What’s in a meme? A meme-making party at the KnowledgeLab

What’s in a meme? A meme-making party at the KnowledgeLab

One significant cultural change that has come about due to the rise of social media in the past half-decade is the proliferation of “memes.”  Although they are totally ubiquitous, they are difficult to pin down with a solid definition; the nature of memes is that they are constantly evolving at speeds only made possible by the internet.  Generally, memes are a form of internet humor that involves text juxtaposed with an image, in a way that plays on the emotional resonance of the image and uses it to create new meaning.  The governing principle of memes seems to be that they are “relatable”; they are humorous in that they point out a common experience in a poignant and unexpected way.   

This April, Kayla Foney ’17 organized an event in the KnowledgeLab to explore this peculiar form of cultural production, using a KnowledgeLab $500 mini-grant.  The event sought to investigate what memes really are, how they are situated in a social context, and how they relate gender, race, and nationality.  Foney gathered historical photographs that seemed emotionally evocative even without context. Participants generated captions for the images, thus making them into memes.  Possible captions were posted under the photos, and participants voted on their favorites.  

Using the content created at the event, Foney sought to zero in on key themes that ran throughout the memes.  She found five of these, which she calls as Emotional/Situational Referential, Vocal, Critical, and Contextual.  She describes these themes as the following:

  • Emotional/Situational: Interpreting facial expressions as frustration, shock, joy, etc. Using that to framing the image into a specific situation, such as taking an Easter photo or seeing an ex. Or, describing facial expressions to identify a meme – blinking, pointing, wide mouth.
  • Referential: Plays on past, concurrent, or future memes: “Name a more dynamic trio,” originates from a Twitter celebrity post and has been a popular phrase online for the past few months. “Supa Hot Fire” references a series of rap cypher parody videos from 2013. “It’s Gonna Be May” as a NSync pun/meme that has popped back up yearly at the end of April/in anticipation of May.
  • Vocal: Making the subject speak on something in the photograph or an invented situation of the creator, like having someone tell you something you already know.
  • Critical: Addressing oppression and power dynamics. Gendered experiences of the 2016 election, respectability politics. Racial microaggressions, disappointment with institutions and how they deal with social issues. Deconstructing systemic power.
  • Contextual: Connections to recent social media and pop culture trends like the Get Out Challenge and the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial, references to lyrics and musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Prominent use of AAVE/slang, like “Whomst”, and references to cultural habits like clapping out the beat when the music stops at a party.

In a reflection on the event, Foney noticed how the event exceeded some of her expectations, and subverted others.  She said,

“What can this collected material tell us about how to define a meme… and its memory? From the diversity within these five themes alone, it’s clear that the multiplicity of viewpoints and interpretations that go into creating, understanding, and remaking a meme have a huge influence on the final result. Anyone can enter into this creative process and produce something that can convey emotion, humor, and memories to others, regardless of their knowledge of digital culture or confidence in their own abilities. […] I think that the meme-making event was both a huge success and a failure in exploring and understanding what a meme really is, because it seems that the main thing that a meme can be characterized by by is the ability to produce similar and distinct interpretations, from both a presence of and a lack of context. Ultimately, it remains elusive, uncapturable and indefinable – which is, of course, what makes it fun.”