phenomenon” beginning in 2001, although it may have
been copied and uploaded to the internet before then.
Moreover, pinning down precise criteria for something counting as a meme is close to
impossible, as witnessed in the long running debates and lack of consensus in articles published
in the Journal of Memetics (http://jom-emit.org/past.html). Indeed, much of the memetics
literature has been dominated by arguments concerning what is and is not a meme. Criteria
bickering seems to have been a dead end as a field of engagement within memetics, however,
and has produced few empirical studies of actual memes (exceptions include: Butts & Hilgeman,
2003; Chattoe, 1998; Gatherer, 2003). We are not interested here in contributing further to
debates over what memes are and are not. Rather, we want to identify key characteristics of
successful online memes and understand them as new literacy practices. Focussing on reasonably
well-defined, widely dispersed, and wildly successful memes helps us better understand how
memes operate in everyday life. This stance echoes Charles Simonyi, a software developer and
early programmer with Microsoft. Simonyi chided Richard Brodie, a well-known memeticist, for
originally missing the point with respect to useful analyses of memes:
“Come on!” exclaimed Charles. “You are asking the wrong question! Who cares
if a yawn is a meme or not! The right question is, ‘What are the interesting
memes?’” (Brodie, 1996, p. 25).
This sentiment drives our study.
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Data analysis
Each meme was scrutinised using three general axes of analysis found in discourse studies:
namely, the referential or ideational system, the contextual or interpersonal system, and the
ideological or worldview system as represented by a given discursive move. This analysis was
facilitated by prompt questions, summarized in Table 2.
Referential or ideational system The focus is on the meaning of a meme:
What idea or information is being conveyed by this meme? How do
we know?
How is this idea or information being conveyed?
What does this meme mean or signify (within this space, for certain
people, at this particular point in time)? How do we know?
Contextual or interpersonal system The focus is on social relations:
Where does this meme “stand” with respect to the relationship it
implies or invokes between people readily infected by this meme?
What tells us this?
What does this meme tell us about the kinds of contexts within which
this meme proves to be contagious and replicable?
What does this meme seem to assume about knowledge and truth
within this particular context?
Ideological or worldview system The focus is on values, beliefs and worldviews:
What deeper or larger themes, ideas, positions are conveyed by this
meme?
What do these themes, ideas and positions tell us about different
social groups?
What do these memes tell us about the world, or a particular version
of the world?
Table 2: Prompt questions for discursively analysing online memes
One of the risks associated with discourse analysis studies is that phenomena are often
inadvertently reduced to static texts or that the analysis becomes too text-centric (cf., critiques in
Knobel, 1999). In order to address this potential issue, Gee’s concept of “affinity spaces” (2004)
was used to ensure that analysis also focused on the meme as part of larger sets of social
interactions and ways of achieving things or of getting something done. Gee uses the concept of
an “affinity space” to focus on learning, but our interest here is wider than learning per se.
Nonetheless, some of the key features of affinity spaces that enable learning are the very stuff of
how literacies – and new literacies especially – are constituted and experienced more generally
by people engaging in them. Gee (2004, pp. 9, 73) describes affinity spaces as
specially designed spaces (physical and virtual) constructed to resource people
[who are] tied together … by a shared interest or endeavor…. [For example, the]
many many websites and publications devoted to [the video game, Rise of
Nations] create a social space in which people can, to any degree they wish, small
or large, affiliate with others to share knowledge and gain knowledge that is
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distributed and dispersed across many different people, places, Internet sites and
modalities (magazines, chat rooms, guides, recordings).
Among various other features concerning learning in particular, affinity spaces instantiate
participation, collaboration, distribution and dispersion of expertise, and relatedness. Our focus
on new literacies is interested in social practice as a whole, of which learning and sharing
knowledge and expertise are a part. Our point is that the “logic” of new literacies embodies
general features and qualities highlighted by Gee’s account of “affinity spaces.” These features
and qualities emphasize the relational and social aspects of any literacy practice and draw
attention to various social and resource configurations within which and through which people
participate and learn. Prompt questions we developed to analyze affinity spaces include:
What is going on here and who is involved? How do we know?
Who would recognize this meme as part of or relevant to their affinity space and what
tells us this? Who would not recognize this meme and what might be some of the
consequences of this?
What kinds of affinity spaces might most readily embrace this meme, and what suggests
this? What do people “learn” as a result of engaging with this meme?
What ways of doing, knowing and using resources (i.e., social practices) seem to be part
and parcel of this meme?
Outcomes
As noted earlier, this study has three purposes. First, to examine successful online memes to see
whether additional features to those outlined by Dawkins could enhance a substantive definition
of online memes. Second, to develop a typology of memes to help look for possible patterns of
purpose, use and take-up within and across different affinity spaces. Third, to explore possible
worthwhile uses teachers might make of memes as a new literacy within school contexts.
(i) In relation to the characteristics of successful internet memes
The analysis suggested no radically different characteristics pertaining to online memes that set
them apart from other kinds of memes. What the analysis did yield, however, were some broad
features that contribute additional insights into the “make-up” of online memes as a distinct
category of meme practice.
It became apparent after studying these memes that Dawkins’ “fidelity” feature of memes is
perhaps better understood in terms of “replicability” where online memes are concerned. Many
of the online memes in this study were not passed on entirely “intact” in that the meme “vehicle”
often was changed, modified, mixed with other referential and expressive resources, and
regularly given idiosyncratic spins by participants (e.g., All Your Base, Lost Frog, Star Wars
Kid). While the meme or contagious idea itself remained relatively intact, the “look” of the
meme often changed. In many ways, these “mutations” often seemed to help the meme’s
fecundity in terms of hooking people into contributing their own version of the meme. A concept
like “replicability” therefore needs to include remixing as an important part of the overall meme
mix, where remixing includes modifying, bricolaging, splicing, reordering, superimposing etc.
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original and other images, sounds, films, music, talk, and so on (see Lankshear & Knobel,
2006a).
