Final Research Essay: Online meme

What is the purpose of online memes? Do they have a function in reproducing ideology, or do they disrupt meaning making in contemporary society, specifically by unsettling power relations?

Online meme is a very new discipline of communication, however is increasingly and extensively important due to the development of cyberspace. The following essay will discuss the task of online meme and its impact in the progress of ideology. By examining some typical examples of current online memes such as the “Trollface/Coolface/Problem?” image meme, “Like a boss” catch-phrase, the very up-to-date “Toddler Hit-and-run tragedy/Wang Yue” in China, and the “Diet Coke and Mentos Eruption” meme (Know Your Meme, 26 Oct 2011), the similarities and differences between the way memes and ideology will be revealed. Also from these examples, based on the theory that the ideologists and memeticists have researched, the essay has confirmed that online meme is both an abundant source of ideas and an electronic vehicle for ideology because of the similarities between the two concepts. On the other hand, online meme also can disrupt the evolution of ideology by specific characteristics of “anomynity” and “variation” of online meme.

First of all, there are many similarities in the two conception defined “online meme” and “ideology”. They tend to be interpreted in the simplest meaning as “ideas”, or more properly as forms of information (Blackmore, 65). ‘Meme’ has been defined long time ago by Dawkins in his famous book “The selfish genes” (1976) and by Knobel & Lankshear as a ‘contagious pattern of “cultural information” that get passed from mind to mind’. This definition is similar to how Thwaites, Davis and Mules have defined ideology as ‘public meanings, produced and circulating in everyday life’. General intangible, the researchers have the same definition of “meme” and “ideology” as the idea which is to understand and capture by a social group. Both meme and ideology may include such personal things as personal relationship, or tastes in music, food, clothing fashion or entertainment, or catch-phrases, architectural styles, ways of doing things, icons, jingles and the like. Meme and ideology can be found everywhere, in the way we talk, in how we treat and use things in our everyday life. For example, the “like a boss” catch-phrase. Firstly, this is a meme feature a person have an air of superiority completing an action with authority and finesse. It originally came from The Lonely Island’s song lyric used in a parody. But even without knowing where and how this online meme was created, people still can nearly understand the meaning of the comparison “like a boss” because of the ideology about “boss”. Within based knowledge, boss is a person who has the control over his staff because of his superiority; he can make an order to his people with his authority. In this case, “like a boss” meme and the ideology of “boss” share the same idea.

Because of these similarities in the definitions as ‘ideas’, meme and ideology are both considered as important parts of human cultural evolution. Meme has been so-called ‘minimum cultural unit’. Blackmore has also suggested that ‘memes may have forced human genes to make us what we are today, to shape our cultural evolution’. Furthermore, the power of memes to spread contagious ideas and to infect minds with particular ideas is getting more widely recognized … on quite significant scales (Knobel & Lankshear, 224). This means memes has been getting closer to ‘a set of social values’ defined about ‘ideology’. Both meme and ideology are actually material sources of what we call ‘culture’. People nowadays are sharing both memes and ideology with each other, they slowly form a common set of social values to understand and behave with. “The toddler Wang Yue hit-and-run tragedy” in China is a suitable example of this. Happening on October 13th, 2001, a two-year-old toddler girl Wang Yue was hit by a passing van in a hardware market in Foshan, Guangdong province of China. This might be a traffic accident that only reported within China’s state media and only known by Chinese if it was not uploaded to a video-sharing site Youku as well as the official English-language news sites like China Daily and People’s Daily. Through the internet, this tragic accident gets beyond the limit of a country, became a widespread information which known by many people around the world. The reaction of the majority of internet users is about the heartlessness of passers-by Wang Yue who had left until a elderly scavenger woman saved her. Who were brought to share this meme also attach the message of “kindness”, of “ethics”. By spreading this “meme”, it was also accompanied by the prejudices of the social problems and awakens the consciousness of those who receive this meme.

However, the term “meme” is very close but very difficult for it to reproduce “ideology”. First, ideology encompasses a wide array of socio-cultural. In addition to those personal things that similar with meme, ideology is essentially a system of values, beliefs and theories which are practiced by human beings (Thwaites, Davis, Mules). Ideology is likely a ‘take for granted’ view about the way the world works, it transcends institutions and discourse becoming beliefs rather than a single idea, it crosses institutions and are articulated by a variety of discourses rather than passing from mind to mind as meme does. Meme usually has impact on a limited group of people who had experience of or used to know about the original idea of that meme then decided to imitate and replicate it. In other words, ideology are such big ideas about who we are and what our relationships to the (social) world around us might be, which Plotkin has also discussed that ‘the acceptance and spread of (these) ideas through society – especially an ideology such as justice – are slow, unpredictable and difficult to measure, and certainly do not fit within the restrictive theory of memes’.

However, internet has opened up a new powerful giant cyberspace for meme. On internet, anyone can spread ideas and any idea can be spread. Therefore, online meme can be considered as a new electronic vehicle dressing the old memes up in contemporary garb and thus, it can help reproducing an old ideology (Knobel and Lankshear, 204). Meme can also be considered as a rich source of material ideas for ideology. The “Diet Coke and Mentos Eruption” is an example of how online memes becomes a source of idea and also a vehicle for ideology. “Diet Coke and Mentos Eruption” was initial a science practice of dropping Mentos candies into Diet Coke drink resulting in a chemical reaction of foaming and spewing rapidly into the air by a Physics teacher on New9 segment in 2002. He appeared again with the same experiment in 2005. But this experiment is only viral after being uploaded on News9 website. Besides, this scientific experiment was more famous in the recreation of Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz turning it into a fountain performance. This performance has dressed up the original scientific idea to make it more interesting. Even world records have been set up for the most simultaneous DC&M eruptions.

