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Meming with Purpose: The Cultural Exchange of Memes as a Means for Communicative and Artistic Possibility

Amanda Rose, University of Florida

Scholars have long been invested in better understanding how humans produce, collect, and spread knowledge throughout the digital world, as well as the ways in which specific digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook can be seen to both influence and restrict the communicative value of exchanges in contemporary culture. Though social media platforms have always had to face public criticism in one form or another, criticism about social media in recent years, such as Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (published in 2018) and Netflix’s “docudrama” The Social Dilemma (released in 2020), has been especially invested in calling attention to the dangers of social media platforms like Facebook, specifically calling attention to the ways in which these communicative sites can be seen to have a negative impact on the user’s individual identity, as well as on the user’s ability to form meaningful relationships with others in his/her community. I think it is important to note, however, that while these works do inevitably call attention to important contemporary issues concerning digital media and its impact on the health and privacy of the individual user, such works also ultimately reject social media altogether and provide a single, limited perspective on an extremely complex and multifaceted subject.

Through this work, I will attempt to investigate the extent to which we should be looking at social media platforms (such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook), as well as particular modes of digital communication (specifically the meme form) as simultaneously untrustworthy and beneficial, both suspicious and liberating. While recent criticism concerning social media has sought to inspire readers to abandon the use of these digital forms altogether, I would like to alternatively argue that we should begin looking at such mediums as both positive and negative means for communication and creation. In Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, he considers the dilemmas associated with present-day conceptions of capitalism and its historical development. Referencing Marx, Jameson argues for the importance of perceiving capitalism’s “development positively and negatively all at once; to achieve, in other words, a type of thinking that would be capable of grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously within a single thought, and without attenuating any of the force of either judgment” (Jameson 47). In the same way, I would like to explore the meme’s form and function, specifically considering the ways in which the meme’s production and circulation (in uniquely situated digital contexts) may provide opportunities for developing meaningful relationships among communities, as well as for producing new creative ideas and/or forms through a collective engagement with alternative forms of “truth”.

 

What’s in a Meme? (A Very Brief Summary)

Memes, in a digital context, are commonly understood to be a form of image-text which conveys a piece of (often culturally relevant) information. In the context of Facebook more specifically, I would argue that the meme is more commonly associated with any piece of information which has been communicated and circulated in a visual or text-based form, despite the fact that this information is most commonly produced and circulated as a JPEG or some alternative image-based format.

–        Requires the reproduction of older ideas or meme forms (the meme must be culturally coded and/or it must reveal a unique relevance to both the past and the present)

–        Requires the production and exchange of something which is “new” and/or culturally relevant — “newness” often characterized by speed and sensitivity to change

–        Focuses on humor and heightened emotion — common emphasis on self-deprecating humor; emotions are usually negative, often calling attention to experiences of sadness or anger (versus more positive emotions, such as happiness or excitement)

–        Dependent upon consistent circulation and/or recirculation — any meme (or specific meme form) will not survive in a digital sphere unless it has been circulated widely across different digital spaces (a synchronic circulation) and/or it has been recirculated consistently across time (a diachronic circulation)

This paper will therefore attempt to explore the ways in which today’s beloved social media platforms can be seen as simultaneously untrustworthy and beneficial. I would like to call attention to the ways in which particular digital forms of communication can provide individuals with opportunities for both agency and inaction, offering opportunities for new forms of communication while simultaneously marking out communicative boundaries and limitations. Originally, I began writing this paper with the goal of collecting quantitative data in order to analyze how the production and exchange of political memes on Facebook could be seen to impact the political affiliation of different (cultural and geographical) communities throughout the US. However, as I began to better understand the form and function of the meme, my paper ended up going (as usual) in a slightly different direction, and so I will instead be assessing the function of the meme in contemporary culture and considering how the meme is, through the context of Facebook, uniquely situated as both an artistic form of expression and a communicative tool which, ultimately, may provide new means for both understanding and negotiating with diverse cultural communities, allowing individuals to create and maintain connections with a wide range of individuals and communities across time and space.