With respect to the life of these online memes, as distinct from longevity in a strict sense, the
search and selection process that generated the final data set showed how easy it was to find
ample online archives of original texts, images, and video clips and other footage, as well as
detailed accounts of the origins and spread of different memes and their various permutations. It
certainly seems that the internet itself enables meme lifespan (as well as distribution). In 2006
the blogosphere was a fertile medium for transmitting memes, with weblogs displacing email and
discussion forums as a primary way of spreading memes (especially memes emerging from 2002
onwards). This resonates with the work of Eytan Adar and colleagues at the Hewlett Packard
Dynamics Lab. This focuses on tracing “information epidemics” spread via weblogs, which they
see as potent fields for spreading contagious ideas (Adar et al., 2004, p. 1).
Analysis of the contextual or social “systems” of the memes in this study also suggested three
distinct patterns of characteristics that we think are likely to contribute directly to each meme’s
fecundity in particular. These include:
Some element of humour, ranging from the quirky and offbeat, to potty humour, to the
bizarrely funny, to parodies, through to the acerbically ironic, and/or
A rich kind of intertextuality, such as wry cross-references to different everyday and
popular culture events, icons or phenomena, and/or
Anomalous juxtapositions, usually of images.
Since space precludes a close examination of each meme in the pool with respect to all three of
these characteristics, indicative examples will be used to illustrate each.
(a) Humour
Humour is a key component in at least 17 of the 19 memes in this study (acknowledging that
humour is always open to interpretation on a reader’s or viewer’s part). Perhaps the most famous
and enduring meme within this study’s data set is the All Your Base Are Belong To Us meme.
The meme began with someone uploading to the internet a video clip of the opening sequence of
the Japanese video game, Zero Wing. The syntactic and semantic hiccups within the English
subtitles of this sequence seemed to resonate immediately with what a Times Magazine article
about this meme identified as “geek kitsch” humour (Taylor, 2001; see Figure 1). The opening
sequence aims at establishing the context for the game, which is set in some future time beset by
warring factions. It involves the sudden appearance of Cats, an evil-doer, inside a military
spacecraft. Cats announces that he is the victor in this war, but the Captain of the spacecraft
responds valiantly by calling for the ZIG fighters to be to be launched, and explaining to them
that all of earth’s fate was in their hands. And then the game begins, with the player working to
help the Captain defeat Cats and his fighters.
In A.D. 2101
War was beginning.
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Captain: What happen?
Mechanic: Somebody set up us the bomb.
Operator: We get signal.
Captain: What !
Operator: Main screen turn on.
Captain: It's You !!
Cats: How are you gentlemen !!
Cats: All your base are belong to us.
Cats: You are on the way to destruction.
Captain: What you say !!
Cats: You have no chance to survive make your time.
Cats: HA HA HA HA ....
Captain: Take off every 'zig' !!
Captain: You know what you doing.
Captain: Move 'zig'.
Captain: For great justice.
Figure 1: The dialogue to the English version of the opening context-setting sequence for
the computer game, Zero Wing (Source: planettribes.com/allyourbase/story.shtml).
The seriousness of the dialogue about a threatened global takeover coupled with language
translation glitches struck a chord online. The clip quickly caught on among video game-players
and software programmers first, and later within wider audiences (especially when a voice track
and sound effects were added to the clip). The original clip itself then sparked a remixing
epidemic, with active meme participants generating a range of new, very funny, photoshopped
takes on the “All Your Base” catchphrase. This included a reworking of the iconic Hollywood
sign, billboards, road signs, high-profile advertisements, official documents, food products and
toys, and so on to announce to everyone that, “All Your Base Are Belong to Us”. These remixes
are in many ways funnier than the original clip due to the creative uses of key phrases and the
celebration of quirkiness that they embody. The catchphrase, “All your base are belong to us,”
now regularly appears in news or political reports in the broadcast media or the blogosphere, and
is used to describe clumsy, heavy-handed take-over bids for positions of power and the like.
Indeed, the meme lives on in 2018, with Wikipedia referencing a 2014 blog post by Elon Musk
titled “All our patent are belong to you,” and a text reading “All your base are” in a mythical
language (Sheikah) featuring in 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_your_base_are_belong_to_us)
As another example, the Ellen Feiss meme began as a television advertisement by Apple for its
campaign to entice PC users to “switch” to Apple. When the advertisement aired on television,
15 year-old Fleiss appeared to be quite “out of it”’ (she later claimed filming had occurred close
to midnight when she was very tired and that she had taken a strong dose of anti-allergy
medication for her hayfever just before filming began). Her awkward eyebrow lift,
uncoordinated hand movements, and her use of sound effects to describe her computer crashing,
coupled with lengthy pauses in her monologue, caused riotous laughter around the world. Apple
cancelled the advertisement as soon as it was realized why the ad had become so popular, but not
11
before it had been digitized and archived on multiple websites. Ellen quickly reached iconic
status among young, male programmers, Apple Mac users, and college students (see:
ellenfeiss.net) and her story was reported in at least one book and a range of newspapers. In
response, Ellen went to ground, and turned down numerous invitations to appear on major talk
shows within the U.S. Nevertheless, three years after the meme began, a number of t-shirts
celebrating Ellen Feiss were still available for purchase online and numerous tribute and remix
sites remained active (a quick Google search for Ellen Feiss in 2018 shows any number of copies
of the original video and parody videos and images still online)..
In addition to quirky and situational kinds of humour, five of the memes examined in this study
put humour to use in generating biting social commentary memes. The Nike Sweat Shop Shoes
meme is a good example of this. In January 2001, Jonah Peretti forwarded to friends a series of
email exchanges he had had with the Nike company concerning Nike’s iD campaign that allows
customers to customize their shoes (Peretti, 2001). Peretti’s request to have “sweatshop”
embroidered on his new shoes had been denied and came at a time when Nike was under fire for
exploiting workers in under-developed countries. Despite persistent questions on Peretti’s part,
the company hid behind company policy statements and did not provide a logical rationale for
the cancelled order. Peretti gathered these exchanges together in a single email and sent it off to a
few friends (see an excerpt from the exchange in Figure 2).
From: "Personalize, NIKE iD"
To: "'Jonah H. Peretti'"
Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000
Your NIKE iD order was cancelled for one or more of the following reasons.
