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The Discursive Power of Memes in Digital Culture: Ideology, Semiotics, and Intertextuality

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The Discursive Power of Memes
in Digital Culture
Shared, posted, tweeted, commented upon, and discussed online as well
as ofine, internet memes represent a new genre of online communi-
cation, and an understanding of their production, dissemination, and
implications in the real world enables an improved ability to navigate
digital culture. This book explores cases of cultural, economic, and po-
litical critique levied by the purposeful production and consumption of
internet memes. Often images, animated GIFs, or videos are remixed
in such a way to incorporate intertextual references, quite frequently
to popular culture, alongside a joke or critique of some aspect of the
human experience. Ideology, semiotics, and intertextuality coalesce
in the book’s argument that internet memes represent a new form of
meaning-making, and the rapidity by which they are produced and
spread underscores their importance.
Bradley E. Wiggins is an Associate Professor and head of the media
communications department at Webster Vienna Private University.
His investigations of digital culture and discourse involve research on
internet memes, social media, and fake news. Additional research in-
cludes game and simulation-based learning, intercultural and strategic
communication.
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Ideology, Semiotics, and Intertextuality
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The Discursive Power of
Memes in Digital Culture
Ideology, Semiotics, and Intertextuality
Bradley E. Wiggins
First published 2019
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Library of Cong ress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Wiggins, Bradley E., 1977– author.
Title: The discursive power of memes in digital culture:
ideology, semiotics, and intertextuality / Bradley E . Wiggins.
Description: 1 Edition. | New York: Routledge, 2018. |
Series: Routledge studies in new media and cyberculture; 45
Identiers: LCC N 2018056355 (print) |
LCCN 2018060207 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Memes. | Digital communications. | Social
media—Social aspects. | Intercultural communication.
Classication: LCC HM626 (ebook) | LCC HM626 .W564
2018(print) | DDC 302.23/1—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018056355
ISBN: 978 -1-13858-8 40 - 0 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-0 -42949-230-3 (ebk)
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List of Figures xi
List of Tables xiii
Preface/Foreword xv
1 Dawkins Revisited: A Brief History of the Term Meme
and Its Function 1
Memes and Viral Media 4
Bridging the Viral Divide 6
Memes as a Cultural Commodity 6
Memes and Culture 7
It Doesn’t Meme What You Think 8
Memes and Internet Memes 8
Memes and the Role of Remix 11
You Can’t Touch My Meme 12
Attention and Reproducibility 13
An Elaboration of Shifman’s Typology
of Memetic Dimension 15
Applying the Elaboration of Shifman’s
Model to Image-Based Memes 17
Introduce the Internet 18
2 The Discursive Power of Memes in Digital Culture 21
Digital Culture 21
Older Fears and New Rationalities 22
The Power of Discourse 23
Discourse as Ideology 24
Ideology 25
Ideology and Internet Memes 30
Semiotics 31
Semiotics and Internet Memes 32
Intertextuality 34
Intertextuality and Internet Memes 34
Contents
viii Contents
3 Memes as Genre 37
Artifacts of Digital Culture 40
Genre 40
Toward a Genre Development of Memes:
Structuration Theory 41
Structures and Systems 42
Duality of Structure 42
Maintenance, Elaboration, Modication: A Genre
Development of Memes 43
Spreadable Media 44
Emergent Meme 45
Internet Meme 46
Distracted Boyfriend 47
The Most Interesting Man in the World 48
Structuration in the Context of Internet Memes 49
Concluding Discussion 51
Do All Memes Follow the Genre Development? 52
4 Political Memes 57
Technological Affordances and Ideological Practice 57
International Research into Internet Memes 58
Jokerizing Obama: Appropriations of Meaning 61
Obama as Joker, Trump as Joker? 63
What Exactly is a Political Meme? 64
Spain (and Catalonia) 66
Gamifying Political Discourse 68
Tabarnia: The Parody which begat the Real 69
Russia: Strategic Relativism and the
Politics of Eternity 70
Interference in 2016 71
Russia’s 2018 Election: Participatory Culture or
Political Malaise? 72
Comparative Analysis 76
China, and the Question of Censoring Internet Memes 78
Crushing Criticism or Internet Sovereignty? 78
Elevation of the Semiotic: The China Dream 79
If You Don’t Like Reality, Change It 80
5 Commercially Motivated Strategic Messaging and
Internet Memes 85
Commercial Usage of Memes and Copyright 85
Viral, by Design? 88
Contents ix
Where’s the Beef? Wendy’s Commercial as an Early
Example of Viral Media 90
The Role of Cool in Strategic Uses of Internet Memes 91
Numa Numa Guy and the Geico Lizard 94
Virgin Media, Vitamin Water, and the Success Kid 95
Delta Airline’s Internetest Safety Video 96
Concluding Discussion 97
6 Audience 10 0
Audiences and the Reception of Content, Historically 10 0
Beyond Effects: Uses and Gratications 101
Stuart Hall: Dominant, Negotiated, and Oppositional
Decoding 102
Toward a Meme-Centric Understanding of Audience 105
Media Narratives, Television, and Internet Memes 109
Postmodern Tendencies of Television and Internet Memes 110
Internet Memes and the Imagined Audience 111
7 Identity 115
Essentialism and Constructivism 115
Temporality and Instability of Identity 116
The Babadook: Horror Movie Monster as a Gay Icon? 118
Resonance: Babadook, Facebook, and Identity 119
March for Our Lives: Aftermath of the Parkland School
Shooting 123
Role of Metaphor: Procatoptric Staging 124
Making Sense of It All 125
Meme-ing Ourselves to Death? 126
8 Internet Memes as a Form of…Art? 130
The Bizarre, Absurd, Cringeworthy, Ironic, etc.
as Expressions of Disillusionment 132
Dada, Surrealism, and Internet Memes 134
Structural Similarities between Dada
and Internet Memes 135
Marcel Duchamp and the Readymade 136
Internet Memes and Literary Linkages:
Neue Sachlichkeit 137
René Magritte and The Treachery of Images
(or La trahison des images) 138
Introducing a Neo-Dadaist Semiotic 140
x Contents
America First, Netherlands Second: The Most Fantastic,
Absolutely Tremendous Analysis, Really. It’s Great 141
A Neo-Dadaist Semiotic in Image-Based Internet Memes 143
Analysis: Using the Elaboration of the Model 146
Concluding Discussion 152
Postface/Afterword 157
Index 159
2.1 Turning Point USA: Remixing Karl Marx 28
3.1 Self-Portrait, ca. 1793 Joseph Ducreux 37
3.2 Image Macro Meme of Ducreux’s Self-Portrait 38
3.3 Remixing Ducreaux: Steve Buscemi’s face from The Big
Lebowski 39
3.4 Distracted Boyfriend Posted to Nigel
Farage’s Facebook Page 47
3.5 The Most Interesting Man in the World 49
4.1 Obama, Jokerized 62
4.2 Distracted Boyfriend, Distracted Puigdemont 67
4.3 Puigdemont or Pauxlemaunt? 68
4.4 Putin as Cyborg, Elections: Year 2127 73
4.5 Putin Is Not a Woman 74
4.6 Russian Ballot Remix 75
5.1 US Department of Health and Human
Services: Doge Fail 93
6.1 Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Iconic Instagram Photo of
the G-7 Summit 103
6.2 People’s China Daily Tweet 104
6.3 White Woman Calls Cops, Rosa Parks 106
6.4 The Root’s Instagram Photo of White Woman Calls
Cops aka #BBQBecky 106
7.1 The Babadook, LGBTQ+ pride 120
7.2 Remixing March for Our Lives 124
8.1 Remixing the French Spiderman 139
8.2 Qualitative Coordinate Plane for Plotting Memes:
Political Ideology and Primary Purpose 145
8.3 Bernice King’s Tweet in Response to
Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad 150
8.4 MLK Jr. Needs Pepsi for Selma: Remixing Kendall
Jenner Pepsi Ad 151
List of Figures
1.1 Elaboration of Memetic Typology 16
3.1 Genre Development of Internet Memes 50
8.1 America First, Netherlands Second: Content, Form, and
Stance 141
8.2 Popular Memes from 2016 to 2017 144
List of Tables
Spoiler alert: this isn’t really a book about memes.
