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.”

A visit from the local Big Brothers Big Sister’s chapter for a collaborative zine-making workshop

A visit from the local Big Brothers Big Sister’s chapter for a collaborative zine-making workshop

Zines are a classic medium of self expression.  They were perfectly fit for the event we hosted here at the KnowledgeLab last week: the Hampshire County Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter gathered for a creative, collaborative zine-making project.  The little siblings, with the help of their Bigs, got the chance to create zine pages using the KnowledgeLab craft resources about a topic meaningful to them.  The pages were combined into a large collective zine.


Mandy Ferrara, one of the hosts, said about the event, “It was such a pleasure to have such a diverse group working together to create art. The students, both big and little, immediately caught on to the project and made a beautiful zine celebrating friendship, activity, and their affinity for the organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters.”


The event was inspired by the zine event Strength for the Struggle, hosted by the library last summer.  Amanda Ferrara of the library and Jennifer Ablard of the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization conceived of an adaptation of the workshop for 8-13 year olds.

The zine will be uploaded to Scholarworks, Smith’s archive of digital scholarship. 

Written by Phoebe Weissblum, KnowledgeLab staff



An interactive exhibit and series on the history of structural inequality in the US

February 3 to March 9, 2017
KnowledgeLab, Second Floor of Neilson Library, Smith College


We invite you to visit and participate in an interactive exhibition and pop-up library called Undesign the Redline – created by the NYC-based social impact design collective, Designing the WE, and hosted by the KnowledgeLab on the second floor of Neilson Library at Smith College.  Sign up for one of the tours with the Designing the WE team via EventBrite.  Tours will be held on Feb 3, 16, 17 and March 8.


On display from February 3 to March 9, the exhibit invites participants to “explore how redlining and other policies, practices, and investments create systemic disparities and inequalities that not only perpetuate our most pressing social challenges, but impede the full potential of democracy.” The exhibit has been customized for our community, with references to Pioneer Valley history and historic maps of Boston, Hartford, Holyoke/Chicopee, and Springfield. Interactive mapping projects from the Spatial Analysis Lab will be on display from Lisa Armstrong’s SWG 230 (Gender, Land and Food Movements), highlighting food access, gentrification, and the school-to-prison pipeline.


Join us on February 8th for a related guest lecture by historian Nathan DB Connolly, author of the award-winning book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow in South Florida (Chicago, 2014). On February 16th, we’ll host a dynamic panel discussion about how the design of both physical and virtual environments overlap with structures of inequality, with the Designing the WE team in conversation with the following scholars: Joseph Krupczynski, Director of the Office of Civic Engagement and Service-Learning and Associate Professor of Architecture at UMass-Amherst, and founding director of The Center for Design Engagement (C*DE), a non-profit design resource center in Holyoke; Serin Houston, Assistant Professor of Geography and International Relations at Mount Holyoke College and author of forthcoming Seattle: Real Change?; and Chris Gilliard, Professor of writing, literature and digital studies at Macomb Community College and author of “Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy” (2016).

The series will end with a March 9th screening of MAJOR! — a documentary profile of 75 year old Black transgender elder and activist Major Griffin-Gracy, hosted by Jennifer DeClue, Assistant Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith.

Undesign Sign

You can view the exhibit on your own at anytime the library is open.

To learn more,  please check the series website: