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Internet Memes: The Mythology of Augmented Society

Internet memes are the myths of our time - reinforcing cultural sentiments, painting the political landscape, impacting language, shaping humor and driving cultural connection and distinction.

by Jenny Davis On December 13, 2011

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Bloggers here at Cyborgology have explored the Internet meme in interesting ways. Most notably, David Banks analyzed the performative meme, arguing for its function in cultural cohesion, and PJ Rey delineated the political and strategic role of Internet memes in the #OWS movement. Here, I wish to take a step back, and deconstruct the very structure of the Internet meme, exploring what the Internet meme is and what it does. Specifically, I argue that the Internet meme is the predominant (and logical) form of myth in an augmented society, and that it both reflects and shapes cultural realities.

To make this argument, I must first put forth definitions of both myth and meme.

I use myth here as it is used in semiotics (or the study of symbols) specifically drawing on Roland Barthes conceptualization. Myth, according to Barthes, is a representation of the dominant ideologies of our time. He delineates the structure of the myth as a second-order semiological system in which the sign (the totality of a concept and form) becomes the signifier (mere form). In his classic example, Barthes shows a depiction of a young Black soldier giving the French salute. This image is at once a complete sign (Black soldier gives French salute) and the form or signifier of the second-order system: the myth (France is a great empire supported by all, regardless of color or creed). Importantly, Barthes points out that the myth is decoupled from its roots. The construction of the myth is forgotten and the mythic sign is stated as fact.It is this decoupling which makes myth such a powerful transmitter of culture and ideas.

A meme, as first termed and defined by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, is a cultural unit that spreads from person to person through copy or imitation. Memes both reflect and shape cultural discourse, mood, and behavioral practice. The evolutionary process of memes is compared by Dawkins and others to natural selection in genes, whereby reproductive success of a given meme is linked to variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance. In other words, memes that outperform other memes and shift appropriately with cultural sentiments will thrive and persist, while memes that fail to proliferate will fall into extinction.

Internet memes refer to these cultural units (catch phrases, images, fashions, expressions etc.) that spread rapidly via Internet technologies, constructing, framing, and revealing cultural realities. Lolcats, for example, a quite successful Internet meme, reflects a growing affection between humans and companion animals, and has created the normative linguistic practice of asking if one “can haz” something. In a less innocuous example, the numerous  #OWS memes (described in PJ Rey’s post linked above) portray, reinforce, and  aid in the construction of what Nathan Jurgenson describes an atmosphere of augmented dissent.

We can see clearly that the myth and the meme share a semiotic structure in which the first order sign becomes the mythic and/or memetic signifier. The Guy Fawkes mask, for example, is simultaneously the sign of an historical moment, a popular film, and the hacker group Anonymous, as well as a signifier of the contested relation between political institutions and the anonymous components that make up “the masses.” Moreover, the meme, like the myth, is divorced from its construction, stated instead as indisputable fact. Just as Barthe’s saluting Black soldier does not offer up a viewpoint for debate, the Guy Fawkes mask does not make an argument, it asserts a cultural refusal to be oppressed.

Not only can we see that the myth and the meme share a semiotic structure, but I argue that the Internet meme is the predominant and logical form of myth in an augmented society. I put forth four supports for this argument, all of which link the construction and spread of Internet memes to the affordance of augmented reality: (1) Internet memes are simultaneously digital and physical; (2) Internet memes are quickly spread and often (3) user generated; (4) Internet memes are easily adaptable.

In augmented society, we interact, communicate, create, and live life in inseparable physical and digital realms. Similarly, the Internet meme is often rooted in a physical occurrence, spread digitally, and (re)enacted both physically and digitally. The performative memes described by David Banks, for example, are embodied practices, photographically recorded, digitally shared, and physically imitated.

The spread of these memes is quite rapid. Less than 24 hours after police officers pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters on the UC Davis campus, images of the event—signifying both the actual occurrence and disproportionately violent actions taken by an oppressive regime—were distributed internationally through formal (e.g. news) and informal (e.g. Facebook) channels.

Moreover, memes are often user-generated, and so easily adaptable. Almost as quickly as the photographic image of the pepper-spraying police officer spread, it was modified to depict the officer spraying everything from the fathers of the constitution, to a baby seal, to Yoda.

These images, texts, sayings and stories — digitally and physically rooted, widely and quickly dispersed, prosumed and adapted from the bottom up — spread and reinforce cultural sentiments and ideas. They paint the political landscape. They impact language, shape humor, and drive cultural connection and distinction. Internet memes, in short, are the myths of our time, afforded by the technologies of our time.

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This post originally appeared on Cyborgology.

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