The Language of Internet Memes

, 2012
language-of-internet-memes_michaelmandiberg

In The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain
describes the features of a generative network. A generative network encour-
ages and enables creative production and, as a system, possesses leverage,
adaptability, ease of mastery, accessibility, and transferability 1 Notably absent
from this list of characteristics, however, is security. Many of the character-
istics that make a system generative are precisely the same ones that leave it
vulnerable to exploitation. This zero-sum game between creativity and secu-
rity implies a divided Internet. Those platforms and communities which value
security over creativity can be thought of as the "restricted web," while those
that remain generative in the face of other concerns are the "unrestricted web."

The restricted web has its poster children. Facebook and other social net-
working sites are growing at incredible speeds. Google and its ever-expand-
ing corral of applications are slowly assimilating solutions to all our com-
puting needs. Amazon and similar search-based commerce sites are creating
previously unimagined economies. 2 Metaphorically, these sites, and count-
less others, make up the cities and public works of the restricted web. How-
ever, the unrestricted web remains the wilderness all around them, and it is
this wilderness that is the native habitat of Internet memes.

The purpose of this essay is twofold. The first is to contribute to a frame-
work for discussing so-called Internet memes. Internet memes are popular
and recognizable but lack a rigorous descriptive vocabulary. I provide a few
terms to aid in their discussion. The second purpose is to consider Foucault's
"author function" relative to Internet memes, many of which are created and
spread anonymously.

What Is an Internet Meme?

In 1979 Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, in which he discredits
the idea that living beings are genetically compelled to behave in ways that
are "good for the species." Dawkins accomplishes this by making one point

120

clear: the basic units of genetics are not species, families, or even individuals
but rather single genes — unique strands of DNA. 3

At the end of the book, Dawkins discusses two areas where evolutionary
theory might be heading next. It is here that he coins the term "meme." He
acknowledges that much of human behavior comes not from genes but from
culture. He proposes that any nongenetic behavior be labeled as a meme and
then poses a question: can the application of genetic logic to memes be pro-
ductive? To make the differences between genes and memes clear, I offer a
short example of each.

Genes determine an organisms physical characteristics. A certain gene
causes an organism to have short legs, or long, for instance. Imagine two
zebra. The first has the short-leg gene, and the second the long. A lion attacks
them. The short-legged zebra runs more slowly and is eaten. The long-legged
zebra runs more quickly (because of its legs) and lives. At this point, there
are more long-leg genes in the imaginary ecosystem than short-leg genes.
If the long-legged zebra breeds and has offspring, those offspring with long
legs will continue to survive at a higher rate, and more offspring of those off-
spring will contain the long-leg gene. The genes themselves are not thinking
beings — the long-leg gene does not know it causes long-leggedness, nor does
it care, but given that it bestows a property that interacts with the environ-
ment to allow more of itself to be produced, it is successful. 4

Memes determine the behavior of an organism. They are either taught to
an organism (you go to school and learn math) or learned through experi-
ence (you stick a finger in an outlet, get shocked, understand that outlets
should be avoided). Imagine two soccer players. There are genetic factors
which might make them better or worse at playing (long or short legs, for
instance); however, their ability is also dependent on their understanding of
the game. For this example, let us imagine that the two players are physically
identical. However, one of them goes to practice, and the other does not. At
practice, the coach teaches the attendant player about passing: you pass the
ball to other players and increase the chance that your team will score. Dur-
ing a game, the attendant player is likely to pass and to experience success
because of it. The truant player, having not learned the passing meme, will
not pass, and that player's team will suffer because of it.

While genes rely on the physical process of reproduction to replicate,
memes rely on the mental processes of observation and learning. In our
example, the truant player comes to the game without the passing meme and
suffers. That player is, however, able to observe the attendant player passing,
and succeeding, and can decide to imitate the attendant player by passing as

The Language of Internet Memes 121

well. The passing meme successfully replicates itself in a new organism with-
out the all-or-nothing cycle of life and death. This highlights one of the criti-
cal differences between genes and memes: speed of transmission. Compared
to genetic changes (which span generations upon generations), memetic
changes happen in the blink of an eye. Offline memes, cultural cornerstones
like language or religion, are hyperfast when compared to their genetic coun-
terparts. Internet memes are even faster.