Well, it is. But, it also isn’t.
It’s a book about ideology, or more precisely, about what I’m calling
ideological practice.
The central argument is that internet memes are discursive units of
digital culture and that these units of discourse indicate an ideological
practice. To be specic, I primarily refer to those internet memes which
inhere some form or degree of critique, be it a critique of a politician, ce-
lebrity, social, cultural, or economic issue, etc. The practice of ideology
occurs in the construction, comprehension, and furtherance of internet
memes as units of discourse. Within construction, a difference exists
between video and non-video internet memes. I place most analytical
emphasis on the image-based internet memes as these are, arguably, the
most pervasive and perhaps also the most malleable of all sub-genres
of internet memes. Video memes (as well as animated forms such as
GIFs) naturally also contain aspects of an ideological practice, but the
role and degree of semiotics and intertextuality is limited proportionate
to the presence of human speech. With human speech, analysis of such
memes is best undertaken by following Shifman’s (2013) memetic typol-
ogy of content, form, and stance, whereby stance is primarily concerned
with the tone and style of the communication as well as the commu-
nicative function following Jakobson’s (1960) six functions of human
speech communication. With regard to image-based memes, the absence
of speech means the magnication of the visual-verbal mode of making
meaning. Within image-based memes, the role of semiotics and inter-
textuality is elevated in the construction of meaning. For such memes,
I have adjusted Shifman’s typology and recast it as an elaboration of the
model for the analysis of image-based memes. Yet to posit that meaning
is constructed assumes an audience comprised of individuals capable to
understand the message. I dedicate an entire chapter to the deliberation
of audience with respect to memes, but for the purpose of this introduc-
tion while certain memes do in fact have an audience (be it real or imag-
ined), the vast majority of critical memes inhere a directionality which
addresses at least two groups, one which is positioned to ‘get the joke
Preface/Foreword
xvi Preface/Foreword
and one which may be the target of the joke. In internet memes, semi-
otics, or more generally the study of meaning making (or how processes
such as allegory, analogy, catachresis, juxtaposition, metaphor, meton-
ymy, parody, pastiche, signication, simulation, symbolism, synecdo-
che, etc. are used to make meaning of reality), is an important facet to
understand, especially given the proclivities of digital culture for rapidly
consuming and sharing truncated forms of expression. Its relationship
to intertextuality, or the bridging of one text with another text through
citation, parody, reference, remix, etc., often overlaps especially with
regard to understanding how meaning is constructed and for what pur-
pose. Finally, the place of ideological practice coalesces as a meeting
point for the semiotic and intertextual choices made in the construction
and further spread of given internet memes. This is not to suggest that
we need to concern ourselves with the author of a given meme and ascer-
tain their identity in order to assign ideological meaning; rather, it is in
the sharing, curation, and remixing, etc. of internet memes where ideo-
logical practice takes place. In digital culture, internet memes exist as a
genre of online communication. Further, memes are also simultaneously
artifacts emblematic of digital culture. Their production, consumption,
and spread, address an agency within a social system and these are fur-
ther enabled by memory traces in the tradition of Giddens’ concept of
structuration. Internet memes which address a real-world event or issue
also imply a media narrative, which I clarify in greater detail in the chap-
ter on Audience. In the last chapter, I posit that internet memes – again,
especially those which incorporate a critical message (even though this
normally always is accomplished also through the use of humor) – are
a new form of artistic expression. Internet memes are a new form of
art, and one that conceptually traces back to Dadaism, Surrealism, and
related forms of art.
A socio-historical account of the term “meme” reveals a concept that
has mutated since its introduction. By “mutated,” I mean to emphasize
the ways in which meme-as-a-concept has itself changed because of hu-
man interaction with the internet. Prior to exploring the similarities and
important differences between Richard Dawkins’ meme and its digital
counterpart, the internet meme, it is best to review the term meme in
general and chart its development since its inception.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the meme in his
book The Selsh Gene and intended the meme to be a response to the
gene-centric focus of evolution. Dawkins’ motivation for the neologism
was rooted in the sense that “[w]e need a name for the new replicator, a
noun that conveys the idea of cultural transmission, or a unit of imita-
tion” (1989, p. 182, italics in original text). This was ostensibly due to
the need to conceptualize and verbalize the posited relationship between
cultural and genetic transmission in society. Curiously, Dawkins cites
the Greek word mimeme in his effort to create a new word. It is perhaps
worth noting that mimeme, or μίμημα (“mīmēma”) translates from An-
cient Greek to mean “imitated thing”. Dawkins suggests that a shorter,
monosyllabic word such as ‘meme’ better captures the linkage between
culture and memory. In unambiguous terms, Dawkins (1989) writes that
[j]ust as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from
body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in
the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which,
in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
(p. 192)
However, it is this conceptual standpoint of imitation which is criti-
cal in understanding the difference between the Dawkinsian meme and
the internet meme. Not mimeme but rather enthymeme better captures
the essence of internet memes as a digital phenomenon marked not by
imitation but by the capacity to propose or counter a discursive argu-
ment through visual and often also verbal interplay; the emphasis here
is on those internet memes which inhere a critical component of society,
1 Dawkins Revisited
A Brief History of the Term
Meme and Its Function
2 Dawkins Revisited
politics, etc. Enthymeme conceptually designates the fundamental dif-
ferences between meme and internet meme from an orthographic as
well as an etymological standpoint. Huntington (2017, p. 80) suggests
that the “enthymeme lays out key points of an argument while leaving
the conclusion of the argument unstated”. Finnegan (2001, p. 143) ar-
gued that the enthymeme is
an argument that is drawn from premises that do not need to be
stated, ‘since the hearer supplies it’…the enthymeme leaves space
for the audience to insert its own knowledge and experience; it as-
sumes an audience of judges capable of ‘lling in the blanks’ of an
argument.