1) Your Personal iD contains another party's trademark or other intellectual property.
2) Your Personal iD contains the name of an athlete or team we do not have the legal right to use.
3) Your Personal iD was left blank. Did you not want any personalization?
4) Your Personal iD contains profanity or inappropriate slang, and besides, your mother would
slap us.
If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD product with a new personalization please visit us again at
www.nike.com
Thank you,
NIKE iD
From: "Jonah H. Peretti"
To: "Personalize, NIKE iD"
Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000
Greetings,
My order was canceled but my personal NIKE iD does not violate any of the criteria outlined in
your message. The Personal iD on my custom ZOOM XC USA running shoes was the word
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"sweatshop." Sweatshop is not: 1) another's party's trademark, 2) the name of an athlete, 3)
blank, or 4) profanity. I choose the iD because I wanted to remember the toil and labor of the
children that made my shoes. Could you please ship them to me immediately.
Thanks and Happy New Year,
Jonah Peretti
From: "Personalize, NIKE iD"
To: "'Jonah H. Peretti'"
Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000
Dear NIKE iD Customer,
Your NIKE iD order was cancelled because the iD you have chosen contains, as stated in the
previous e-mail correspondence, "inappropriate slang". If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD
product with a new personalization please visit us again at www.nike.com
Thank you,
NIKE iD
Figure 2: An excerpt from the ‘Nike Sweatshop Shoe’ meme (Source:
http://www.snopes.com/business/consumer/nike.asp#add; accessed 7 March, 2005).
Peretti’s satiric humour and social commentary contained in this set of email correspondence
caught popular attention and soon reached thousands of people via email networks. This in turn
sparked mainstream broadcast attention, and Peretti’s meme was the subject of a range of news
and magazine reports, including Time magazine, and Peretti himself was interviewed on the
Today Show, a popular news events talk show in the U.S.
Other examples of humour in the meme pool include the oft-linked-to website known as Black
People Love Us! (http://www.blackpeopleloveus.com), which is a wry, if not scathing,
commentary on white American liberal paternalism towards black Americans (as a side note, this
meme was also created by Jonah Peretti, in collaboration with his sister). This faux “personal”
website comprises a series of “testimonials” from a middle-class white couple’s black friends
that emphasise much of the condescension that can occur in naïve liberal positions on social and
cultural difference (e.g., references to “being articulate,” white people demonstrating “solidarity”
by speaking Black English and claiming a preference for rap music). Another well-known social
commentary meme that makes effective use of sardonic humour is the Bush-Blair Love Song
meme created by the Swedish group, Read My Lips (http://www.atmo.se; see also:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpRhkz-QoRQ). Read My Lips spliced together dozens, if
not hundreds, of fragments of news videos of George Bush and Tony Blair, and synched their lip
movements and onscreen actions with the love song, “Your Eyes,” to produce a text suggesting
an intimate romance between the two. The resulting video stands as a clear indictment of the
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Bush-Blair alliance in the invasion of Iraq and is a popular clip within affinity spaces shaped by
people critical of the invasion of Iraq and/or critical of the militarist alliance between Bush and
Blair.
(b) Rich intertextuality
Cross-references to a host of popular culture events, artefacts and practices also characterize many
of the successful memes in this study. Perhaps the most widely known intertextual meme is the Star
Wars Kid. This meme began when schoolmates of a 15-year-old, heavily-built Canadian schoolboy,
Ghyslain Raza, found a video recording he had made of himself. The tape showed him inspired by
Star Wars movies to somewhat awkwardly mime a light sabre fight using a broomstick-like golf
ball retriever. His friends uploaded the footage to Kazaa – a now-defunct person-to-person file
sharing service – where it was found by millions of viewers, many of whom added music, special
effects and highly recognizable Star Wars sounds (e.g., the light sabre “swoosh-hum”) to create the
now-famous Star Wars Kid meme. Subsequent remixes of this video clip include Ghyslain cast as
Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, as William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, and as Neo from the
Matrix movies, among others. One version mixes the Dancing Baby meme and Gyhslain in a faux
trailer for a Hollywood buddy movie, while another mixes the clip with Tetris, an enormously
popular, early video game. These cross-references to popular movies, movie genres, and games
clearly tap into an affinity space that recognizes and appreciates this intertextuality, while at the
same time they serve to blur the line between an ordinary life and the extraordinary lives of
characters in movie and game universes. The popularity of the Star Wars Kid remixes even
produced an online petition to Lucasfilm to include Ghyslain himself as a character in Episode III
of the Star Wars prequel series. The Star Wars Kid meme in turn became a popular culture
touchstone appearing regularly as a reference in animated cartoon series and video games.
The Lost Frog meme also alludes to a range of popular culture phenomena as it remixes and
mutates the text of a lost pet announcement. The lost pet flyer (see Figure 3) was found posted in
Seattle streets.
Figure 3: The original lost Hopkin Green Frog flier (Source: lostfrog.org)
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A member of a popular image sharing forum scanned the found text and uploaded it to the forum
archive, where members of this group quickly picked up on the pathos and determination in the
child’s language and hand-drawn images and used image editing software to photoshop the
original image. The remixed images produced by this group, and later, by others around the
world, are always humorous, yet often touching. Collectively they narrate massive, albeit
fictional, citizen mobilization in the ongoing search for Hopkin Green Frog. The remixed images
include typical “missing persons” announcement vehicles (e.g., broadcast media news reports,
milk cartons, road signs), crowd scenes seemingly devoted to spreading the news about the lost
frog (e.g., “lost frog” banners at a street march and at a crowded soccer match), and a host of
other “remember Hopkin” scenarios (e.g., lost frog scratch-it lottery tickets, Hopkin’s ID on
someone’s instant message buddy list, Hopkin as a “not found” internet file image). As with the
Star Wars Kid meme, references to popular culture artefacts and practices abound, and include
reworked book covers, music album covers, video games, eBay auctions, and so on. Other
images spoof advertising campaigns (e.g., an Absolut Vodka spread becomes “Absolut Hopkin”;
a Got Milk? advertisement becomes “Got Frog?”). Many of the lost frog images refer to other
memes as well. For example, an aeroplane pulling a lost frog announcement banner also
appeared earlier in an All Your Base Are Belong to Us remixed image, as did photoshopped
highway signs. This rich layering of cross-references appears to help the fecundity of a meme by
encouraging subsequent photoshoppers to make their own engaging cross-cultural references that
add layers of meaning for “those in the know” to an already humorous contribution.