The other notable difference between genes and memes is their relative
fidelity of form. In our zebra example, a zebra is granted physical characteris-
tics based on a discrete combination of DNA. All the genes that Dawkins dis-
cusses are at their most basic made up of sequences of only four chemicals.
The memes that I examine in this essay, however, are not made up of chemi-
cals but of ideas and concepts. Our truant player may observe and learn
the passing meme, but that process does not transfer an identical chemical
"code" for passing. The meme is subject to interpretation and therefore to
variation.

In Dawkins's original framing, memes described any cultural idea or
behavior. Fashion, language, religion, sports— all of these are memes. Today,
though, the term "meme" — or specifically "Internet meme" — has a new, col-
loquial meaning. While memes themselves have been the subject of entire
books, modern Internet memes lack even an accurate definition. There are
numerous online sources (Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary, Know Your Meme,
Encyclopedia Dramatica) that describe Internet memes as the public per-
ceives them, but none does so in an academically rigorous way. Given this, I
have found the following new definition to be useful in the consideration of
Internet memes specifically:

An Internet meme is apiece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence
through online transmission.

While not all Internet memes are jokes, comparing them to offline jokes
makes it clear what makes Internet memes unique: the speed of their trans-
mission and the fidelity of their form. 5 A spoken joke, for instance, can only
be transmitted as quickly as those individuals who know it can move from
place to place, and its form must be preserved by memory. A printed joke,
in contrast, can be transmitted by moving paper and can be preserved by a
physical arrangement of ink. The speed of transmission is no longer limited
by the movement of individuals, and the form of the joke is preserved by a
medium, not memory.

122 PATRICK DAVISON

Now, consider a joke that exists on the Internet. The speed of transmis-
sion is increased yet again, in an incredible way. Space is overcome: com-
puters connect to one another through far-reaching networks. Time is over-
come: the digitally represented information is available as long as the server
hosting it remains online. A joke stored on a website can be viewed by as
many people as want to view it, as many times as they want to, as quickly as
they can request it.

An online joke's fidelity of form, however, is subject to a unique contradiction.
Being digital, the joke is perfectly replicable. Copy and paste functions (or their
equivalents) are ubiquitous, expected parts of software platforms. 6 However, a
piece of digital media in the modern landscape of robust and varied manipula-
tion software renders it also perfectly malleable. Individual sections of a piece of
digital media can be lifted, manipulated, and reapplied with little effort.

Once I say that a piece of media, or a meme, is replicable and malleable, I
must specify what exactly is being copied or changed. A meme can be sepa-
rated into components. I propose three: the manifestation, the behavior, and
the ideal.

The manifestation of a meme is its observable, external phenomena. It is
the set of objects created by the meme, the records of its existence. It indi-
cates any arrangement of physical particles in time and space that are the
direct result of the reality of the meme.

The behavior of a meme is the action taken by an individual in service of
the meme. The behavior of the meme creates the manifestation. For instance,
if the behavior is photographing a cat and manipulating that photograph
with software, the manifestation this creates is the ordered progression of
pixels subsequently uploaded to the Internet.

The ideal of a meme is the concept or idea conveyed. 7 The ideal dictates
the behavior, which in turn creates the manifestation. If the manifestation is
a funny image of a cat and the behavior is using software to make it, then the
ideal is something like "cats are funny."

When tracking the spread of a particular meme, it is useful to identify which
of these three aspects is being replicated and which adapted. Dawkins prefig-
ures this in his original chapter by theorizing that the principal tool for meme
identification would be the perception of replication. This is important, because
identifying the replication of memes is subjective. Sometimes this identifica-
tion is easy: one person acts, and another person copies that person exactly.
Other times the process of replication is less exact. This is why separating the
manifestation, behavior, and ideal is useful. As long as one of the three compo-
nents is passed on, the meme is replicating, even if mutating and adapting.