Similarly, Smith (2007, p. 122) concludes that enthymemes function in
contemporary society not as the Aristotelian syllogism but rather as vi-
sual arguments that
contain premises and conclusions that are merely probable, thus rec-
ognizing the differences that are common in human interactions.
They call for judgment, and thus appeal emotionally and ethically
as well as logically. Finally, their effectiveness depends on agreement
between messenger and audience, discovered in the common opin-
ions shaped by the contexts and culture of the people addressed.
A later section expounds on the differences between the Dawkinsian
meme and the internet meme, but it is more conceptually clear to view
the etymological inception of meme, with reference to its digital coun-
terpart, as emanating from enthymeme and not simply an imitation of
something as with mimeme.
To return to the meme, as described by Dawkins, and its internet coun-
terpart, he envisioned the meme as a cultural unit (or idea) that sought
replication for the purpose of its own survival. Ideas (or memes per
Dawkins) are inherently selsh and virulent, competing to infect indi-
vidual minds to use them as vehicles for replication. Dawkins’ meme was
generally conceived, including such examples as slogans, catch phrases,
fashion, learned skills, and so on. The emphasis in all these examples of
the Dawkinsian meme is clearly imitation, or an imitative force. Accord-
ing to Dawkins, catch phrases, popular songs, and fashion all persist
through agential imitation and replication. Like genes, which are ubiqui-
tous and essential to evolution, Dawkins saw the gene as a metaphor for
the meme. By describing evolution as a cultural phenomenon – not a bi-
ological phenomenon – Burman (2012) suggests Dawkins’ purpose was
to “[redene] the fundamental unit of selection in evolutionary biology”
(p. 77). For Dawkins, the meme served as a catalyst for cultural jumps
Dawkins Revisited 3
in human evolution, much like a gene served to further biological evolu-
tion. Memes are the mediators of cultural evolution. Within the decade
following Dawkins’ work in the 1970s, the gene ceased being simply a
metaphor for meme. Gene and meme became synonymous. Hofstadter
(1983, p. 18) took Dawkins’ metaphor and imagined it more literally:
Memes, like genes, are susceptible to variation or distortion – the
analogue of mutation. Various mutations of a meme will have to
compete with one another, as well as with other memes, for atten-
tion, that is, for brain resources in terms of both space and time
devoted to that meme.
Moreover, Hofstadter notes further competition among memes because
of aural and visual transmission, suggesting that memes unlike genes
will compete “for radio and television time, billboard space, newspaper
and magazine column-inches and library shelf-space”. It is worth noting
here the close parallel to the infrastructure of the internet and human
interaction. The draw on attention (“brain resources in terms of both
space and time”) is relevant to our contemporary reliance on digital and
online forms of communication regardless of internet memes per se.
By 1995, Burman (2012) writes, “the meme had become active and
non-metaphorical” (p. 89). The understanding of meme was a given ob-
vious item of knowledge thus shaping our assumptions of it and how
it is to be understood at a time when the current internet meme was
years away. In a sense, the Dawkinsian meme – the concept itself as a
spreadable idea – became a prime example of its explicitly articulated
denition, in the tradition of Dawkins, which is to infect language and
thought, replicating itself within the minds and languages of individuals
for the sole purpose of replication. Although the meme has a long history
of usage tied to linguistics, psychology, and philosophy, the contempo-
rary meaning of meme is much different. Its current meaning describes
a genre of communication, not a unit of cultural transmission. Inter-
estingly, scholarship on memes has historically relied on an “epidemio-
logical model” (Weng, Flammini, Vespignani, & Menczer, 2012, p. 6).
As such it is a metaphorical model that connes the meme conceptu-
ally within biology and evolution. Specically, from an epidemiological
stance, the meme spreads much like a disease. This, of course, echoes
Dawkins’ own initial treatment of meme as well as the way in which the
eld of memetics responded to Dawkins’ neologism. For example, Black-
more’s (2000) book The Meme Machine argued for an actual science of
memetics, all in response to Dawkins’ simple but necessary decision to
offer a cultural corollary to the biological gene. Similarly, and following
Dawkins, Aunger (2002, p. 2) extends the Dawkinsian perspective of
the biological connection by stating that memes represent “an idea that
4 Dawkins Revisited
becomes commonly shared through social transmission”. Kien (2013,
p.554) refers to Aunger (2002) in his excoriation of media researchers
who, in his view, have “abused [the] term in its reduction by media stud-
ies to mere internet phenomena”. While Aunger deliberately emphasized
the biological in his work, researchers such as Kien (2013) and Milner
(2012) needlessly extend the reliance on Dawkins and the biological
metaphor, a process which fails to grasp the ideational argumentation
afforded by internet memes. The epidemiological approach serves as a
false analogy for the digital understanding and usage of memes by plac-
ing the power of their spread in the memes and ignoring agency.
Similarly, Jenkins (2009, para. 18) states that “the idea of the meme
and the media virus, of self-replicating ideas hidden in attractive, catchy
content we are helpless to resist – is a problematic way to understand
cultural practices”. Jenkins proceeds with an explanation of the role of
agency as critical to understanding cultural change, but the argument
suffers from an implicit presumption that meme necessarily means what
Dawkins originally suggested. While Jenkins is correct to assert that
memes do not replicate themselves, the argument suffers in stating that
individuals are not susceptible to viral media, memes, or otherwise. This
view emerges from an epidemiological assumption that memes, like a
media virus, infect people, making them susceptible to inuence. This
perhaps accidental reliance on Dawkins’ biological metaphor prevents
the opportunity to reveal that the Dawkinsian denition does not apply
to internet memes given their capacity to function as visual arguments
and not simply “attractive, catchy content”. It is important to explore
the distinction between viral media and internet memes in greater detail
if only to provide clarity to my insistence on viewing memes as visual
arguments.
Memes and Viral Media
When comparing internet memes to viral media (or the capacity for me-
dia content, such as texts, images, hashtags, etc. to spread massively in
online spaces often for relatively short periods of time), the tendency is
to posit that due to the agency involved in the production and dissemi-
nation of internet memes, they are viewed as qualitatively different from
viral media.
Typically, the distinction is explained with an emphasis on the manner
by which change, imitation, remix, modication, etc. is perceived, and
this is articulated as the origin of the distinction. For example, many
researchers on this topic might cite Gangnam Style, a music video fea-
turing South Korean musician Psy. The video has been viewed over 3
billion times since it was uploaded to YouTube on July 12, 2012. In this
example, the argument goes that the views of a video do not count as a
modication or remix but rather indicates virality.
Dawkins Revisited 5
Indeed, Shifman (2011) lightly distinguishes between viral and what
she terms memetic videos in her analysis of a series of YouTube videos.
She demarcates viral as “a clip that spreads to the masses via digital
word-of-mouth mechanisms without signicant change [italics in orig-
inal]” (2011, p. 190). With memetic video, Shifman asserts that “a dif-
ferent structure of participation” incorporates “two main mechanisms
in relating to the ‘original’ memetic video”, namely imitation and remix
(2011, p. 190). Shifman takes viral and memetic and equates them with
Jenkins’ term spreadable media but acknowledges that the term still ne-
cessitates some clarity. However, subsuming viral and memetic under
spreadable media suggests an effort to rene the specic toward the gen-
eral. Equating spreadable media with a derivative is counterproductive,
since doing so assumes a conceptual alignment.
