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Memes in Digital Culture

by Limor Shifman
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
168 pp., illus. 23 b/w. Trade, $13.95
ISBN 9780262525435

Reviewed by John F. Barber

The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


Marshall McLuhan (remember him?) left us with a number of “thought probes,” statements intended to elicit response rather than elucidate action. The “global village” is a good example. What does it mean? How will it work? Is it something we want? These questions continue to drive our thinking about McLuhan more than 20 years after his death.

A less well known McLuhan thought probe might be “memes.” He described them as units of information, catch phrases, concepts, tunes, notions of fashion, philosophy, or politics. Memes, he said, will be the major weapon in a “guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation” (Culture Is Our Business, 1970, 66). The main weapon will be strong memes. They can change minds, alter behavior, transform cultures. In the Information age, whoever makes strong memes holds the power (War and Peace in the Global Village).

Got memes? Know what they are? How they evolve? How they work? Why they are so popular? Why they will be important? Memes in Digital Culture, a new book by Limor Shifman, can help. In this scholarly yet accessible little book, Shifman takes a first step toward discussion of Internet memes. She begins with the video “Gangnam Style.” On 21 December 2012, this exuberant video became the first on YouTube to be viewed more than one billion times. But, more than just viewed, the video was parodied, imitated, remixed, and mashed up by thousands of viewers who referenced the Korean rapper and his horse-riding dance and replaced the reference to Gangnam, a luxury neighborhood in Seoul, in the original with local settings and protagonists, producing such derivatives as “Mitt Romney Style,” “Singaporean Style,” and “Arab Style.”

From this example, Shifman offers a definition of memes: digital content units with common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, created with awareness of each other, and circulated, imitated, and transformed via the Internet by many users. The fundamental attributes of memes are their ability to spark derivatives and their intertextuality (memes often relate to one another in complex and surprising ways). The key considerations is that memes spread quickly around the participatory web and become shared cultural experiences. The preferred medium is either video or photoshopped images, since their production/editing platforms are readily available and easily used by people with all levels of creative ability.

Because memes describe cultural reproduction as driven by various forms of copying and imitation, they encapsulate fundamental aspects and essential practices in contemporary participatory digital culture. For these reasons, not to mention that Internet users are on to something, Shifman calls for discourse about the “yawning gap between (skeptic) academic and (enthusiastic) popular discourse” (4).

To start this discussion she analyzes qualitative and quantitative research to establish six common features of Internet memetic videos: a focus on ordinary people, flawed masculinity, humor, simplicity, repetitiveness, and whimsical content. Taken together, these features note the video as flawed or incomplete, lacking glossy corporate content, and therefore ripe for playful response, imitation, parody, remix, or derivation. Speaking of “Gangnam Style,” the video that started the meme, Shifman says, “the ostensibly unfinished, unpolished, amateur-looking, and even weird video invites people to fill in the gaps, address the puzzles, or mock its creator” (88).

Shifman also mines research of mimetic photographs to suggest essential characteristics that will attract extensive user-created responses, usually as Photoshop-based collages. First is juxtaposition, a striking incongruity between two or more elements in the frame. The second characteristic is celebrities or ordinary people, their intense movement frozen in motion. What makes such photographs memetic? Shifman suggests their simplicity, humor, and memetic potential, combined with their invitation to solve a puzzle or a problem with easily accessible participation tools like video or photograph editing software.

Surveying the central formats of Internet memes in the past decade, Shifman suggests nine genres: reaction photoshops, photo fads, flash mobs, lip synchs, misheard lyrics, recut trailers, LOLcats, stock character macros, and rage comics. These memes can be divided into three groups: documentation of real life moments (photo fads, flash mobs), explicit manipulation of visual or audiovisual mass-mediated content (reaction photoshops, lip synchs, misheard lyrics, recut trailers), and a new universe of digital and meme-oriented content (LOLcats, rage comics, stock characters macros) (118). “Different meme genres involve different levels of literacy,” says Shifman, “some can be understood (and created) by almost anyone, whereas others require detailed knowledge about a digital meme subculture” (100).

Throughout, Shifman is careful to differentiate between meme and viral (as in certain photographs or videos that are shared again and again through various social networks. A viral, says Shifman, invites sharing, but a meme invites mimicking or remixing.

In conclusion, Shifman says we need to take memes seriously. Some memes she says have evolved into a secondary level of language, complementing or sometimes replacing its standard uses. In this setting, appropriate meme usage is a form of cultural capital, separating those “in the know” from those who are outsiders (173). As for future research, Shifman suggest we delve into the question of what constitutes an Internet meme’s effect, and how that effect can be measured. Additionally, future research should focus on distinctive factors of memes that could enhance virality and memetic uptake in commercial advertising and political campaigns.

Marshall McLuhan would probably agree, suggesting that memes will be the central weapon of a no-holds barred propaganda war between competing world views and religions and alternative visions of the future. Got memes?

Last Updated 1 February 2014

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