(c) Anomalous juxtaposition
In addition to humour and intertextual references, over half of the memes in the data set for this
study included what could be called anomalous juxtaposition as part of their “hooks” for
maximizing the susceptibility of the idea being passed from mind to mind (i.e., Oolong the
Pancake Bunny, Bert is Evil, Bonsai Kitten, Tourist of Death, Nevada-tan, Numa Numa Dance,
God Kills a Kitten, All Your Base, Lost Frog, and Star Wars Kid). The kind of juxtaposition
found in these memes includes incongruous couplings of images (e.g., the Tourist of Death figure
originally set against a backdrop of a wide range of tragic events, beginning with New York
City’s Twin Towers attacks, and including the Titanic, a number of hurricanes, and ferry
accidents), deliberately provocative material (e.g., the faux Bonsai Kitten website that presents
“illustrated” – i.e., photoshopped and very fake – step-by-step instructions for altering the shape
of pet cats), and the simply quirky (e.g., Oolong the Rabbit who was taught to balance objects on
its head, like film canisters and different food items by Japanese photographer, Hironori
Akutagawa. Akutagawa documented these “head performances” – as he called them – in
photographs posted to the internet; or the Numa Numa Dance clip of a North American male
lipsynching and dancing to a Romanian pop song while remaining seated in his chair
throughout).
The Bert is Evil meme is a good example of anomalous juxtaposition. This meme was spawned
by an actual event. It began with a photograph of the muppet, Bert (from the children’s television
show, Sesame Street), being photoshopped into a picture of Osama bin Laden and uploaded as a
joke to an online photoshopper forum. The image was subsequently downloaded and used in
Bangladesh on street march banners by bin Laden supporters. The creators of the banners either
did not notice Bert in the picture they downloaded or did not know who Bert was. The banner
15
image caught wide broadcast media attention and rapidly prompted different people to create
remixed images that added evidence to the claim that Bert was indeed evil, rather than a
harmless children’s television character (see: bertisevil.tv). These photoshopped and animated
images show the muppet associated with the Ku Klux Klan, President Kennedy’s assassination,
the Charles Manson murders, and the like. The overall tenor of these remixed images tends to be
one of “moral bankruptcy,” with an almost paparazzi feel to most of the images since many are
staged to look as though they were taken by hidden cameras or in off-guard moments. The
juxtaposition of horrible, tragic or seedy scenarios with an innocuous puppet from a children’s
television show generates a kind of gallows humour by presenting documentary evidence that
clearly cannot be true. The fecundity of this meme may also be due in part to real-life stories
concerning the public airing of hidden seedy or immoral lives of some movie and television
stars, and, particularly, stars of children’s television.
A non-humorous example of anomalous juxtaposition concerns the Nevada-tan meme. This
meme was also sparked by a real-life event. In 2003, an 11-year-old Japanese school girl
murdered a classmate by slashing her throat with a box cutter before returning to class, covered
in her classmate’s blood. The murderer subsequently became known as ‘Nevada-tan’ as images
of her wearing a hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the word, ‘Nevada,’ were released by the
broadcast media and online. Nevada-tan’s age and her website full of shock animations (e.g., The
Red Room) and other gruesome internet culture references and artefacts sparked national debates
in Japan concerning the age limit for criminal culpability and the social effects of internet use.
Nevada-tan, however, became a popular culture icon among some groups: depicted as a manga
or anime character in fanfiction texts, generating homage websites, appearing as a character in
cosplay (i.e., in-person character role plays often built around anime storylines), and mentioned
in a number of Japanese pop songs. The juxtaposition of a young, ordinary-looking girl with a
gruesome murder she did not even try to hide seemingly created attention hooks that helped turn
Nevada-tan’s case and persona into a meme within certain affinity spaces shaped by people
interested in shocking and/or gory news events.
(d) An outlier
These three characteristics of fecund online memes – humour, intertextuality, and anomalous
juxtaposition – are not cut and dried, however. One meme in the set does not display any of these
features. The Dog Poop Girl meme (South Korea, 2005) is an outlier, with much to say about the
social power of online memes. The meme initially comprised a photograph of a young woman
and her dog on a train in South Korea. The dog had fouled the train carriage and its owner
refused to clean up the mess, even after being asked a number of times to do so. A disgruntled
fellow passenger took a phonecam image of the offender and her dog and posted it to a popular
website. It was quickly picked up by the internet community and widely circulated online, both
in its original form, and in slightly remixed poster versions. Within a few days the woman was
identified from this photo and her personal information published online as a way of punishing
her for her failure to be a responsible citizen. The meme became something of a witch hunt, with
the woman hounded online and offline until she posted a very contrite apology for her actions to
an internet forum. This meme attracted broadcast media attention around the world due mostly to
its vigilante nature and the breaching of the woman’s right to personal privacy.
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(ii) A typology of successful internet memes
Discursive analysis suggests the memes selected for this study can be organized into different
categories of kinds of memes. They can be considered in terms of the principal purposes each is
organized around, and in terms of type. Producing a typology of the memes in this study helps
map interesting patterns that offer additional insights into the online memescape. These patterns
are summarized below in Figure 4.
Insert Figure 4 here
Playful and absurdist ideas include dignifying the everyday or banal with epically-scaled
imagined responses to some real or fantastical event, or with casting a minor event or ordinary
person as having global import, as with the Lost Frog and the Star Wars Kid memes. Equally, a
penchant for the absurd underscores the popularity of quirky and anomalous images or video
sequences like Oolong the Pancake Bunny or Gary Brolma’s Numa Numa Dance.
Wry and satiric humour is used to good effect in the memes that serve social critique, criticism or
commentary purposes within this data pool. Depicting a coy, but intimate, relationship between
Bush and Blair, for example, satirizes the political and military alliances between the two
countries as ultimately self-serving. All the social critique memes in this study have playfully
serious qualities, which may further serve to enhance their contagiousness and fecundity.