Further, and to borrow an important perspective from the eld of soci-
olinguistics and linguistic anthropology, Varis and Blommaert (2015, pp.
35–36) understand Shifman’s (2011) argument as emphasizing “the ab-
sence of signication change to the sign itself to distinguish virality from
‘memicity’: memes, as opposed to viral signs, would involve changes to
the sign itself. Here, Varis and Blommaert understand internet memes as
signs, which in semiotics is the quality of a thing to communicate meaning.
As noted in the second chapter and following the denition of semiotician
Umberto Eco, the sign is “produced with the intention of communication,
that is, in order to transmit one’s representation or inner state to another
being” (1984, p. 16). The core of Varis and Blommaert’s argument is that
when considering activities associated with social semiotics (processes
of meaning making across groups in society), the distinction between
viral and memetic is less tenable than Jenkins or Shifman has consid-
ered. Rather this sociolinguistic argument is that to share information on
Facebook, for example, is a form of “re-entextualization”, or “meaning-
ful communicative operations that demand different levels of agency and
creativity of the user” (2015, p. 41). Additionally, Varis and Blommaert
(2015) assert that such an act involves “re-semiotization”, which suggests
that every repetitive expression of a sign invariably “involves an entirely
new set of contextualization conditions and thus results in an entirely
‘new’ semiotic process, allowing new semiotic modes and resources to
be involved in the repetition process” (p. 36). Further, they argue that
a Facebook post that generates tens of thousands of reactions does not
mean that each person who reacted actually read the post. Similarly, a
study conducted on Twitter revealed that approximately 59% of URLs
shared were not actually clicked on at all (Gabielkov, Ramachandran,
Chaintreau, & Legout, 2016, p. 8, in Wiggins, 2017). Thus, the main
counterargument offered by Varis and Blommaert resides in the perspec-
tive that a piece of media content, such as a sele, a looped video, or an
image-macro, does not need to be altered in the way commonly expressed
by researchers on memes because of the process of re-entextualization.
6 Dawkins Revisited
Bridging the Viral Divide
In an effort to bridge both perspectives, suppose a given sele is up-
loaded to Instagram and attains a massive level of reactions. In this case,
the sele has led to some degree of virality; however, it is not an internet
meme in the sense that it offers some form of visual argument. It is, nev-
ertheless, an iteration of the Dawkinsian variant as a sele exists as an
idea that is executable and imitable. Additionally, it is also a sign given
its communicative function, and as such exists as another genre of com-
munication. Thus, following Eco’s (1984) denition of sign and Varis
and Blommaert’s (2015) suggestion that internet memes are semiotic
signs, all forms of mediated content – whether they ‘go viral’ or not –
that represent or transmit meaning, can also be viewed as semiotic signs.
However, signs which inhere a visual argument achieved through an
expression of ideological practice and constructed semiotically and often
intertextually are the category of internet memes examined in this work.
Whether an individual wishes to view all such content as memes or viral
media, or semiotic signs, etc. is a personal choice. It is my contention
that understanding the capacity for certain digital messages to argue a
perspective visually constitutes an acknowledgement of the thing as an
internet meme. The importance of such an action leads to opportunities
to understand the ideology expressed, audience(s) addressed, identities
constructed or negotiated, the degree to which media narratives are in-
corporated into the message, etc. In other words, their construction, cu-
ration, consumption, etc. are what should concern us, not questions of
their epidemiological but rather their discursive power.
Scholarship on internet memes tends to address the inherent mean-
ing within a meme or series of memes or may emanate from a specic
event or be used as a discursive tool to express irony, for example.
However, these attempts rarely, if ever, address the ideological interre-
lationship of semiotic and intertextual ramications on meaning con-
veyed by the meme itself but also what its creation and curation say
about the individuals, groups, etc. using them to engage in discursive
practices. This book endeavors to introduce an understanding of in-
ternet memes through a conceptual prism of ideology, semiotics, and
intertextuality
Memes as a Cultural Commodity
To be explicit, memes are no different than any other cultural commod-
ity. The acquisition, display, desire for, and even knowledge of com-
modities communicates something about us in terms of our relationship
to them and to each other. Communication is in essence inescapable.
Further, individuals enact social relationships with and through memes
because individuals are interpellated, or addressed, by the social system
Dawkins Revisited 7
they inhabit (or with which they identify). Accordingly, individuals ar-
ticulate their opinions, views, etc. of an issue in a specic way linked
to a particular ideological practice. This is communicated through a
deliberate semiotic construction of meaning that is mutually intelligible
to one’s perceived group to reify the social structure, itself recursively
reconstituted through human–internet interaction. Accordingly, with
ideology, I refer primarily to Althusser and Zizek; with semiotics, I am
drawing on Eco, Hodge, and Barthes; and with intertextuality, I refer
to the work of Kristeva, Barthes, as well as to related concepts. The sub-
sequent chapter elucidates the conceptual core of the title of this work
more extensively.
Memes and Culture
As noted, Richard Dawkins originally proposed the term as a cultural
corollary to the gene. While the term is useful in understanding cul-
tural transmission of practice, beliefs, customs, expressions, modes of
behavior, nonverbal cues, etc., it is problematic when discussing the
digital counterpart to Dawkins’ cultural corollary. First, it is essential
to investigate, at least on a preliminary level, what constitutes culture.
Raymond Williams (1981) suggests that the word culture fundamen-
tally refers to agriculture, the cultivation of crops to sustain human
life. Indeed, to understand culture even from the most critical point
of view requires the acknowledgement that the existential aspect of a
species, such as humanity, necessitates a mode or method of sustaining
itself and to do so reliably and systematically. Thus, when we speak of
a culture, counterculture, pop culture, mass culture, hybrid culture,
co-culture, sub-culture, etc., what is embedded within that concept is a
shared understanding that all cultures are the result (that is in-progress
and evolving systems of interacting, producing, co-creating meaning,
etc.) of achieving a cultivated status making a person cultivated and
cultured.
Further, from Williams’ perspective on culture in general, it is imper-
ative to emphasize that culture is lived; it is generated by individuals and
groups who produce behaviors, texts, etc. as a consequence of living
their lives. Dawkins is to be applauded for contributing a social concept,
the meme, to suggest a way to communicate about how cultures retain
knowledge of their practices. Linguistically, the term accomplishes a se-
rious and challenging feat: the Dawkinsian meme enables the conceptu-
alization of concrete (songs, fashions, architecture, etc.) as well as deeply
abstract (god, freedom, supernatural, etc.) ideational characteristics of
expressions of a given culture, in terms of what it produces in order
to constitute itself, recursively. If culture is in fact generated and lived
by individuals, the knowledge that enables that understanding harkens
back to the initial implication of culture as the systemic affordance of
8 Dawkins Revisited
enacting cultivation through agriculture (here I imply also Williams’
understanding of the term, as discussed earlier). Thus, from Dawkins’
point of view, the meme represents the success of cultural transmission
and adoption. But what does this have to do with internet memes?