Netflix’s The Social Dilemma

I would like to begin by describing some of the key arguments made in Netflix’s “docudrama,” The Social Dilemma, specifically related to the impact of platforms like Facebook on contemporary culture. The Social Dilemma, at its most basic level, explores the ways through which social media platforms, like Facebook, attempt to manipulate their users for the sake of their own capital gain. Although many of the concerns expressed throughout this film are valid, what I find to be most significant about this film (for the purpose of my own studies) is that it consistently highlights the ways through which social media influences the emotions of individuals. The use of social media is presented to viewers here as a major cause of each individual user’s emotional discontentment, revealing how engagements on social media may cause users to experience a unique and heightened sense of emotional upheaval. One of the key speakers in The Social Dilemma, Tristan Harris, argues that,

We evolved to care about whether other people in our tribe… think well of us or not ’cause it matters. But were we evolved to be aware of what 10,000 people think of us? We were not evolved to have social approval being dosed to us every five minutes. (The Social Dilemma 38:53-39:15).

On the one hand, I agree that this kind of constant exposure to social pressure and criticism in the digital sphere can indeed have a negative impact on the individual psyche. However, in another sense, the scenario that Harris is describing here is not necessarily equivalent to the average Facebook user’s experience. A 2016 study of Facebook users in the U.S., for example, found that only 20.8% of users have more than 500 Facebook friends (Statista). When we consider the dangers of Facebook then and its impact on mental health, it is important to note that the average Facebook user’s digital “tribe” (to use Harris’s phrase), typically includes 500 people or less, not 10,000. Additionally, in How the World Changed Social Media, a series of quantitative studies on the production and circulation of memes across nations revealed that, in certain countries, people utilize social media only to maintain connections with close friends and family, thereby refraining from interacting with other users beyond their own familiar social spheres (Miller, et al.172). What is significant about this research into meme forms is that it highlights the extent to which public exposure on social media platforms can be understood as an active choice. Additionally, what I find most unique about Facebook is the way in which it allows an individual to engage with others through both the user’s general profile and a series of alternative sub-groups which may be chosen based upon the group’s theme and the individual’s interests. In this way, the individual’s personal profile allows them to maintain social connections with a select number of other users, while the platform’s “grouping” category, on the other hand, provides individuals with an opportunity to expand their social network outwards based upon their specific interests.

I would argue therefore that this recent increase in research concerned with the dangers of public exposure through social media is not necessarily warranted. While individuals are indeed criticized online, there are plenty of ways for the individual user to limit their public interaction through the utilization of specific Facebook profile settings. In another sense then, Facebook provides individual users with a sense of autonomy, allowing users to individually choose whether they would prefer to engage with a select number of friends privately or, alternatively, widen their social sphere through different forms of “public” engagement on the platform. Facebook therefore could alternatively be seen as a unique opportunity for individuals to actively form meaningful connections with others through diverse digital spheres and, at the same time, exchange meaningful information with both local and global communities.

I would like to briefly describe one additional scene in The Social Dilemma. About halfway through the film, viewers are (re)introduced to Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU Stern School of Business who dazzles viewers with a visual graph which contains statistical data on the suicide rates of American youth culture over time. Haidt ultimately uses this statistical data to argue (directly to us, the viewers) that:

There has been a gigantic increase in depression and anxiety for American teenagers which began right around between 2011 and 2013. The number of teenage girls, out of 100,000 in this country, who are admitted to a hospital every year because they cut themselves or otherwise harm themselves…that number was pretty stable until around 2010-2011, and then it began going way up. It’s up 62% for older teen girls, it’s up 189% for the preteen girls…we see the same pattern with suicide….and that pattern points to social media…This is the real change of a generation. (The Social Dilemma 40:00-40:27)

The moral of this story: interactions through platforms like Facebook have the power to negatively influence the mental health of individuals. In fact, this film attempts to convince viewers that social media is the only possible cause of this recent decline in mental health. Viewers are forces to conclude, based upon Haidt’s argument and the data presented in his graph, that social media has indeed already caused pre-teens and teens to experience feelings of isolation, depression, and lowered self-esteem.

While the graph that Haidt presents in The Social Dilemma (included above) indeed provides significant insight into issues concerning the decline of mental health and how this impacts youth culture.  However, I think it is also important to note that this dramatic cultural shift in mental health among today’s youth cannot solely be attributed to the use of social media. While there may be a correlation — perhaps even a partial causation — the simplified explanation that Haidt provides is largely misleading because it points to a solution to a symptom, not the larger problem.

 

The Exchange of Cultural Information through Social Media Platforms (specifically Facebook):

I will return to Haidt’s argument concerning mental health shortly, however, first I would like to redirect your attention to a specific Facebook community, “Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens Facebook Page, in order to better understand how the exchange of memes in Facebook-specific contexts may provide a positive means for connecting with others through the exchanging of meaningful information in a shared digital space.

With 13,000 followers, the “Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens Facebook page” has become a popular school-wide resource for Duke students to “post and interact with a range of memes since its inception in 2016” (Dryfoos and Crabill). As one member of the page explains, “roasting” (in this case, attributable to “self-deprecating humor”) is a common theme that is reproduced in different meme forms on this Facebook page across time. It is important to note that this communal exchange of self-deprecating humor can have a positive effect on individual members of this community. According to one student, “‘it forces students to look at Duke from a different perspective…I know I’m a hypocrite about some of the issues of Duke’s social culture and it always makes it easier to be critical of the paradoxes of my life if I can laugh about them” (Dryfoos and Crabill). In this way, the exchange of memes throughout this digital community can be seen to provide users with insight into their own experiences, as well as insight into the absurdity of each user’s own day-to-day behaviors. The exchange of memes among both local and global communities serves to provide users with alternative insights into their own everyday experiences. In How the World Changed Social Media, it is argued that contemporary changes in global culture can be seen through “our new capacity to share”. Thus, “Scalable sociality is therefore just one of many ways…that social media expands our capacity but, we insist, does not change our essential humanity” (Miller et al. 206).

Additionally, because memes typically depict information in a refreshing and humorous context, the communal exchange of information through this unique communicative form, to repeat the words of one student, “always makes it easier to be critical of the paradoxes of my life” (Dryfoos and Crabill). In this sense, the University’s digital community allows individuals to remain up-to-date on information about this local community and, at the same time, it provides users with a positive communal space through which to review their own day-to-day experiences at the university from a new, “refreshing” perspective — i.e. memes provide viewers with an alternative and uniquely situated stance which thereby allows for the development of a new, more complex understanding of the meme’s chosen topic. Therefore, the meme can be seen to function, in this sense, as a form of Fisher’s “emancipatory politics” because it aims (through both its content and form) to “destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’” (Fisher 17). Additionally, it could be argued that the meme functions as a crucial tool for providing opportunities for the exchange of “unmediated” information — “unmediated” in the sense that information typically provided through the meme does not need to first be mediated through any official news source. While there is a danger to the circulation of “unregulated” information (such as, for example, the rapid spread of information related to conspiracy theories in contemporary culture), in a digital context like the Duke University Facebook page, this kind of “unmediated” public platform can alternatively provide individuals with a unique opportunity to form a sense of community and, within this smaller digital community of Duke students, users may actively negotiate which cultural standards and conventions deemed to be most applicable to this particular campus culture.

Paying attention to these kinds of Facebook-specific, alternative spaces through which local enclaves can communicate may also be valuable for those seeking to understand local history, culture, or trends taking place across time within a specific community. As Nissenbaum and Shifman argue in “Meme Templates as Expressive Repertoires in a Globalizing World”, “Internet memes are an interesting venue…since the ways people consume and produce memes often reflect how they relate to categories such as race, gender and class” (296). When we consider the significance of digital spaces such as this then, we should be attempting to understand the ways in which such information could provide new insights into the development and communication across both local and global cultures. Considering the function of these situated social spaces, we should be aiming to understand how particular communities attempt to call and recall attention to serious, culturally relevant topics across time. The study of this kind of local exchange of information could thus provide deeper insight into the dominant conventions and ideologies which characterize these specific communities and/or literal spaces. As one student from the Duke Facebook group explains, for example, “‘It’s really funny to see the meme bumped up, even though it’s a serious context…A lot of memes that are created then get buried and become relevant again, so other people comment on it and bump it [to the top of the page]’” (Dryfoos and Crabill). By assessing which memes are produced and consistently “bumped up” on the Duke Facebook page for example (a local, uniquely situated context), such data could serve to reveal the extent to which students perceive particular events or historical moments at Duke to be individual versus communal experiences.

Therefore, as I have already suggested, it is the meme’s form which gives it its power — the way in which it allows for the (re)production and circulation of new information through the use of humor and with an emphasis on situated and/or juxtaposing perspectives. Now I would like briefly describe Joanna Drucker’s Graphesis, specifically considering her distinction between two alternative forms of visual communication, visual “representations of information” and visual forms which serve as “knowledge generators”. Through Drucker’s distinction between visual forms, I hope to simultaneously provide insight into, on the one hand, the communicative limitations of visual representation in The Social Dilemma, as well as, on the other hand, the communicative strengths of the meme’s form  — strengths which take on a particular relevance when an individual is made to communicate with memes through a vast range of (local and global) cultural contexts, and thus through a wide array of different communicative lenses.

