Proving memes more than digital distractions

By Adela Talbot
February 13, 2014

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Meme_prestonPhoto by Adela Talbot / Meme by Frank Neufeld
Perhaps this photo of Jeff Preston, a Faculty of Information and Media Studies PhD candidate, will become the latest Internet meme studied in his new course, Communication Through Meme: Cool Story, Bro.

You may think they’re funny. Or witty. Or maybe, you think they’re a plague of today’s online culture. It’s also possible you don’t know what an ‘Internet meme’ even is.

Richard Dawkins is widely credited for originating the word ‘meme’ (pronounced MEEM) in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). His pre-Internet definition was meant to explain how cultural information spreads. Today, Internet memes are cultural shorthand, said Jeff Preston, a Faculty of Information and Media Studies PhD candidate, teaching a new course this term, Communication Through Meme: Cool Story, Bro.

It’s likely you’ve seen a number of memes – countless replicas of the same images circulating on social media, embedded with seemingly superficial social commentary by way of superimposed text.

Grumpy Cat? Condescending Willy Wonka? Captain Picard facepalm? All memes.

But these images are not as superficial as one may think, Preston contends. What’s more, they are worth a critical discussion.

“Everyone seems to pass off (memes) as sort of silly, meaningless little things – they’re just funny pictures with funny words on them. I thought memes would prove to be rather interesting little pieces of Internet culture – this fluff – but rather, they offer us an interesting opportunity to look at the development and maintenance of dominant ideology in Western culture,” Preston explained.

At the core of many memes are racist, sexist, homophobic, abilist or classist ideologies, ones we spread and pass off as comedic, he noted.

“I wanted this class to be an opportunity to look at the ways in which memes allow us to covey very large amounts of dense information into a very small package, but also at the ways in which memes limit what we talk about,” Preston added.

“By focusing on the fluff of memes, we are losing opportunities and missing opportunities to talk about things that are very important and serious in our day to day lives.”

Take the ‘doge meme’ (and that’s doge in place of dog), for one example.

“The doge meme, it seems like silly pictures with chopped up text, and it’s funny, like, what if a dog talked? But if you look deeper, the type of language used reflects the types of things posted on a former website called,” a site which features a comedic array of Asian mistranslations into English, Preston explained.

“The joke is the lack of grasp somebody would have on our language, and therefore, their lack of our culture,” he added.

The doge meme started with a Japanese teacher who posted pictures of her Shiba Inu dog. One particular image of the dog glaring sideways soon became the online carrier of various and choppy phrases. 

“The way we talk about these images is by using this broken English, associated with the Asian population and their struggle to integrate into American culture. The doge meme perpetuates a comedy and humour of outsiders trying to integrate. It minimizes immigrants; it’s kind of xenophobic; but it’s not directly talking about immigrants,” Preston continued.

“Memes are a reflection, an active reflection of what the bulk of our population is thinking breathing and believing. They give insight on the human condition, how people are acting, what they’re thinking. They provide us a microscopic look at how people are interacting with their world. Rather than looking at products like TV shows and movies, which are heavily produced and modified, memes are reflective of people who decided to make (them).”

The students have enthusiastically taken on the task of discussing, dissecting and even creating and proliferating memes themselves as part of the class.

“A lot of people might laugh at the topic, but we’re doing valuable work in deconstructing memes,” said Kevin Hurren, a student in the class. “Your immediate reaction is to laugh it off. But we’re looking at how we interact with gender politics, race relations, things online, things you would think have nothing to do with memes.

“By dissecting memes, we learn more about the culture of today and the mentality of today. I would hope more people take the course and look beyond the humour of it.”

Classmate Darryl Pieber agreed.

“On the surface, memes seem like another example of frivolous distractions and dumbed down, trite communications that are perhaps all too common in Western society today. But the interesting thing about this course (or one of the interesting things) is that it encourages us to look deeper – to examine the underlying messages and assumptions encoded into the memes,” he said.

“How are we using light, amusing bits of content to convey beliefs and values that we take so much for granted that we may not even realize they’re there? Or, how are we using these same bits of content, altered a bit, to challenge or subvert those same beliefs and values?”


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