It Doesn’t Meme What You Think
This is precisely the point where distinction between the Dawkinsian
meme and the internet meme is so necessary. In academic as well as
general discussions and writings, from mainstream news media to high-
ranked peer-reviewed journals, understanding of the term meme seems
haphazard at best. From this larger or broader usage of the term, meme re-
fers generally to virtually all mediated content that spreads virally online.
Appropriating Dawkins’ term from this point of view, any image with
text, for example, must or could be a meme. Furthermore, labelling digital
mash-ups with the moniker memes ignores the opportunity to explore the
diversity in expressions and meaning-making accomplished online.
Fundamentally, it is problematic to assume an analogous relationship
between the Dawkinsian and the digital term because this ignores the
discursive aspect of internet memes. Finally, what Dawkins describes
with meme as the ideational movement of thoughts and concepts from
brain to brain in the form of imitation fails to relate to the complex and
multifaceted ways in which content is created, spread, etc. online.
Memes and Internet Memes
The association of Dawkins’ term (meme) with its online counterpart
is dubious given the degree to which internet memes differ in terms of
their formation, spread, but most importantly due to the desperate need
of human–computer interaction to further their development. In fact,
Dawkins himself acknowledged that the internet meme is a “hijacking
of the original term” he proposed in The Selsh Gene. Dawkins (2013,
n.p.) claims that:
[T]he very idea of the meme, has itself mutated and evolved in a new
direction. An internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea. In-
stead of mutating by random chance, before spreading by a form of
Darwinian selection, internet memes are altered deliberately by hu-
man creativity. In the hijacked version, mutations are designed – not
random – with the full knowledge of the person doing the mutating.
Mutation and hijacking, central to Dawkins’ claim, highlight the social
and cultural elements necessary to my approach to dening, conceptu-
alizing, and theorizing about what we come to view as internet memes.
In what follows, I review several other perspectives on internet memes,
Dawkins Revisited 9
draw differences between the Dawkinsian and the digital version, and
then I introduce the denition of internet meme operationalized for the
purpose of this work.
Often the meme as message is more a visual argument than simply a
joke that is replicated. In only two ways do memes align conceptually
and practically with internet memes, that is (1) in terms of the demand
on human attention and that (2) individuals should be able to reproduce
them without much difculty. This distinction offers a clarity which is
lacking in the academic discourse on internet memes as a denitive off-
spring from the work of Dawkins. However, Shifman (2013) notes rather
astutely that as a concept, the meme in the tradition of Dawkins con-
sistently received ire and criticism in academia but has “enthusiastically
been picked up by Internet users” (p. 365). Shifman (2014) differentiates
her conceptualization of meme as compared to Dawkins’ view by writ-
ing that “instead of depicting the meme as a single cultural unit that has
propagated well, I treat memes as groups of content units” (p. 343). With
this she means that internet memes demonstrate subject-matter aware-
ness but that this awareness can be articulated in an array of internet
meme sub-genres. Furthermore, Shifman (2013) explores areas related
to memes such as diffusion of innovation studies but notes that these
often overlook “the complexity and richness that may be ascribed to the
[meme] concept” (p. 367). Accordingly, she returns to Dawkins in her in-
troduction of what she calls a typology of memetic dimensions. Shifman
(2013) posits that internet memes are best viewed not as single ideas,
thus deviating from a rigid interpretation of the Dawkinsian variant,
but rather as “groups of content items that were created with awareness
of each other and share common characteristics” (p. 367). Shifman’s
typology, to be discussed and extended in a later section, is comprised
of three memetic dimensions, namely content, form, and stance. These
dimensions are often used to analyze video memes, and it is in that prac-
tice when compared to other meme sub-genres that the third element of
her typology stance necessitates adjustment especially with regard to
image-based internet memes. I suggest further that internet memes are
not merely content items and thus simply replicators of culture but are
rather visual arguments, which are semiotically constructed with inter-
textual references to reect an ideological practice.
The internet meme differs from/compares with the (cultural corollary)
meme in the following ways. First, memes (as in Dawkins’ original con-
cept, extrapolated later by Susan Blackmore and others) are culturally
based. As noted above all aspects of culture, everything that it enables
and all that enables it with the exception of the biological (as this is
then the realm of the gene), is a meme. For example, the ways in which
the kiss is negotiated across cultures, enacted in certain situations, but
avoided or greatly emphasized or sought after or altered in other situa-
tions is a meme in the strictest sense following Dawkins. A male person
10 Dawkins Revisited
may be greeted with a kiss or two on the cheek(s) by another male in one
culture but the very same action would or could be misconstrued and
misinterpreted or possibly even marginalized and penalized in another
culture. Yet, the kiss remains knowable, recognizable; it is a represen-
tation of a cultural practice connected to many different meanings but
largely referring to a nite set of categories of enacting relations between
people. This is the essence of Williams’ sentiment that culture is gener-
ated by the individuals who live in it and are simultaneously engaged in
co-creating shared forms of meaning. At this level, we can speak deni-
tively of a meme as a cultural corollary of the gene. Dawkins essentially
separates the human experience into two distinct but related modes: a
biological gene that furthers, by replication, selection, or rejection, cer-
tain information that is passed on for the purpose of species survival or
change. Similarly, the meme largely succeeds isomorphically in its imita-
tive nature, its characteristic of being at once knowable and reproducible
is essential to its existence and to our ability to speak about its function.
From this standpoint, it is less helpful to continually rely on Dawkins’
concept of the meme when discussing the latest use of (internet) memes
to criticize a politician, parody an entertainer, or to express irony or
sarcasm. References to Dawkins and his term meme should be contex-
tualized in such a way that clearly shows that the digital counterpart is
distinct. Dawkins implies this when he speaks of the internet meme as
a hijacking of the original concept (see Chapter 3 for more details). His
use of the term hijacking hints at agency and implies human–computer
interaction for the purpose of communicating, not with the computer,
but with other humans accordingly.
Further distinctions between meme and internet meme center on the
argument that the former does not require electronic, digital, etc. or
other mediated forms of communication, nor does a meme require mu-
tual intelligibility of language. The former point is likely obvious but for
the understanding of internet memes and their use in online spaces it is
essential to examine the various communicative tools (media) necessary
for their creation and dissemination. The latter point is perhaps less ob-
vious or possibly a presumed mistake on my part. First, I do not suggest
that we introduce a new term to replace internet meme, but I think it
is quite important to know that if an online audience, whether real or
imagined, is to understand a given internet meme mutual intelligibility
of language is required. As in the example earlier of a kiss understood
differently across cultures and genders, it is not important to know the
specic changes or the reasons why differences are indeed perceived and
knowable, but one still understands the kiss (as a Dawkinsian meme)
regardless of whether one knows the particular cultural context. Thus,
it is not essential for mutual intelligibility of a kiss as a form of nonver-
bal linguistic expression across cultures. However, with the example of
an internet meme that compares someone to Voldemort, this requires
Dawkins Revisited 11
and implies (at least at a basic level) that the individual compared to the
Harry Potter villain is not portrayed in a positive light (not to mention
the required knowledge of popular culture references).
