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“ One Does Not Simply Send Memes ” Performativity of Internet Memes in Synchronous Mediated

One Does Not Simply

Send MemesPerformativity of Internet Memes in Synchronous Mediated Communication

Marco Ciorli

University of Trento (Italy) - Masaryk University (Czech Rep.)

January 2017

FSS:SOC254 Chapters in Cultural Sociology Sociology of Performance

(Italy) - Masaryk University (Czech Rep.) January 2017 FSS:SOC254 Chapters in Cultural Sociology Sociology of Performance


Marco Ciorli

Internet memes, often simply called “memes” by internet users, are ideas and trends transmitted through electronic communication in multiple forms (signs, pictures, videos) and characterised by common recognition and massive reproduction. Born in the “Internet’s childhood” (Davison 2012:125), they have progressively become, with the improving and diffusion of technologies, a rapid and global cultural phenomenon, widespread in internet forums and social networks as well as in mobile apps and instant messaging systems. Indirectly defined from the controversial notion of meme by Richard Dawkins (1976), the phenomenon has been object of several studies, debating its relevance and value. Among those scholars who acknowledge its importance, the focus was given to the role in popular culture and collective identities (Shifman, 2013b; Chris 2015; Noam et al. 2016), mechanisms of cultural production (Chen 2012; Davison 2012) and the use in communication (Dresner and Herring 2010). Many of the analyses have proposed useful conceptualisations for academic approach and, from a cultural sociological point of view, they have the merit of having related the theme to ideas such as “participatory culture” and “agency”. However, something more may emerge. In this article, I aim to bring together these and other perspectives to describe a further sociological relevance of the memes, that is their performative action of making proximity in synchronous mediated communication. My analysis takes thus in account a second fundamental dimension for the understanding of the phenomenon: besides more “asynchronous” contexts of cultural consumption and production (be they recreational or politically involved), internet memes maintain in fact a role in more synchronous communication, in which they were born and are still constantly integrated.

Meme, Internet Memes and cultural relevance

In 1976 Richard Dawkins introduced the term meme (from μίμημα/mīmēma, ‘‘something which is imitated”), defined as any transferable form of cultural information. The idea behind this notion is that transmission of ideas and behaviours acts, in mental and learning processes, similarly to how the genes replicate in physical process of reproduction. In the last decades, however, memehas often been used to identify internet meme, that is a piece of culture (Davison 2012), or a group of digital items (Shifman 2013b), which emerges and gains influence in the context of digital transmission through circulation, imitation and transformation. These “memes of the internet world” have multiple forms, even if sometimes the general term is wrongly used to referred to specific subgenres, such as Image Macros (e.g. Success Kid’ or ‘Advice

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Dog’), Rage Comics (‘Rage Face’, ‘Poker Face’) or Misheard lyrics (‘Hitler Reacts’, ‘Dimitri Finds out’). They are signs, images, GIFs, videos or even “rules” and “adageswith are supposed to regulate online dynamics (e.g. the Usenet ‘Godwin’s Law’: “if you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.” [Know Your Meme 2009]). Many scholars have pondered on the importance of study of internet memes, especially in relation to two points: 1. whether or not they act indeed as memes; 2. whether or not they represent trivial facts without any cultural relevance. In the context of this paper I cannot present a complete overview of these stimulating discussions; however, I consider some perspective useful for clarify my argument. First, according with Davison (2012) and Shifman (2013a; 2013b), internet memes are a good example of successful cultural replication and they follow the systematic mechanism of transmission. They also well exemplify the difference in speed between genes and memes:

“compared to genetic changes (which span generations upon generations), memetic changes

happen in the blink of an

hand, some differences are recognised: in particular, Shifman (2013a), addressing the debate on the “deterministic inclination” of Dawkins’ theory, highlights the active role of users in the transmission. She yet defends the use of the term meme: not only it “is a great meme” itself enthusiastically picked up by internet users, but there is also “a fundamental compatibility between the term ‘meme’, as Dawkins formulated it, and the way contemporary participatory culture works(Jenkins 2014a). Shifman supports the possibility to move from extreme acceptations of the analogy with the genes to a “social/cultural perspective” (2013a:365). The cultural perspective assumes an interesting role also in acknowledging the value of internet memes as social phenomenon. One first argument is related to the application of the concept of cultural industry: despite the humorous and often vulgar function of internet memes, it is important to identify the value of specific processes of production (Chen 2012), which are central in present popular culture and sometimes can also reach offline sector of mainstream culture. Moreover, may be interesting to analyse business companies directly related with internet media, such as the huge company Cheezburger (, which owns, among others, Know Your Meme” and “Memebase”. The last two aspects concerning the cultural relevance are more related to the communicative dimension of internet meme, which involves the production of languages and meanings into specific groups. Both the passive use and the active production of internet meme include specific subcultural codes and norms, which often evolve from smaller user communities, and thus cannot be always understood by the broader public, especially if not active online (Shifman 2013b). Starting