The Meme’s Form and Function:

In Joanna Drucker’s work Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, she makes the claim that interpretive possibilities become ever-more complex when ideas are exchanged through visual, as opposed to text-based forms of communication. In Drucker’s words, interpretation is “n-dimensional” in the sense that “an infinite number of interpretive lines can be extended as lines of inquiry, reference, contestation, debate,” however “multiple imaging modes,” on the other hand, “make it more difficult to imagine reading as an act of recovering truth, and render the interpretive act itself more visible” (Drucker 188, 191).

Considering the interpretive ambiguity of visual communication then, she ultimately argues that “a basic distinction can be made between visualizations that are representations of information already known and those that are knowledge generators capable of creating new information through their use” (Drucker 65). Following Drucker’s logic, if a normal graphic representation of information is meant to present information to viewers in a supposedly clear-cut, “totalizing” form — thereby hiding the agendas and biases inevitably linked to the image’s content and structure — then The Social Dilemma’s choice in visual communication  — the data that Haidt uses to argue for the general decline in teenage mental health throughout the U.S. across time — can be understood as a spectacular example of the limitations inherent in visual communicative forms.

The meme form, on the other hand, can be seen as a knowledge generator, — through the meme’s reliance on both production and circulation, as well as its complex integration of “layers” when producing content or forms, the meme invites users to engage in the collective creation and recreation of older and outdated content or structures. The meme ultimately requires that those who circulate and produce memes do so only if such an exchange offers opportunities for new modes of writing/thinking or, alternatively, new and “refreshing” perspectives on our own everyday reality.

Throughout Graphesis, Drucker highlights the extent to which there is a crucial need in contemporary culture for the creation of new communicative modes which may, through their unique forms, function as “knowledge generators ”. Considering the communicative limitations of presenting and interpreting information through visual modes — i.e. considering the limitations of visual mediums which represent a closed, totalized “representations of knowledge”, as opposed to open-ended modes which take on the function of a “knowledge generator” — Drucker ultimately argues that we need a “humanistic approach” to studying, producing, and understanding digital, image-based forms of communication. For Drucker, a “humanistic approach” to visual communication should aim to consistently recognize and call attention to the “always interpreted character of data,” as well as “the constructedness of the categories according to the uses and expectations for which they are put” (Drucker 128-129).

In this way, the active production and circulation of memes can be understood as a “humanistic approach” to visual communication in the sense that meme forms always necessarily call attention to its own biases, limitations as a situated stance, and/or artificiality as a representative construct. As Shifman reiterates in “The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres,” “By their serial re-editing, meme creators signal that they are well aware of the constructed nature of these photos, and that they can produce competing images” (Shifman 347). The meme form then serves a distinct purpose in contemporary culture because it does not seek to represent reality as a single truth, but instead, it calls attention to the ways in which reality and truth can be understood through different lenses and/or through a multiplicity of different subjective layers or angles. By calling attention to its own limitations as an image-text then, and thereby highlighting the situated perspective normally hidden within the visual form, the meme seeks to deconstruct any content or form which prioritizes a “natural way of things” or a natural order progressing across time. Therefore, when we consider the meme’s approach to knowledge, and the extent to which the meme relies on the production of the “new” through the recycling of older styles and forms, it could be argued that the meme’s form inherently requires a “humanistic approach” to communication, always calling attention to the fact that its own image is not something which is concrete and total, but something which is open-ended and adaptable, that which can be applied to unfamiliar contexts or adapted to fit particular cultural spheres. At the same time, the interpretive ambiguity of the meme as a visual form allows for this medium to circulate across public spheres with minimal controversy. In this way, the meme’s strength is its ability to presents information in a form which calls attention to, a) a situated viewpoint instead of an objective truth, and/or b) the nonsensicality of its own content (for example, memes often attempt to simultaneously follow the specific conventions of a particular structure and also completely disregard those conventions) — thus, the meme provides a multiplicity of interpretive stances, ultimately refusing to solidify any clear or “total” idea or viewpoint.