More sophisticatedly, the implication is that a reference to a particular
part of popular culture is made to suggest that the real-world referent (be
it an actor, politician, or a random individual) is worthy of such criticism.
To understand such a reference requires some other area of knowledge.
Naturally, the use of popular culture referents assists in maximizing the
reception of the meme’s message – but this cannot be universally applied
in the example of the kiss, as discussed earlier. An individual may rec-
ognize that they are presented with what is commonly understood as an
internet meme and may get the joke, but popular culture references or
even intermemetic references (memes that refer to other memes) may not
be completely understood. Admittedly, this may not be essential for the
consumption and transmission of the message. However, with regard to
politically charged or socially polarizing issues, an individual requires
understanding of the context of the referent in order for the internet
meme to achieve salience. More specic examples are offered in subse-
quent chapters, although this chapter concludes with an internet meme
that is politically nuanced and that discussion offers further depth to my
reasoning expressed here.
The internet meme is hereby dened as a remixed, iterated message
that can be rapidly diffused by members of participatory digital culture
for the purpose of satire, parody, critique, or other discursive activity.
An internet meme is a more specic term for the various iterations it
represents, such as image macro memes, GIFs, hashtags, video memes,
and more. Its function is to posit an argument, visually, in order to com-
mence, extend, counter, or inuence a discourse. Naturally this can occur
within humorous contexts; however, humor is merely the surface-level
entry point for social salience. Digging deeper, one can view the argu-
ment within the meme which is usually if not always representative of an
ideological practice.
Memes and the Role of Remix
For memes in the tradition of Dawkins, their reproduction is not de-
pendent upon remix, but does require mimicry, parody, or imitation.
For a thing to be imitated, mimicked, or parodied, it is essential for a
person to view and understand some form of activity and to understand
how to reproduce that same behavior in a similar or slightly altered way
for some effect. Remix, on the other hand, requires a similar process
especially with regard to parody. Indeed, parody is a remixing of, for ex-
ample, a real-world event staged in a way to induce laughter for a socio-
culturally critical effect. For internet memes, however, remixing means
something slightly different. Parody can still be involved in the remixing
12 Dawkins Revisited
of a real-world referent and an intertextual reference to popular cul-
ture, for example, but it is not essential hence the need to acknowledge
a distinction between remix and parody in internet memes. For internet
memes, remix means that an idea about a particular person (Russian
President Vladimir Putin or Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard from Star
Trek: The Next Generation), event (the 2016 U.S. Presidential election
or the fall of the Berlin Wall), movement (#lovewins or #metoo), place
(Syria or a restaurant), etc. must be maintained through the various it-
erations of the meme while simultaneously accompanied by changed or
modied portrayals of the same content.
Remix in internet memes is an indispensable component of their struc-
ture and their capacity for consumption and reproduction. Just for fun,
here is an example from the popular television series The Walking Dead.
The Look at the Flowers internet meme depicts the character Carol
pointing a gun and looking emotionally affected by the anticipated out-
come of her action, namely the shooting of a young girl. If this meme
is deployed as a comment to a Facebook thread in which a person dis-
agrees with the content posted, instead of articulating this disagreement
or frustration in text-only (verbal language) expressions, the use of the
meme as a form of visually remixed communication offers an interest-
ing alternative to verbal language. The image of Carol pointing the gun
can simply be inserted – with or without text – and the core meaning
is sustained (provided the individuals share mutual intelligibility of the
particular contextual item in question) but is at once remixed, meaning
its deployment can be as a comment, as a part of another visual frame
(perhaps positioned next to an image of a controversial political gure),
or inserted within another intertextual frame (perhaps positioned next
to an image of a character from a television series or lm who may
be widely seen as annoying, such as the character Barb from Stranger
Things or Jar Jar Binks from the Star Wars prequels). Remixing occurs
as a necessary step in the realization of an internet meme’s process of
generating and sustaining meaning which is co-constructed between the
(unimportant or unknowable) author of a given internet meme and the
audience consuming the message. As described, the process is more dy-
namic than simple imitation.
You Can’t Touch My Meme
Another difference is that Dawkinsian memes may take different forms
but are usually intangible. Dawkins (1989) cites “tunes, catch-phrases,
fashions, ways of making pots or building arches” as examples of this
point (p. 192). Thus, it is not the pot or arch itself that is the meme, it
is the culturally shared knowledge that enables the creation of a pot
or arch. In contrast, internet memes are digitally based but require
human action/reaction and as such are a genre of communication in
Dawkins Revisited 13
online social networks. As a genre of communication – to be discussed
in greater detail in Chapter 3 – it is unsurprising that internet memes
function also as artifacts of the system that created them, namely partic-
ipatory digital culture. As noted, internet memes require remix but are
also heavily dependent, one might even say obsessed with parody and
intertextuality and even intermemetic-referentiality (memes that refer
to other memes). The procedural difference between remix and parody
again is that remix is more a necessary process for the internet meme to
function as such, regardless of its communicative intent, whereas with
any parody, while also implying some level of imitation and generally
speaking, humor, or more precisely satire, an individual already more
or less knows the structure without having to identify with or know the
content in order for it to be perceived as a parody. For internet memes,
remix is an overarching structural requirement absent of any real se-
miotic information beyond the basic understanding that a core idea or
notion is maintained thematically but may not be maintained in similar
visual ways. Also, internet memes are digital, and no known non-digital
or non-online example exists – with the exception of internet memes
that have become physically commodied in the form of wearable items,
such as t-shirts which may feature a structural aspect of a popular meme
(such as the Doge meme or the Y U No Guy meme, whose visages may
be viewed more properly as “old memes”). One possible exception is
when internet memes are deployed in spaces where they are not native
inhabitants such as part of a marketing campaign or when used by a
government to attack its political opponents (Pearce & Hajizada, 2014).
Internet memes necessitate human agency whose identity is unimportant
(Here I do not suggest that identity itself is unimportant, an entire chap-
ter is dedicated to the issue of identity and internet memes. Rather, I sim-
ply mean that the rst step is to acknowledge the role of human agency
in the production and dissemination of memes, and that the individual
identities of all those involved are less important than the function of
agency in a social system, especially one that incorporates, perhaps even
necessitates digital technologies for communication purposes). In only
two ways do Dawkinsian memes and internet memes compare well: both
require attention and must be reproducible.
Attention and Reproducibility
Dawkins used the term replicator when discussing the process of genetic
reproduction and also in reference to memes as the cultural corollary to
the gene in the sense that by replicating something that already exists
it can also exist. Yet as Dawkins notes (1989), not all genes replicate
successfully and that this is the same for memes (p. 194). Dawkins states
that memes must fundamentally possess three characteristics analogous
to his discussion of the capacity for genetic replication.