The Language of Internet Memes 123

Early Internet Memes

In 1982 Scott E. Fahlman proposed a solution to a problem he and other users
were experiencing when communicating via the Internet. Members who par-
ticipated on the bulletin-board system at Carnegie Mellon would on occasion
descend into "flame wars" — long threads of communication that are hos-
tile or openly aggressive to other users. Fahlman believed that many of these
disagreements arose out of misinterpreted humor. His solution to this prob-
lem was to add a specific marker to the end of any message that was a joke. 8
That marker was :-). I am going to assume that anyone reading this has seen
this "emoticon" and understands that if rotated ninety degrees clockwise, the
colon, hyphen, and close-parenthesis resemble a smiling face, a symbol lifted
from pre-Internet time. This practice of contextualizing one's written messages
with an emoticon to indicate emotional intent has become widespread. Today
there are countless other pseudopictograms of expressions and objects which
are regularly added to typed communication. Emoticons are a meme.

To leverage my framework, the manifestation of an emoticon is whatever
combination of typed characters is employed as pseudopictogram. These can
be in any medium — handwritten or printed on paper, displayed on a screen,
any form capable of representing glyphs. The behavior is the act of construct-
ing such an emoticon to contribute emotional meaning to a text. The ideal is
that small combinations of recognizable glyphs represent the intent or emo-
tional state of the person transmitting them.

If we analyze the emoticon meme from a genetic point of view which
values survival and defines success through continued replication, it proves
itself remarkably well situated. Emoticons can be very quickly used. Emoti-
cons are easy to experiment with. The tools for making emoticons are
included on every device we use to type. The primary glyphs used for many
of the emoticons are glyphs used less often than the upper- and lower-case
alphabets. Emoticons reference a previously existing source of meaning
(human facial expressions) and therefore can be easily interpreted upon first
encounter. More than just re-creating face-to-face meaning in textual com-
munication, emoticons also add the possibility of a new level of meaning — a
level impossible without them.

If all these factors were not true, perhaps emoticons would see less use. If
keyboards full of punctuation were not already spread across the landscape,
or if human facial expressions were not a cultural constant, maybe emoticons
would disappear or be relegated to obscurity. As it stands, though, emoti-

124 PATRICK DAVISON

cons not only pervade both online and offline communication but have also
received significant formal support on many platforms. 9

Emoticons come from the Internet's childhood, when bulletin boards
and e-mails accounted for a bulk of the activity online. Another early meme
came from its adolescence — 1998, after the widespread adoption of the World
Wide Web and during the heyday of GeoCities. 10 Deidre LaCarte, who was a
Canadian art student at the time, made a GeoCities-hosted website as part of
a contest with a friend to see who could generate the most online traffic. The
website she created, popularly known as "Hamster Dance," consisted of row
upon row of animated gifs, each one depicting a hamster dancing, all set to
a distorted nine-second audio loop. As of January 1999 the site had amassed
eight hundred views, total. Once 1999 began, however, without warning or
clear cause, the site began to log as many as fifteen thousand views a day 11
The comparison of these two early memes, Hamster Dance and emoticons,
provides an opportunity to expand and clarify some of the vocabulary I use
to discuss memes and to make two important distinctions.

Emoticons are a meme that serve a number of functions in the transmis-
sion of information. They can be used to frame content as positive or negative,
serious or joking, or any number of other things. Hamster Dance essentially
serves a single function: to entertain. This difference in function influences the
primary modes of access for each of these memes. For the emoticon meme the
behavior is to construct any number of emotional glyphs in any number of set-
tings, while for the Hamster Dance meme the behavior is only a single thing:
have people (themselves or others) view the Hamster Dance web page. The
Hamster Dance page is a singular thing, a spectacle. It gains influence through
its surprising centralization. It is a piece of content that seems unsuited given
more traditional models of assessment of organizing people around a central
location, but yet, that is precisely the function it serves.

Emoticons gain influence in exactly the opposite way. There was an origi-
nal, single emoticon typed in 1982, but other emoticons do not drive peo-
ple toward that single iteration. The emoticon has gained influence not by
being surprisingly centralized but by being surprisingly distributed. Hamster
Dance is big like Mt. Rushmore. Emoticons are big like McDonald's. This
first distinction, then, is that the influence gained by memes can be both cen-
tralized and distributed.