I would like to add then that the meme’s association with “newness” should not solely be understood in relation to the rapid circulation of new, forever-changing bits of information. Just as the meme form can avoid critique by consistently calling attention to its own limited stance, it also ultimately aims to enlighten its viewers by providing a new, more in-depth understanding of reality — adding complexity to a seemingly clear-cut conception or experience. When we consider this element of “newness” which is commonly seen to be a requirement for the meme’s widespread, we should therefore be considering the extent to which each new idea presented through the meme’s form creates some sense of an “enlightened” view on a situation —a refreshing new viewpoint which in some way provides a layered, more in-depth perspective on the topic or situation being presented.

Throughout my presentation today, I have sought to call attention to the ways in which the form and function of the meme provides a opportunity to change an individual’s perspective, to negotiate the meaning of events and ideas, and to invoke reaction to both local and global events across the globe. Before concluding, I would like to add one final layer of complexity to my analysis of the meme and its function. My last point will focus on the meme’s relationship to emotional upheaval, declining mental health, and thus, ultimately, the unique contemporary experiences of an emotional and digitally-driven crowd mentality.

Meming with Feelings:

What is particularly important to the meme’s function, besides its dependence on speed and a sensitivity to change, is its focus on human emotion. As Nissenbaum and Shiftman argue in their quantitative study, “Emotions are central to the operation of memes…part of what makes a meme propagate is its ability to resonate with individuals on both the personal and societal levels” (qtd. in Nissenbaum and Shifman 297). Therefore, they are that while “mainstreamed meme templates are representationally conservative,” they are simultaneously “emotionally disruptive” (Nissenbaum and Shifman 306). Additionally, they highlight the fact that the meme’s central focus on emotional disruption is largely centered around negative emotions “the [meme’s emotionally] disruptive tendency was built through an alignment of content and stance: not only do meme templates represent more negative than positive emotions, but the negative emotion of anger is consistently framed as a sincere and even required stance, while the positive emotion of happiness is diminished and mocked”     (306).

Memes centered around issues concerning mental health and emotional suffering are indeed probably the most commonly shared products, and such themes are often inherent in both the meme’s form and its content.

Although Davies argues (like Fisher) that contemporary individuals may experience pain and suffering today in a wholly new and private way, there is a strength in the collective force of crowd mentality (including its use in the context of digital spaces) since it allows individuals to “take private feelings of fear and pain and render them public” (11). In this way, and following Le Bon’s original theories on crowds, he concludes that crowds (including those created within digital platforms) could thus “perform valuable therapeutic work in excavating pains and fears that otherwise go unacknowledged” (Davies 12). As Fisher emphasizes in Capitalist Realism, “madness was not a natural, but a political category” (Fisher 19). Engagements in crowd dynamics may therefore “help to reconnect people to deep human needs, bringing shared — including shared vulnerability — directly into the public domain” (Davies 16).

I would now like to conclude by repeating my claim that the study of the meme’s form, function, and circulation across different (local and global) digital spheres may serve to provide scholars with a new route toward understanding complex dilemmas related to political engagement, and cultural collectivity in our historical moment. Additionally, research concerning the spread and circulation of meme forms may also allow for a more in-depth understanding of information exchange in the 21st-century, considering how the exchange of memes through particular social platforms, or among specific digital communities, may provide insight into present-day dilemmas concerning the production and exchange of information in the era of globalization. Additionally, by studying the circulation of memes across particular local and global communities, particularly assessing how accessibility and exclusion is deliberately controlled by users within each digital sphere, we may then begin to better understand the ways through which cultural collectivity can be fostered and created within our own present historical moment.

Finally, the production and exchange of memes can be understood as form of Joanna Drucker’s “humanistic approach” to visual communication which serves to dismantle all dominant “truths” about day-to-day reality, while simultaneously providing individuals with a unique means for collective engagement and therapeutic healing. The meme does not aim to create a totalizing (seemingly “natural”) stance on a subject, but its form instead allows for the presentation of a unique and situated perspective which aims at “enlightening” the viewer, thereby adding depth and complexity to a seemingly clear-cut idea or situation. In this sense, the meme’s dedication to finding “newness” through recycled ideas and forms can be seen as the first step toward a collective form of creation and communication. In this same way, Davies’s research into contemporary crowd-based politics, when considered specifically in the context of memes, should also be studies with the aim of discovering new forms of political collectivity and/or alternative pathways for political change.

 

Bibliography

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