Overall, the playfulness seen in most of these online memes – whether absurdist or aimed at
social commentary – taps into shared popular culture experiences and practices. This in turn
helps define certain affinity spaces (e.g., gamer spaces, photoshopper spaces, manga/anime
spaces, left-leaning political spaces, “good” community member spaces, spaces created by fans
of Asian popular cultures, blogger spaces) by semiotic nods and winks to those “in the know.”
“Outsiders” to these spaces will often struggle to see the humour or point in many of these
memes. Indeed, Susan Blackmore, a prominent memeticist, argues that the “effective
transmission of memes depends critically on human preferences, attention, emotions and desire”
(Blackmore 1999: 58). Affinity spaces seemingly play an important role in the fecundity of a
successful meme, especially when it is distributed online.
Social commentary memes also underscore the importance of timeliness for maximizing people’s
susceptibility to “catching” and passing on a meme. The success of the five memes in our pool
whose purpose is to comment on or critique some aspect of society seems significantly
attributable to the match between the meme and recognizable events or issues in the larger world
(affirmed by analysis of the contextual system invoked by or embodied in the meme). The Nike
Sweatshop Shoe meme was launched into a context of critiques of corporate manufacturing
practices that made it ripe for contagion. The Bush-Blair Love Song was launched during a time
of growing civil disquiet over the U.S. and British military coalition in the invasion of Iraq. Anti-
war protesters were especially willing carriers of this meme. Participating as a carrier in passing
this meme onto others may well mark someone as being a person of a particular kind, with
17
characteristics and worldviews deemed desirable within groups or social spaces committed to
critiques of power and inequity.
(iii) Memes and literacy education
Memes are entirely social: they require networked human hosts to emerge and survive. Studying
online memes as a new literacy must attend carefully to this social-ness and avoid reducing
meme research to an examination of reading and production processes at the level of static,
fixed-in time texts. Thinking about literacy education in schools, the social dimension of “meme-
ing” means focussing on practices that are larger than reading and writing in ways that can be
captured by distinguishing between “big L” Literacies and “little l” literacies: a shameless remix
of James Gee’s work that distinguishes between D/discourse and R/reading (cf. Gee, 1996;
2004). For us, Literacy, with a “big L” refers to meaning-making practices that are integral to
living and being in the world (cf., Freire, 1972; Street, 1984). Whenever we use written language
we are making some sort of significant or socially recognizable “move” involved in bringing into
being or realizing some element or aspect of living in our world: like Meme-ing or Remixing or
Designing. literacy, with a “small l,” describes specific material processes of reading, writing,
viewing, listening, manipulating images and sound etc., making connections between different
ideas, and using words and symbols that are part of these larger, more embodied Literacy
practices. This distinction explicitly recognises that L/literacy is always about reading and
writing something, and that this “something” is always part of a larger pattern of being in the
world (cf. Gee, Hull, & Lankshear 1996). And, because there are multiple ways of being in the
world, then we can say that there are multiple L/literacies.
Using this distinction to think about new literacies enables us to see how producing a
photoshopped image for the Bert is Evil or the All Your Base memes is an example of literacy. It
involves things like generating a text comprising a carefully designed montage of photographic
and hand-drawn images along with written words or embedded sound effects. The multimedia
dimensions of this text production are to some extent recognizably and interestingly “new”: e.g.,
understanding which software application to use to cut and crop and blend disparate images into
a new “whole”; knowing which image manipulation tools to use and for what effects (e.g., using
the ‘blur’ tool to soften the edges of imported or cut-and-pasted images so that they look more
“naturally” a part of the overall scene); how to generate and fix in place layers of images; how to
add a sound track or printed stretches of text; how to save the resulting file in an internet-friendly
format, and how to upload the file to an archive or forum, etc. Contributing a multimodal “meme
text” that has the maximum appearance of veracity, regardless of the actual absurdity of the
content for this contribution, requires a range of finely-honed technical skills and competencies
(i.e., literacy bits).
More important, however, are the “big L” dimensions associated with Meme-ing that are
invested in meaning making, social significance-making, and identity-making in one’s life (and)
worlds. The texts and montages produced and read as part of being “infected with” and
“propagating” an online meme are never free standing. They are implicated in and generated out
of networks of shared interests, experiences, habits, values, and worldviews that pick up on or
use texts, events, phenomena, icons, cultural artefacts etc. in particular (if not socially
idiosyncratic) ways. Posting a picture of a rabbit with pancakes on its head only makes sense in
18
an online forum that celebrates quirky conversation responses. This pancake bunny meme began
when an image of a rabbit balancing what was referred to as a “pancake” on its head, along with
the caption, “I have no idea what you’re talking about … so here’s a bunny with a pancake on its
head,” was posted to a discussion forum (see kimsal.com/rabbit_pancake.jpg). Hence, analysing
the “ideational system” of a given meme needs to be carefully nuanced in order to fully
appreciate that successful online memes are often heavily ironic and tongue-in-cheek, and
reference multiple texts, events, cultural practices and values, so on. Looking for the meme to
make “sense” in its own right would be to overlook much that is important, especially with
respect to absurdist memes. Similarly, analysing the contextual system of successful online
memes also needs to be nuanced and pay close attention to the often collaborative, cumulative
and distributed nature of these memes.
A “big L” conception of new Literacies recognizes that everyday life is often amplified through
the participation of and interaction with people one may never meet. Moreover, in online spaces
this interaction and participation may occur in ways never before possible. The Lost Frog meme
isn’t simply about generating humorous images concerning a child’s lost frog. It plays out as a
distributed collaboration that crosses national borders and languages (e.g., not all the lost frog
images make use of English), bringing together people who may not know each other, but who
value each other’s contribution and “way of being” nonetheless. The “big L” dimensions of the
Lost Frog meme include recognizing how amateurish or clumsy photoshopping will not likely be
as memorable or contagious as something slick and well-crafted in terms of design and technical
proficiency. At the same time, however, it also encompasses knowing that a particularly
humorous or conceptually clever version of the meme will win out over quality of technical
execution any day. It also includes recognizing clever intertextuality in the form of cross-
references to other memes or cultural practices, beliefs and phenomena (e.g., conspiracy theories,
alien abduction theories, the significance of computer or web browser error messages, the social
role of remembrance ribbons, “missing persons” announcement vehicles, etc.).
