M is for Meme

| February 24, 2014

Although I had this topic in mind, it really surfaced for me during last week’s reading when we read about how modern art and aesthetics started to “die” or at least lose value as soon as technology allowed for replication. And it is true that in today’s digital age that perhaps the value of a singular piece of art isn’t quite the same without a sense of “one-of-a-kindness.” However, it is interesting to see how forms of art (or, at least, “creative” forms of communication) have actually evolved through this concept of replication.

According to Google’s dictionary, a meme is “noun, 1. an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp. imitation.” They are pieces of information or behavior that travel from person to person, where ideas and concepts can be replicated. However, for those more versed in generic internet culture, the most commonly heard meme are internet memes, which take the form of (commonly) images, videos, phrases, macros, hashtags, gifs, or other possible web formats.

With internet memes, it’s almost as though a meme’s value or appeal increase through replication. They seem to be almost a form of collective creation, through individual replications. For example, there are almost underlying agreements that in order for a replication of a meme to be successful, it must follow that particular meme’s format or purpose. Each meme has a name and often a specific purpose or intent behind it (even if that purpose might be to create something completely random or chaotic). For example, the “Condescending Wonka” meme involves one particular image, taken from the 1971 film, and incorporates white text in the same font (usually “Impact”), and while the content of the text may change, the format (a question posed, followed by a statement) and tone (sarcastic/ condescending) remain the same regardless, creating an implied or understood meaning of snarky criticism each time it is used. Memes even seem to hit on a point of meta-commentary (you can see three examples of the meme here.)

The consistent reproduction of any meme can lead for others to judge whether or not one particular version of a meme is “good” or “bad.” Value judgments can be placed on them based on a specific set of criteria, just like art, but the criteria is driven from consistent creation by incredible numbers of people.

However, unlike piece of traditional art that might be timeless, instead a meme’s value appears (at least in my book) to decrease with time. They seem to serve almost as a type of “inside joke” for those submersed in internet culture; people want to get involved in a meme, but once too many are (or if, more importantly, it has been going on too long), it may start to die off in popularity. There is always a “next” meme, though; a next viral concept that contagiously created and spread simultaneously. Studies are conducted constantly to try to understand the viral nature of certain memes, and how this can be an effective form of real-life creative marketing strategy.

I would certainly have to work pretty hard to argue that memes are in fact “art,” but they are so varied in form and expression that creativity is certainly a strong aspect of their production. There are dance videos like last year’s Harlem Shake phenomenon (that all follow the same loosely choreographed format), photographic pose challenges like the fairly outdated “planking,” and, of course, more and more images (such as Doge, which, interestingly enough, inspired an internet currency that actually raised enough money to send the Jamaican bobsled team to the Olympics this year). The fact that internet memes shape a collective experience of understanding and creation through thousands of strangers who have never met in real life, and somehow even appeal to people in an internet-based aesthetic judgment or taste, is certainly notable. While replication may cause anxiety about the end of art, somehow the internet has allowed for replication to at least become a means to effectively and creatively produce texts.