14 Dawkins Revisited
Longevity, fecundity, and delity are each prerequisites for memes, per
Dawkins. Longevity suggests a temporal aspect, and Dawkins admits
that this is not important in terms of a particular copy of a meme but
that memes exist at a particular time and can go out of fashion quickly
or gradually. It is this last point at which Dawkins’ term longevity makes
sense in the comparison between memes and internet memes. Internet
memes are often created in direct response to an event as a discursive
way to add commentary or to argue a position, but the topic itself may
eventually fade, the function of the internet meme does not. The tempo-
ral aspect afforded by longevity suggests that for internet memes, a par-
ticular reference to a person – such as the Salt Bae internet meme – may
achieve virality due to the popularity of the meme itself but the remixing
of a meme to incorporate another gure (Xi Jinping, Donald Trump,
Theresa May, Bernie Sanders, Viktor Orban, etc.) adds to the potential
for a particular meme to experience longevity.
Fecundity, upon rst glance, appears to have greater importance than
longevity consistent with Dawkins in terms of a meme’s capacity for being
spread. Again, though, this comparison to Dawkins’ biological- cultural
dialectic is tiresome since a given internet meme, such as the Trump ex-
ecutive order animated GIFs or the Salt Bae meme, is not particularly
fecund, in the biological sense of being bountiful, fertile, productive, pro-
lic, etc. Viewing a particular meme or a sub-genre of memes as fecund
adds little to the discussion. Rather, it is important to delve deeper into
the constitutive elements toward an understanding of the social semiotics
embedded within a meme that translate into mass appeal and virality.
Fidelity suggests that memes (the Dawkins variant) should have an
accurate, conjugal faithfulness to its particular referent. Dawkins admits
he is “on shaky ground” with that assertion given that when one idea
passes to another person it probably changes a bit, is tweaked or modi-
ed to suit that person’s needs or worldview (1989, p. 194). Fidelity also
relates to internet memes in that should a meme be altered, such as when
new text or images are inserted, its particular function is likely main-
tained. For example, if a real-world event prompts a person to share me-
mes, certain textual and visual elements will be chosen to maintain the
sentiment linked to the event. Visually, this can differ in terms of popular
culture references, for example, but conceptually delity is maintained.
The main distinction between Dawkins’ meme and its digital coun-
terpart is in the nature of their relationship, namely that meme is the
umbrella concept, under which internet meme is merely an example.
The internet phenomenon known commonly as memes is a type of Daw-
kinsian meme. Just as a person would not say a tool is a type of spoon,
we should avoid assuming parity between internet memes and Dawkins’
term, as alluded to by Shifman (2013) but I feel that especially given the
discursive power of memes in online spaces, it is imperative for academ-
ics to realize the limitations of relying on the Dawkinsian perspective.
Dawkins Revisited 15
An Elaboration of Shifman’s Typology of Memetic
Dimension
The choice to analyze internet memes signies their importance – either
real or imagined – in terms of discursive practice within digital culture.
One typology was developed in response to one particular video meme.
Specically, Shifman (2013) developed a tripartite typology consisting
of content (what a meme conveys in terms of ideas and ideologies), form
(what she calls the “physical incarnation of the message”, but what I will
adjust to mean the memetic category of utility), and stance (which “de-
picts the ways in which addressers position themselves in relation to the
text, the linguistic codes, the addressees, and other potential speakers”)
(p. 367). With respect to Shifman’s original intention for the typology
to be used in analyzing internet memes, the tendency has been to use it
in examining video memes. However, it is its application to non-video
memes where it appears necessary to elaborate on the typology.
To be clear, Shifman’s (2013) typology is an excellent starting point,
but the dimension stance reveals an opportunity for elaboration of the
typology which I will henceforth refer to as a model for meme analysis.
In Table 1.1 below, I offer Shifman’s original denition of the model
and its constitutive elements with my extensions of these in truncated
form. Following the table, I expound on specic examples as to why
and how the model is to be view differently with non-video memes. To
be clear, my elaboration is not a detraction of Shifman’s model; rather,
it strengthens the analytical viability and utility of the model for the
wide swath of meme sub-genres. Concordantly, the primary driving
force of this work – ideology, semiotics, and intertextuality – emerge
more obviously in my elaboration of the model.
With respect to form, not all categories are equal in terms of the inter-
pretability using the model in its original articulation. With video memes,
stance is usefully viewed as a conduit for analyzing speech acts; mnemon-
ically, it is helpful to consider that when analyzing video memes, stance
relies heavily on the presence of speech. With other non-video examples,
stance is joined by content inexorably due to the relationship between
the expression of ideology and the manner by which meaning-making is
accomplished without speech acts, thus emphasizing (or elevating the im-
portance of) the role of semiotics and intertextuality in non-video memes.
With image-macros or inserted image memes such as Salt Bae, White
Woman Calls Cops (also known as the BBQ Becky meme), Salman
Trump O rb, Netanyahu Power Point Template, Twilight Zone Trump,
Gay Clown Putin, Puigdemont Catalonia, Erdogan (I want this meme
arrested) etc., the merging of content and stance must be emphasized.
Content and stance merge given that the conveyance of ideas and ide-
ologies occurs within deliberate semiotic and intertextual construction,
especially with the absence of human speech.
16 Dawkins Revisited
It is especially with image-based memes that ideological practice sig-
nies the relationship between content and stance and that this merg-
ing is recursively constituted through agential interaction and memetic
production. Stance becomes the location of semiotic and intertextual
meaning alongside a certain ideological practice. It may be tempting to
conclude that content houses the intertextual reference, but this would
ignore the discursive power of individuals using memes to advance a
particular position or issue which is the essence of ideological practice
constructed through semiotic and intertextual choices.
Shifman (2013) extends stance, referring to it as a “very broad category”
and draws on “concepts from discourse and media studies” by introduc-
ing three subordinately constitutive components, namely participation
structures (“who is able to participate and how”), keying (or “the tone
and style of communication as dened by Goffman (1974)”), and com-
municative functions (which draws on the work of Jakobson (1960) who
identied six functions of human communication) (p. 367). Each of these
Table 1.1 Elaboration of Memetic Typology
Content Form Stance
Shifman (2013) Ideas and
ideologies
conveyed in a
specic text
Physical
incarnation of
the message,
perceived
through our
senses
Ways in which
addressers
position
themselves
in relation
to the text;
users decide
to imitate a
certain position
that they nd
appealing or
may use an
utterly different
discursive
orientation
Elaboration of
model
Unavoidable,
inevitable as
an aspect of
communication
which is rarely if
ever accidental;
inheres nature
of ideological
practice, with
memes absent of
human speech
merges with
stance
Neutral; memetic
category of
utility: video,
GIF, image-
macro, image
inserted in
another image,
verbal text,
hashtag, etc.
Loaded with
meaning,
charged; with
memes absent
of human
speech, role of
semiotic and
intertextual
construction
of meaning is
heightened,
merges with
content
Dawkins Revisited 17
components are especially helpful when analyzing video memes but when
examining image-based memes, the absence of human speech acts sug-
gests an alternative emphasis. It is not my intention to devalue Shifman’s
original typology; however, when applied to a variety of meme sub-genres
again with special emphasis on image-based memes, the role of stance
requires elaboration. Indeed, the connection between content and stance
is already present in video memes but is more pronounced – necessarily
so – with memes that are devoid of human speech acts, especially when
the meme is constructed as a critical response to real-world occurrence.