The second distinction is closely related to the first. Just as Hamster Dance
is characterized by many-in-one-location, and emoticons are character-
ized by individuals-in-many-locations, the two also differ in the nature of

The Language of Internet Memes 125

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LrJ L:j l:j bJ l:j l:j tJ l:j l:j

Fig. 9.1. Hamster Dance (http://www.webhamster.com/)

the behavior they replicate. Many more people have used an emoticon, or
concocted their own, than have seen the very first emoticon from 1982. In
contrast, many more people have seen the original Hamster Dance site than
have created their own Hamster Dance site. It is tempting, then, to say that
this difference implies two categories of memetic behavior: use and view.
It is more useful, though, to treat both of these behaviors as characteristics
present in varying degrees for any given meme. These two behaviors connect
directly to the previously mentioned states of replicable and malleable. 12 A
piece of media's being replicable makes it easier for that media to gain influ-
ence through views. A piece of media's being malleable makes it easier for
that media to gain influence through use. Engagement with a meme, then,
takes the form of either use or viewing or, more in keeping with the terms of
malleable and replicable, of transformation or transmission.

These distinctions help to account for the variety of phenomena popularly
identified as Internet memes. Working from Dawkins's initial conception,
the term "meme" can mean almost anything. By limiting the scope of what
is meant by "Internet meme," the goal is not to create a basis for invalidating

126

PATRICK DAVISON

the widespread use of the term but, rather, to provide an inclusive method
for accounting for and relating the various phenomena labeled as such.

Current Internet Memes

All memes (offline and on) are capable of existing in layers. For instance,
consider language. The meme of language is communication through
speech. There are, however, multiple languages. Each individual language is
a meme nested within the larger language meme. Additionally, within each
individual language there are even more submemes: dialects, slang, jargon.

Internet memes follow the same structure. One very common, rather
large meme is the image macro. An image macro is a set of stylistic rules for
adding text to images. Some image macros involve adding the same text to
various images, and others involve adding different text to a common image.
Just like emoticons, which exist in an environment well suited to supporting
their survival, image macros are able to thrive online because the software
necessary for their creation and distribution is readily available.

There are countless submemes within the image macro meme, such as
LOLcats, FAIL, demotivators. I am going to focus on just one: Advice Dog.
The trope of this meme is that Advice Dog, a friendly looking dog at the cen-
ter of a rainbow-colored background, is offering the viewer whatever advice
is contained in the text above and below his head. The formula is simple:

1 . Image of dog in center of rainbow

  1. First line of advice

  2. Second line of advice (usually a punch line)

Iterations of the Advice Dog meme vary not only in the specific text they
use to communicate humor but also in the type of humor communicated.
When Advice Dog gives someone advice, genuine good advice, it can be
humorous simply by virtue of being attached to a bright background and
smiling dog. Once it is established that the explicit function of Advice Dog is
to give advice, though, having him give bad or unexpected advice is ironic.
The text can also be transgressive, giving advice that is intentionally offensive
or absurd, accompanied by text that is not advice at all.

In addition to having Advice Dog offer various kinds of advice, one can
also have other figures deliver other kinds of messages. These are Advice
Dog-like variants. Whether a "genuine" Advice Dog iteration or a simply an
Advice Dog-like variant, all of these are contained within the larger Advice

The Language of Internet Memes 127

Fig. 9.2. Advice Dog meme

128

Figs. 9.3-9.5. More Advice Dog memes

129

Dog meme. The manifestations are the individual images, among which
numerous replicated elements are obvious. The style of the background, the
square format of the image, the central placement of a cropped figure — all
of these remain constant (with consistent variation) from image to image.
The behavior of the meme is a varied set of practices. Viewing and linking
to various Advice Dog manifestations is part of the meme, as is saving and
reposting the same. Creating original iterations with new text is part of the
meme, as is creating or contributing to any of the Advice Dog-like variants
in the same manner.