However, there are some specific characteristics of online meme prove that online meme also consists many troubles in its progress. These troubles result in disrupting the existing ideology in the contemporary society. Those characteristics are the “anonymity” and “variation”.

First, ‘anonymity’ was described in the discussion by Milicevic (2001) about cyberspace as the perfect medium for ‘concealing a person’s identity’ and for the ‘masking of any of the responsibility that is expected from socially acceptable human behaviour’. Anonymity will be a negative influence due to the “online disinhibition effect” (Suler 2005). Cyberspace, therefore, is very difficult to be controlled; anyone can spread anything through internet, both ill and good. Online meme is easily misunderstood by those who are not part of a fairly select internet community. If meme is strong enough to become an ideology or it simply spreads the existing ideology by an ill-responsible autonomous author, it might be a new wrong ideology or it might change they way people usually think about the existing ideology. The story of “Trollface” meme is an example for this. “Trollface” is a black and white simple drawing of a face with a large mischievous grin that is meant to portray the expression someone makes while trolling:

  

It is aimed to someone who is being fooled or intentionally angered. This meme was popularly used since 2008 and was really popular until now. But on July 26th 2011, it was claimed for copyright infringement by a man named Carlos Ramirez who sent an email to Reddit. The email screenshot showed that, he claimed to be Whynne who had posted the original idea comic drawing on deviantArt on September 19th, 2008:

 

The email screenshot from Carlos Ramirez (Know Your Meme)

 

The original comic posted by user Whynne on deviantArt.

In the email, he stated that the use of Trollface on Reddit violated his copyright on the image, and that he would like to have the subreddit removed. Who is going to be responsible for this infringement? The answer is unidentifiable. Furthermore, the response toward the email screenshot from a Redditor named Whynne was: “You know what also makes me happy? Trolling reddit and seeing a shitstorm like this develop” attached with exact Trollface image with a provoking text “HEY WHYNNE…U MAD BRO?”:

In this case, the autonomynity of online meme has crashed with the copyright problem. It happens to many other art works such as design, music or movie and the like.

Beside ‘autonomynity’, the ‘susceptibility’ and ‘variation’ are also two-sided characteristics. Susceptibility refers to the “timing” or “location” of a meme with respect to people’s openness to the meme and their propensity to be infected by it (Knobel & Lankshear, 202). In other words, not everyone is infected by the same meme. Therefore, a meme varies itself from this person to another. A person can learn an idea/meme from someone else and then modify the idea in an effort to improve it or to make it suitable with his/her own knowledge. Susceptibility is like a meme-filter, meanwhile, variation is like an editor. These two features of meme make it less sustainable. Wang Yue’s accident is a clear example of this.  The ideology carried by this meme is about ‘good and bad person’, about morality. But the susceptibility and variation of this meme have shown their effects on Chen Xianmei, the elderly scavenger woman who rescued Wang Yue. She was praised by mostly internet users as a hero and local government offices sent gifts and letters at first. But later, this was led to another idea that she did it for fame and money resulting in she was forced to flee her home after her neighbors began harassing her. This has shown a bad effect of the variation and susceptibility of this meme. The action of helping people is not only viewed as a good action but also seen as an action for benefit. In this case, online meme has disrupted the meanings of “being good person”.

In conclusion, online meme, thanks to the vast operation environment in the cyberspace, thus becomes a plentiful source of new ideas and a rapid vehicle for ideology. This is the main point of the contribution of online meme to the ideology reproduction. However, because most of online communities are still anonymous and therefore very difficult to control, not every meme can reproduce ideology. Sometimes, they are misleading because during the transmission there are many variations according to the adaptation of those who accept and reproduce the idea. There should be more management in the form of online meme users to head them closer to the progress of ideology.

Citations

Bernstein Michael S., Monroy-Hernández A., Harry D., et al. “4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community.” Fifth Interna-tional AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (2011). Print.

Blackmore S. “The Power of Memes.” Scientific American 283 (2000): 64-73. Print.

“Diet coke and Mentos”. Know Your Meme, 30 Aug. 2010 ed. Web. 26 Oct. 2011. < http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/diet-coke-and-mentos#.TqfYfGZvBIB >

Grobe F., Voltz S. “Diet Coke + Mentos”. Youtube, 14 Jun 2006. Web. 26 October 2011. < http://youtu.be/hKoB0MHVBvM >

Knobel Michele, Lankshear Colin. “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production.” A New Literacies Sampler. Ed. Michel Knobel and Colin Lankshear. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 199-228. Print.

“Like a boss”. Know Your Meme, 14 Sep 2011 ed. Web. 26 Oct 2011. < http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/like-a-boss–2#.TqfVQWZvBID >

Milicevic M. “Cyberspace memes” Organised Sound 6.2 (2001): 117-120. Print.

Plotkin H. “People Do More Than Imitate” Scientific American 283 (2000): 64-73. Print.

Sterelny Kim. “Memes Revisited”.The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57.1(03/2006): 145 – 165. Print.

Suler, J. “The online disinhibition effect.” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 2.2(2005):184–188.

Thwaites T., Davis L., Mules W. Introducing cultural and media studies: A semtiotic Approach 2002. Great Britain: Palgrave, 2002. Print.

“Toddler Hit-and-Run Tragedy/Wang Yue”. Know your Meme, 25 Oct 2011 ed. Web. 26 Oct 2011. < http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/toddler-hit-and-run-tragedy-wang-yue#.TqfWI2ZvBID >

 

 

 

 

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