Meme-ing as Literacy also involves people deciding how they will choose to read or interpret a
meme and the “spin” they will give it as they pass it along to others. In the case of the Lost Frog
meme, this decision could mean that one sees the archive of lost frog images as poking cruel fun
at the 16-year-old young man with autism who was found to have posted the original flier (see
Whybark, 2004), or as evidence that ordinary events, such as losing a pet or toy, can take on epic
proportions within a person’s life and that this quality is aptly represented and dignified in the
Lost Frog image archive.
Some other “Big L” Literacy practices discernible in our meme pool include video gaming,
celebrating Japanese popular culture, being a fan (which can include writing fanfiction, setting
up homage websites, linking to a meme archive via one’s weblog, etc.), being privy to a plethora
of online – and offline – affinity space “insider jokes,” being familiar and up-to-date with
Hollywood movies, with fan practices such as lipsynching to pop songs or cosplay, and so on.
Ursula Franklin, writing during the early years of the mass internet, warned against taking an
“artefactual approach” to examining new technologies, and argued for focusing instead on
technology use as part of a “system of social practice” (Franklin, 1990). Franklin’s advice applies
to studying new L/literacies, as well. When we examine Meme-ing as Literacy (practice) it is
possible to see that memes involve much more than simply passing on and/or adding to written
19
or visual texts or information per se (i.e., literacy). Rather, they are tied directly to ways of
interacting with others, to meaning making, and to ways of being, knowing, learning and doing
in the world.
The importance of teachers having a “big L” Literacy mindset on memes cannot be over-
emphasized. Understanding successful online memes can contribute much to identifying the
limitations of narrow conceptions of literacy and new technologies in classrooms. It can also
help with understanding new forms of social participation and influence in everyday life. For
example, online memes challenge many “digital literacy” conceptions of what it means to be a
competent user of new technologies and networks. Increasingly, digital literacy is being defined
by policy groups and others as either technical or operational competence with computers and
the internet (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006b). The term, “digital literacy,” is also used by some to
describe the ability to evaluate information by examining sources, weighing up author credibility,
assaying the quality of writing and argument building in an online text, judging the “truth value”
of a text found online, and so on (e.g., Gilster 1997). Many of the successful memes included in
this study would be discounted or ignored by digital literacy advocates because they do not carry
“useful” information. Technicist “digital literacy” mindsets, however, do not pay adequate
attention to the importance of social relations in developing, refining, remixing and sharing ideas
in fecund and replicable ways, or to the important role memes themselves play in developing
culture and creativity (cf., Lessig, 2004).
Applying conventional information evaluation criteria and digital literacy competency checklists
(see, for example, certiport.com) to website-based memes like Black People Love Us!
(blackpeopleloveus.com) will make little sense because the website itself is a deliberate parody
of personal web pages and is not intended to be ‘true’ in any conventional way. The
“testimonials” made by Black people about the White couple who “created” this page (and in
reality, who are not a couple at all) may or may not be “true” or “authentic”, but this doesn’t
actually matter because, regardless, Peretti and his sister use this website to convey a significant
message. From a technical standpoint, the website is painfully cheesy in its design and,
doubtless, deliberately so. What matters most about this meme is the challenge it poses to liberal
attitudes that are patronizing and that reduce historical and social inequities to superficial
differences concerning, for example, skin colour and language use.
Meme-ing is also a fruitful practice for educators to consider when thinking about new forms of
social participation and civic action in the wake of widespread access to the internet and
involvement in increasingly dispersed social networks. Brodie (1996) has urged more attention to
be paid to the memes with which we are infected, and with which we infect others, as well as to
the material effects of these infections. Not all the memes in our pool are benign or contribute
positively to “uplifting” ways of being in the world. The Dog Poop Girl meme, for example,
rightly roused criticisms of the vigilante way the woman was identified and publicly hounded
until she apologized. The power of this meme to mobilize public censure of this woman was
clearly significant in its reach and has opened a Pandora’s box of issues concerning to what
extent memes should be used to right relatively minor social wrongs and by what authority. In
South Korea, academics and journalists alike openly discussed the importance of understanding
the dangers of witch-hunt types of approaches to publicly castigating someone. Participating in
this meme by passing the woman’s picture and personal details along to others was not an
20
innocent, playful or morally clear-cut act, and provides teachers with a controversial event that
promotes important discussions about the moral and civic dimensions of participating in certain
memes.
The Star Wars Kid meme also provides fruitful ground for teachers and students to examine what
happens when a reluctant “meme star” is adopted by members of a wide-ranging
cybercommunity who expend much energy identifying who he is in meatspace, where he lives,
and then broadcast his full name across the internet--focussing widespread broadcast media
attention Ghyslain. He himself did not find Star Wars Kid meme funny at all; in all honesty, he
and his parents regarded it as cruel and invasive. Ironically, a group of cybercitizens who banded
together and raised money to buy him an iPod were offended when he not only refused to have
anything to do with them and their iPod, but brought charges against certain meme participants
regarding invasion of privacy and related counts. Regardless of intent, the material effects of
memes are not always beneficial to meme “stars.” Neither do all such “stars” welcome the
attention directed at them (cf. Ellen Fleiss; the father of Terry, who lost his frog; Gary Brolma of
Numa Numa fame). Examining such memes can add new meaning to participating in memes,
including weighing up how far such participation might reach, and with what effects.
Analysing meme processes and effects as new forms of social influence can become an
important part of revising critical literacy practices in classrooms to take better account of new
literacy practices and new ways of transmitting both healthy and toxic ideas rapidly and
extensively. Engaging in serious study of memes in school can help equip students with
important strategies for identifying the memes that infect their minds, and for evaluating the
effects these memes have on their (ethical) decision-making, actions and relations with others.