The ideal of the Advice Dog meme is harder to describe. The meaning
conveyed by any single Advice Dog macro can vary wildly. Some have ironic
meanings, while others have aggressive or offensive meanings. The subject
can be a dog that gives advice or a child that celebrates success. So we can
say that for Advice Dog, the ideal of the meme is not always replicated from
instance to instance. With no qualities recognizable from iteration to itera-
tion, it would seem there is no justification for linking them together as part
of the same meme. However, what is replicated from instance to instance
is the set of formal characteristics. We are able to identify each instance as
part of the larger Advice Dog meme because of the similarities in form and
regardless of the differences in meaning.

Attribution

The identification of memes relies on the identification of replications. One
of the most common replicated elements that sets memes of the unrestricted
web apart from memes of the restricted web is attribution. Attribution is
the identification of an author for a piece of media. Attribution is central
to much of the restricted web: YouTube is host to numerous copyright bat-
tles, fueled by rights holders' desire to derive worth from media attributed
to them. Wikipedia encourages submissions from anyone but meticulously
tracks participation and only allows images to be uploaded by their license
holder. Creative Commons offers numerous alternative licenses for content
creators, but attribution is common to every one. 13

It is clear that many of the popular platforms of the Internet preserve and
extend a historical prioritizing of attribution and authorship. Foucault, in his
essay "What Is an Author?" writes that the author's name "performs a cer-
tain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory func-
tion. Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts,
define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others. In addi-

130 PATRICK DAVISON

Climb the Highest Mountain

ABORTION

P

Punch the Face of God

HOLD YOUR OWN HAND
i

1 *

IS A DIFFICULT ISSUE,

T

LEAVE CLOTHES IN
THE DRYER

I OWN LEGAL COPIES

OF ALL MY SOFTWARE

Figs. 9.6-9.11. Advice Dog variants: Courage Wolf, Politically-Neutral Dog, Depression
Dog, Bachelor Frog, Rich Raven, Success Kid

The Language of Internet Memes 131

tion, it establishes a relationship between the texts." 14 Foucault's concept of
the "author function" is therefore similar in function to modern metadata.
The authors name serves to classify and group together separate works,
much in the same way tags and keywords allow distributed digital media to
be searched and sorted. The Internet is a system filled with an incalculable
amount of data. The question of where to find a piece of media has become
just as relevant as the question of how to produce a piece of media. Attribu-
tion supports this model and fits within the modern practice of prioritiz-
ing metadata. Metadata is a meme. It is a meme that existed well before the
Internet but that has, like other memes introduced to the Internet, achieved
an accelerated rate of growth and change.

Then why do certain memes eschew attribution? The memes of the unre-
stricted web (Advice Dog is only one example) not only often disregard
attribution and metadata; they are also frequently incorporated into systems
and among practices that actively prevent and dismantle attribution. 15 Some
people might argue that many Internet memes lack attribution because their
creators have no stake in claiming ownership over worthless material. How-
ever, if the practice of attribution is a meme, then the practice of omitting
attribution is also a meme, and insofar as it exists and replicates within cer-
tain populations, we must say that it is successful. The nonattribution meme
possesses characteristics that make it likely to be replicated in others.

What, then, does the practice of anonymity offer to the individuals who
enact it? In many ways, anonymity enables a type of freedom. This freedom
can have obvious personal benefits if the material one is generating, sharing,
or collecting is transgressive. For those Internet users who revel in the exis-
tence of racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive memes, a practice and system
of anonymity protects them from the regulation or punishment that peers
or authorities might attempt to enact in response to such material. However,
there is an additional layer of freedom afforded by a lack of attribution. With
no documented authors, there exists no intellectual property. Memes can be
born, replicated, transmitted, transformed, and forwarded with no concern
for rights management, monetization, citation, or licensing. This takes us
full circle back to Zittrain's generative network and to the unrestricted web it
implies. The prioritization of creative freedom over security is epitomized by
the nonattribution meme.

The question I am left with, that I am as of yet unequipped to answer, is
whether this thought process casts the nonattribution meme in the role of a
metameme. If the presence of the nonattribution meme in a network makes
that network more likely to be generative, and if being generative makes a
network a more fertile environment for the production and evolution of
memes, then is nonattribution a meme that makes the creation of other
memes more likely? Lastly, how important is the effect of this metameme
when we consider a network (the Internet) whose platforms can require
either attribution or anonymity?


Updated on January 14, 2016