With image memes, semiotics and intertextuality require further con-
sideration. First, semiotics within stance refers to the visual cues con-
structed to convey a specic meaning; this is distinct from Shifman’s
(2013) original articulation of content which is concerned with the ideas
and ideologies conveyed due to the poverty of the image to express itself
in human speech. Rather, a semiotic elaboration within stance means
that the role of metaphor, metonymy, juxtaposition, bricolage, pastiche,
synecdoche, etc. is asserted due to the lack of human speech. Second, in-
tertextuality seems an obvious choice for content; however, I posit that it
must be situated in stance due to the “ways in which addressers position
themselves in relation to the message” (Shifman, 2013, p. 367). Thus,
different users will deploy different references to different (imagined)
audiences. Intertextuality resides in stance due to the discursive function
inherent in the remixing of image and referents for meaning-making.
With the result of its function leading to meaning, the connection to se-
miotics should be clear. The bridge between stance and content is located
in the manner by which content is to be understood. Content within
the model merely demarcates what is conveyed, not what its import is
or who or which groups are addressed (interpellated) or marginalized.
Content is the information, the data which the meme conveys. Stance is
the deliberation on how that content should be (ideally) understood and
which (imagined) audiences are addressed and which are ignored, mar-
ginalized, etc. With image-based (or simply, non-video) memes, it may
be helpful to start not with content or stance but rather with form, then
follow with the analysis with the knowledge proffered by a merging of
the content and stance dimensions.
Applying the Elaboration of Shifman’s Model
to Image-Based Memes
As an applied example, I will examine the Pompeii Victim meme, in
which an archaeological discovery led to the pervasiveness of dark hu-
mor on social media, according to my elaboration of Shifman’s model. In
May 2018, Italian archaeologists announced the startling discovery of
an intact skeleton of a man, believed to have died in his 30s, who ed the
eruption of Mount Vesuvius which entombed the city of Pompeii in ash
18 Dawkins Revisited
in 79 CE (Joseph, 2018). The man was believed to have suffered from a
bone infection which hampered his gait during his attempted escape and
making him a likely victim for his fate: despite surviving the initial ex-
plosions of Vesuvius’ eruptions, a small boulder crushed his upper body,
causing instant death.
Introduce the Internet
Shortly after the announcement was made, Twitter users tweeted and
Facebook users posted remixed images of the boulder-crushed- skeleton
to advance notions of dark humor, distanced irony, and displaced
malaise. In terms of form, users simply took the image and added text,
making it a version of an image-macro meme. In its conveyance of ideas
and ideology, the boulder represents some form of obstacle, both met-
aphorically and literally (for the victim), and the victim represents the
target of the obstacle. Stance provides a clear glimpse into how users
deploy semiotic choices to advance a changed meaning, building on
what Shifman (2013) calls the decision “to imitate a certain position
that they nd appealing or use an utterly different discursive orienta-
tion” (p. 367). Semiotically, users employ the meme to convey dark hu-
mor representative of some aspect of modern society or a current event.
The boulder, with its lethal power, forces the victim, dead for over
2,000 years, to live again, memetically, only to be killed recursively
in the force of the meme’s function (also) as a joke. In each instance of
the meme’s iterations, something in the external world is critiqued,
andthe function of the boulder is to represent the weight of the worthi-
ness of the critique.
One version in particular criticizes social media as deterministically
crushing and killing civil discourse. Intertextually, the meme bridges the
knowledge of the archaeological discovery with the semiotic function
of remixing the meme for making new meaning according to ideolog-
ical practice. In this instance, the nature of social media, with all its
trappings and dark sides (Levinson, 2013, p. 161; Stephens-Davidowitz,
2017, p. 160), is positioned as an archetypal threatening force set to
undermine individuals’ abilities to engage in reasoned and civil debate
and discourse. The same semiotic and intertextual function occurs in
another version of the meme, however social media is replaced by the
relentless news cycle. In both instances, the user-as-victim has already
succumbed to the predetermined fate but is remixable depending on the
intended message.
In terms of ideological practice, the suggestion in these examples is
that some other external entity or force is acting against our wishes.
This sentiment has social salience at least in part due to the challenges
posed by the modern era, that is a resurgence in nationalism, nativism,
etc. in the USA and Europe, uncertainty about potential war(s) with
Dawkins Revisited 19
Iran, North Korea, accusations of Russian political interference in other
countries, among other issues. While these memes present a humorous
effect, they inhere the visual argument that all is not well with a certain
issue and, furthermore, ‘I identify with the victim because the issue at
hand is crushing me’.
In closing, I have shown the analytical value of elaborating on
Shifman’s (2013) tripartite typology of memetic dimensions of content,
form, and stance. My contribution adds to the model in terms of using
stance and content more concretely with respect to semiotic and inter-
textual meaning-making in the expression of an ideological practice.
In general, my suggestion is to dig deeply when analyzing internet me-
mes and to attempt to ascertain the ideological implications of a given
meme, in terms also of how its meaning is constructed and what it uses
to make sense in an increasingly TLDR (too long, didn’t read) world.
The following chapters offer guidance in the form of case studies
which undergo a critical discourse analysis in the tradition of Fairclough
(1995) given the assertion and evidence that internet memes augment hu-
man language much in the same way that different fonts impact mean-
ing, the insertion of visuals, emoticons, emojis, etc. similarly function as
an ancillary linguistic apparatus.
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... Defined by Wiggins (2019), the internet meme is "a remixed, iterated message" dispersed and reproduced by digital culture members. It depends on remix and parody within an intertextual framework for the purposes of sarcasm and social critique. ...
... Remix is a requisite component for the production and virality of internet memes. Explained by Wiggins (2019), remix means that a portrayal of a particular person, or a basic idea about an event, place is maintained along the various versions of the meme, concurrently featuring changes or modified portrayals of the same content. Such visually/textually re-mixed form of communication, alongside the humorous effect it produces and a particular core context sustained, renders an inspiring alternative to redirect mode of communication in various contexts. ...
... Generally, memes can be considered as intertextual user generated contents (UGCs) (Wiggins, 2019), composed of both images and text (Davison, 2012). Indeed, memes remix references to contemporary occurrences or ordinary circumstances with references from pop culture -such as images from movies, tv series, music videos and so forth, often in an ironic manner. ...
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... From media studies to linguistic anthropology, most scholarship on internet memes cites Dawkins' original contribution before pointing out the shortcomings of his biological analogies (Shifman, 2013(Shifman, , 2014Milner, 2016;Miltner, 2017;Próchazka, 2020;Wiggins, 2019;and others). Shifman (2013: 367) rejects the determinism of Dawkins' model, insisting on the agency of "individual internet users" who create "a shared cultural experience" through the process of circulating, imitating, and transforming memetic units of popular culture. ...
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