Counter-meming, for example, is a well-established practice online, and refers to the deliberate
generation of a meme that aims at neutralizing or eradicating potentially harmful ideas (see, for
example, the work of Adbusters.org and strategies outlined at memecentral.com/antidote.htm,
allyourbrand.org/why.htm and dkosopedia.com/index.php/Meme). Mike Godwin (1994)
documents how he deliberately began a meme to counter what he called the “Nazi-meme” he
saw operating in online discussion boards. Godwin describes this Nazi-meme as the then
widespread practice of discussants drawing direct analogies between what another person had
written and posted to the board and Nazism. Feeling compelled to counteract this often glib and
offensive analogy, he developed “Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies” and released it into
discussion groups wherever he saw a gratuitous Nazi reference. His original “law” stated that:
“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler
approaches one” (Godwin, 1994, p. 1). Godwin’s Law quickly caught on and became a kind of
marker for judging the worth of a discussion thread. The original statement of Godwin’s Law
underwent a number of mutations at the word level, but the idea itself remained intact, becoming
a meme. Godwin recounts,
As Cuckoo's Egg author Cliff Stoll once said to me: “Godwin's Law? Isn't that the
law that states that once a discussion reaches a comparison to Nazis or Hitler, its
usefulness is over?” By my (admittedly low) standards, the [counter-meme]
experiment was a success. (1994: 1).
21
Godwin sees this kind of “memetic engineering” as an important component in contributing to
the health of people’s social and mental lives. He argues that once a harmful meme has been
identified we may have a social and moral responsibility to chase it down by releasing a positive
counter-meme into the idea stream. Studying memetic engineering could become an important
component of classroom critical literacy approaches to understanding social power and
influence. At least 4 of the 19 memes collected for this study can be categorized as successful
and deliberate counter-memes (i.e., the Black People Love Us! meme, The Flying Spaghetti
Monster meme, the This Land Is My Land meme, and the Bush-Blair Love Song meme). These
memes are generative resources that can be used to promote discussions about each meme’s
contagious qualities, the ideas they convey and why, who created each meme, and how it has
been dispersed (e.g., via which affinity spaces). These memes can be dynamic resources for
developing informed points of view on a range of social issues. When contemplating critical
literacy pedagogy it is worth remembering Adar and colleagues’ argument that the most socially
powerful or influential people online are not necessarily high profile persons and groups but,
rather, those people who cause idea epidemics (Adar in conversation with Asaravala 2004; Adar
et al., 2004).
Entire organizations have begun experimenting with meme engineering and distribution on quite
significant scales. This work offers a range of models for working with memes from within
classroom spaces. The critiques of mainstream media, marketing, and consumption memes
propagated by the non-profit group, Adbusters (Adbusters.org), provide excellent models of the
kinds of memes students can participate actively in as part of dynamic approaches to resisting
corporate-manufactured identities and consumption mindsets (see, for example,
unbrandamerica.org). Non-profit community groups are also beginning to look to the grassroots
mobilization that occurs around remixed or evolving multimedia memes as a viable model for
mobilizing commitment to social causes (e.g., Surman & Reilly, 2003).
In 2005, a meme engineering contest was hosted by Eyebeam, a non-profit digital arts and
education outfit in New York City, and titled the “Contagious Media Showdown”
(Showdown.contagiousmedia.org; 2005). Prizes were awarded to deliberately developed, meme-
based websites that proved to be maximally “contagious” as judged within one or more contest
categories. The categories included: which idea generated the most unique visitors to the website
(a traffic volume count); which contest website was linked to by most blogs, or which contest
website scored the highest on a well-known popularity index (in this case, Alexa.com). The
content of the winning memes was more bizarre than socially aware (e.g., a hoax website
advertising underwear with built-in satellite tracking devices for keeping track of loved ones was
the overall winner; another winner was a website comprising video clips of people crying while
eating). However, the motivation behind the contest and its outcomes (the tracker panties
website attracted well over 20 million unique visitors during the three week contest time period;
collectively, the 60 entries in the contest attracted over 50 million unique visitors in the same
period) are instructive with respect to the effectiveness of the internet as a meme carrier and the
accessible processes by which one can generate and disseminate memes online.
Conclusion
22
Within literacy education, analysis and dissection of online memes can be used to explore why
some ideas are more easily replicated, are more fecund and have more longevity than others, and
what the consequences of this are or might be. Studying online memes that aim to promote social
critique can help educators rethink conventional approaches to critical literacy that all too often
operate at the level of text analysis without taking sufficient account of the social practices,
ideas, affinities and new forms of social participation and cultural production that generated the
phenomenon under examination. Engaging with online memes as examples of new L/literacies
might help students acquire important strategies for identifying the memes that infect their
minds, and for evaluating the effects these memes have on their (ethical) decision-making, social
actions and relations with others. Well-informed and savvy online meming may well provide
students with a fruitful and accessible practice for bringing about positive social changes in the
ways people think and, perhaps, act towards others.
2018 Postscript
When we were studying and writing about memes 15 years ago, people would regularly ask us
how to pronounce “meme”; was it “mee-mee”, “meh-meh”, “mem-ay”? In 2018, “meme” has
become a rather ubiquitous term--with workplace staffrooms and public bathrooms often using
printed out online memes to help maintain social order or hygiene, the Shorty Awards handing
out prizes for the best meme/parody accounts, and a commercially published table-top game
called “What Do You Meme?” all part of the mix. Looking back, it is easy to see that much has
changed since we first published this chapter in 2007. Updating this chapter would be out of the
question, given the impossibility of using our original selection criteria to pin down a
manageable pool of memes to analyze closely. That being said, the historicity of this chapter
helps us to see a number of trends that have emerged subsequently and are worth remarking on in
this post script because they plot out for us a research trajectory for the future, and might prove
useful to other students of memes, as well.
One thing we’ve noticed is that meme longevity or sustainability over time has given way to
sustainability across numbers (that is, breadth of spread seems to matter more than shelf life).
Memes can now be so fleeting that it’s easy to argue that memes have an “exclusionary” power
in some affinity spaces (i.e., if you miss a meme shared within the group, then you’re not a true
insider to the group) or they add a need to be “constantly up with the play” in order to be able to
leverage reference to a nano-second meme as “someone in the know.”