Internet memes are even faster” (Davison 2012:122). On the other

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from the simpler Emoticon to the very common Image Macros, there is a set of stylistic rules for using internet memes, as well as a common knowledge for their successful decoding. For example, Chris (2015) analysis the case of the image macro “One does not simply…X”, in terms of digital habitus. Mitt Romney’s odd phrase “binders full of women”, has been used for a “current event meme” (Figure 1), based on the typecast meme of Boromir, from the movie “The Lord of the Rings”, who says “One does not simply walk into Mordor”. The latter usually identify, ironically, something difficult to do and/or that not merely consist of an simple action. In the understanding, the knowledge of this meme, the movie, and this kind of dynamics are necessary as well as the information about Romney’s original phrase.

well as the information about Romney’s original phrase. Figure 1. One example of "One does not

Figure 1. One example of "One does not simply


Internet memes not only have a unique language (such as “herp derp”, “le me” or the visual codifications themselves), but they also distinctive signs. They create provinces of meanings, performing distinction (in Bourdieusian terms) and granting inclusion in a (more or less institutionalised) social community. The access to these groups, as well stated by Chris (2015), should be understood in terms of social capital, achieved through experience and memetic production. The role of internet meme in the production of collective identities may go definitely behind the mere entertainment. Noam, Shifman and Kampf (2016), for instance, have analysed the case of the “It Gets Better” campaign on the themes of homophobic bullying and suicides of gay teens, while Chen (2012) has highlighted the connection between some internet memes and political positions such as Anonymous’ one. Another example is the famous catchphrase-meme “We Are The 99 Percent”, following the “Occupy Wall Street” events.

Memes and the context of mediated communication

There is lively debate about the possible functions of internet memes. For the purposes of this paper, I identify three dimensions: 1. Positioning with respect to events or themes, as in the case of

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"It Gets Better”; 2. Entertainment, in videos such as “Nyan Cat” and 3. Expression, as in the use of Meme stickers. Clearly, I propose them as ideal-types, while in the real digital world these connotations usually overlap. The reaction towards events may assume a humorous form, as in the case of “current event meme” I have mentioned. Moreover, since internet memes develop as rapid and free communication, an expressive function is always present. Here, I focus on the more expressive function, introducing the connection between internet meme and instant messaging, in which it is possible to consider a particular value. The context of mediated communication is sociologically interesting in itself, because of its analogies and differences with offline reality. One useful framework to approach it is Goffman analysis on micro interaction (Rettie 2009). First, “digital gathering” develop in dramaturgical way, in a similar manner to face-to-face interactions: they are shaped in front and back stages, through

which the actor aims to present a controlled representation of the self (Goffman 1959). Second, in the same extent of online “encounters”, the presence of a common focus of attention and the perception of shared experience are fundamental. Even though this co-construction of a shared social situation is less practicable and predictable in mediated media, due to the lack of common physical presence, this intention is real and strictly dependent on the level of synchrony of the media. The distinction between synchronous and asynchronous media is indeed empirically foggy: introduced by technological differences, is then socially constructed and related with specific social expectations related with the usage: (consider the difference between SMS, E-mail and Instant Messaging

Apps). Rettie (2009), acconting Garfinkel’s arguments on the role of contemporaneity in shaping “new time dimension” and a “common vivid presence”, highlights how shared time, may be equally or more relevant than physical compresence, to the experience of a shared encounter. A similar and complementary function in making proximity is ascribed to the integration of video interface and the use of Emoticons (Rettie 2009; Dresner and Herring 2010). According with Davison (2015) and the website Know Your Meme (2009), Emoticons are one of the first examples of internet meme, created in 1982 by Scott Fahlman to help people on a message board to distinguish serious posts from jokes. Emoticons have spread in 90’s and have become universally known. They have later incorporate new systems, as the Japanese kaomoji (kao:

incorporate new systems, as the Japanese kaomoji ( kao : Figure 2. "Stickers" in Telegram (personal

Figure 2. "Stickers" in Telegram (personal picture)

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face, moji: character) or pictograms like emoji (e: picture, moji: character), which have increased the visual power of early emoticons. In the last years, this use of meme in synchronous media has increased, with the progressive technological incorporation of almost every kind of visual meme in instant messaging systems. Today Unicode provides interoperability of emoji characters in different media and devices, while most of IM systems allows the direct or indirect use of Image Macros, Rage Comics, GIFs, video and stickers of any kind (also personalized).