There’s also been a distinct shift towards associating the term “meme” with particular online
textual practices. “Meme” is widely associated now with poster-like marriages of a still image
and superimposed text. The image and text work together to convey particular ideas (e.g.,
“socially awkward penguin” comprises the image of a penguin, and the text speaks to an
awkward social moment recounted by the meme maker, such as: “Start telling joke; forget
punchline”). The rise of the LOLcats memes in the mid 2000s and the introduction of meme
macros or templates (i.e., online meme generators for constructing a new contribution to the
meme pool; the user selects an available image or uploads one of their own, and adds text in a
particular, instantly-recognizable font; see Icanhas.cheezburger.com for more on this). Today,
there are entire families of these macro-type memes; like “Advice Animals”, where different
images signal different elements of social life (e.g., Confession Bear, Courage Wolf, Actual
23
Advice Mallard). These sorts of template-driven memes are enormously popular--in large part
because they are so easy to generate. They don’t require photoshopping skills, and instead of
remix being a key feature, they often are passed along fully intact without any change (see
Facebook, especially, for examples of this). These meme macros have become a kind of currency
in and of themselves, too, with a range of online affinity spaces dedicated to meme macro
sharing (e.g., Reddit.com/r/adviceanimals; Icanhas.cheezburger.com). Macro meme spreadability
has been enhanced greatly by the rise of social media networks, too, with Facebook, Tumblr,
Instagram, Twitter and YouTube playing a major role. In this way, the meme vehicle (the macro
used to generate contributions to the meme pool) is recognized widely as the meme itself, rather
than the message carried by this vehicle. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this
trend. However, it remains important to recognise--just as it was important 20 years ago--that
memes are all about contagious ideas that carry cultural information and that contribute directly
to cultural development of one kind or another. What is at risk in associating online meme-ing
practices with generating and sharing macro-type memes is that other online memetic messages
may be overlooked or downplayed in popular consciousness.
Related to this point is not so much a shift in how susceptibility plays out with respect to people
being open to acquiring and passing along contagious ideas, but a growing recognition that
online memes today are not taken up simply to signal solidarity with a shared affinity or a group
of people. Increasingly, online memes are being used to mark off very clear boundaries regarding
values, beliefs, moral conduct, and “people like us” (cf., Ellis, 2017; Shifman, 2014; Watercutter
& Ellis, 2018). In many ways, a good number of online memes appear to be outgrowths of
already robust ideologies and affinity spaces (rather than needing hooks to latch onto people and
infect their minds with ideas, because the ideas are already in place and the online meme is
simply an expression of this). Indeed, one particular trend we’ve been following in recent years
is the way in which memes have been used very successfully by Russian trolls and automated
online bots to not so much convey pieces of cultural information, but rather to divide social
groups, if not entire societies, especially within the U.S. and the U.K. (cf. Romm, 2018). This
meme work emphasizes playing groups off against each other; such as one Russian-run Twitter
account directed at supporters of the “Black Lives Matter” and the anti-police violence
movement, exhorting people to attend a pro-Beyoncé [a popular African American singer] rally
outside the National Football League head office in New York City, and another Russian account
targeting police, firefighters, the military (and, in addition, most likely supporters of the “All
Lives Matter” movement) advertising an anti-Beyoncé protest in New York City in the exact
same location, on the same day and at the same time (Romm, 2018). The Russians have shown
the world what it means to be able to successfully--to put it mildly--reverse engineer memes and
put them to use in ways we simply did not imagine in the past. Ironically, this was not the
“activist literacy” we had in mind when we originally emphasized “writing contagious ideas into
existence” as a counterbalance to dominant memes.
In closing, it is clear to us that online memes have moved from the margins of everyday social
practice over the past decade into playing a significant role in how we interact with each other, in
how we position ourselves in relation to each other, and how we read and write our worlds. As
such, these memes and their associated meme practices remain interesting and important objects
of study.
24
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Article
Full-text available
Abstract: This article maps some key patterns associated with how internet memes are conceived and how online meme practices have evolved and morphed during the period from 2000 to the present. We document the rise of internet memes during their early years as a broadly communitarian cultural engagement, mostly characterized by goodwill, humor, and an often “nerdish” sense of shared cultural identity. With the massification of internet access and participation in online social practices employing Web 2.0 and mobile computing capacities, changes occurred in how internet memes were conceived and created (e.g., image macro-generators). Since around 2012, many online meme practices have become intensely politicized and increasingly used for socially divisive and, often, cruel purposes. We explore some of these shifts and argue that what we call “second wave” online memes have been used as weapons in personal, political, and social-cultural wars. We conclude that internet memes scholarship would benefit from revisiting the original conception and theory of memes advanced by Richard Dawkins, and attending closely to what motivated Dawkins in this work. This article is open access and can be freely accessed at: https://doi.org/10.18848/2470-9247/CGP/v04i04/43-57
Article
Full-text available
DOI: https://doi.org/10.18848/2470-9247/CGP/v04i04/43-57 Citation: Lankshear, Colin, and Michele Knobel. 2019. "Memes, Macros, Meaning, and Menace: Some Trends in Internet Memes." The Journal of Communication and Media Studies 4 (4): 43-57. doi:10.18848/2470-9247/CGP/v04i04/43-57. This article maps some key patterns associated with how internet memes are conceived and how online meme practices have evolved and morphed during the period from 2000 to the present. We document the rise of internet memes during their early years as a broadly communitarian cultural engagement, mostly characterized by goodwill, humor, and an often “nerdish” sense of shared cultural identity. With the massification of internet access and participation in online social practices employing Web 2.0 and mobile computing capacities, changes occurred in how internet memes were conceived and created (e.g., image macro-generators). Since around 2012, many online meme practices have become intensely politicized and increasingly used for socially divisive and, often, cruel purposes. We explore some of these shifts and argue that what we call “second wave” online memes have been used as weapons in personal, political, and socialcultural wars. We conclude that internet memes scholarship would benefit from revisiting the original conception and theory of memes advanced by Richard Dawkins, and attending closely to what motivated Dawkins in this work.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.