Illocutionary force and strategies of proximity

I have brought out the importance of agency and cultural production in the context of internet meme, as well as the connection between them and the research of shared experience in synchronous mediated communication. In this final section, I bring these dimensions together. First, they are mixed together at an empirical level and complementary in theoretical terms. Moreover, I thus introduce my last argument: internet memes do not only perform proximity providing textual counterparts of emotional expressions, but act with illocutionary force and chase the construction of a shared experienced by cultural resources. L. Austin (1962) has argued that the language exchange is not limited to describing the state of facts or situations, but realizes forms of action, which he has distinguished in three types:

locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. A locutionary act is the basic level of “performance” of the word, given by the fact that talking about something people produce sounds that respect the grammar of a language and refer to something. On a second level, we perform an illocutionary act by doing something emitting worlds: the intended action is performed totally or partially through the production of a specific locutions, such as claims, questions, promises or begging. Finally, a statement could have the effect, creating a perlocutionary act, to the extent that the speaker succeeds in actually making an intended consequence (e.g. one can persuade someone, but not simply by saying it). Dresner and Herring (2010), attacking the idea that Emoticons are simply “Emotion- icons”, just extra-linguistic channels indicating emotion, claim their illocutionary force instead: they performed through their own production, providing information on what the users intend. They also consider the use of the smiley, which is often used not only to express happiness but also as indicator of jokes (its first use): “clearly, joking is not an emotion—one could joke while being in a variety of distinct affective states. Rather, joking is a type of illocutionary force, something that we do by what we say”. This important argument may easily be extended to all “expressive” meme, more so if we consider the possible separation with directly recognizable facial expressions. A key debate on illocutionary acts concerns the extent of their connection with conventions. Sociologically, this question finds possible answers in the analysis by Goffman (1959), who

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acknowledges the role of collective meanings in the construction of the dramaturgical representation of the self, and Alexander (2016), who extends this dimension in his sophisticated analysis of cultural pragmatics. He divides the idea of communicative performance in an ideal- typical way, distinguishing ritual performances and modern ritual-likestrategies: the level of (re)fusion among the elements which form cultural performances determines their level of success. My argument is that is possible to observe a similar phenomenon in the role of internet memes in mediated communication. While in the contexts perceived as more asynchronous there is a production of meanings and cultural references through the communication and the production of internet memes (humorous or not), in the synchronous communication, these cultural frames represent reference for new proximity in contextual encounters. Clearly, the two dimensions are in dialogic relationship, because communication and memetic production themselves are permitted, as we have seen, by the sharing of meanings and practices. By way of example, consider the female character in Figure 2. The girl is not used merely to send a visual representation of a shocked face: the drawing is taken from the web-comic “Sarah's Scribbles”, in which Sarah Andersen narrates typical common experiences of Millennials’ adulthood and maturity, often in an auto-ironical way. The complete success of the message, by the achievement of performative communication, depends on this and other cultural elements and may enforce (in this case between two university students) the sense of proximity. Through complex and illocutionary acts, pregnant of meaning, people try to expand the sense of shared experience and face its volatility. If this succeed -here comes back the idea of the precariousness of re-fusion strategies Alexander (2016)- memes act in perlocutionary way on the other users and collaborate to the sense of “common vivid presence”.


I have analysed internet memes as social phenomenon, highlighting their performative function

of making proximity in synchronous mediated communication. Starting from useful perspectives about their nature, mechanisms and role in the collective construction of meanings, I have then proposed three functions, usually overlapping in digital world. I have focused on the more communicative (Expression), introducing the connection between internet memes and the construction of “digital gathering” in synchronous mediated communication. This focus has permitted to take in account a second fundamental

focus has permitted to take in account a second fundamental F i g u r e

Figure 3. "Success Kid"

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dimension for the understanding of internet memes. Beside the use in contexts of popular cultural production, memes maintain and progressively increase a role in synchronous communication, where they do not only perform proximity providing textual counterparts of face-to-face elements (such as emotional expressions), but act with illocutionary force and chase the construction of a shared experienced on a cultural level.


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Jenkins, Henry. 2014b. “A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Two)” Retrieved January 2017 ( thing-to-waste-an-interview-with-limor-shifman-part-two.html) Jenkins, Henry. 2014c. “A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Three)” Retrieved January 2017 ( thing-to-waste-an-interview-with-limor-shifman-part-three.html) Julien, Chris. 2015. “Bourdieu, Social Capital and Online Interaction” Sociology 49(2):356-373.


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