THE RHETORICAL POWER OF INTERNET MEMES
Have you seen the overweight cat with the blank stare asking, “I can has cheezburger?”
Has Willy Wonka patronizingly asked you a question?
Did you see the determined toddler enthusiastically fist-pumping his latest success?
If so, you are familiar with the world of Internet memes, those photos, images, hashtags, or videos that spread virus-like, via the Internet. They sometimes take the form of a pithy caption on a photo designed to make you laugh or roll your eyes. In a growing number of cases, memes compel socially positive action, but they are often dismissed as low culture, vulgar, and a waste of time.
Memes can be all of those things, but whether or not they are valuable is moot because they have become vital components in the distribution of cultural information. They are part of our lives and their growing presence and rhetorical effectiveness has the power to influence our world. Already, memes reach as far as the blogs of prepubescent teens to corporate board rooms to philanthropic efforts like the $100 million fundraiser for ALS Research.
Memes are a relatively new cultural phenomenon. They have been around since before LOLCat made its first appearance by an anonymous poster on 4chan.com in 2006 (Miltner 10). The term itself is older, and was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. “We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” (192). Dawkins turned the Greek “mimeme” into meme (rhymes with cream), and the meme was born … or at least it was named. Since then memes have become a popular and powerful mode of communication in today’s world, and their intent is as varied as the individual memes themselves. What is indisputable is that the proliferation of memes came about with the advent of social media. These bits of information are passed from one person to another in what is quite clearly a worldwide web and a social network. By examining the distribution of power, shaping of knowledge, and building of community, this paper presents a rhetorical analysis of the social functions of memes as discussed in The History and Theory of Rhetoric by James A. Herrick.
In Rhetoric, Herrick says, “Issues of power and its distribution have always been central to rhetorical theory” (17). The Ancient Greek Sophists knew and the oligarchy feared that those with rhetorical know-how could use that expertise to gain power. As Michel Foucault argues in “The Discourse on Language,” knowledge is power. Considering the ease of creation and replication, the rhetorical effectiveness of memes is illustrated through their tremendous impact on the distribution of power. Easy access to the Internet creates an egalitarian platform that allows anyone with a computer, tablet, or smart phone to participate.
OF THE PEOPLE
Occupy Wall Street, the grassroots protest movement that was born and built on the Internet, illustrates the power of memes to galvanize from the bottom up. In Memes in Digital Culture, author Limor Shifman explains: “Protests such as … Occupy Wall Street are not backed by a strong existing organization—they are energized by the digitally coordinated actions of millions of ordinary people. Memes play an important role in these coordinated actions” (Shifman 128). A key element is “ordinary people.” It is not government, religious institutions, or big business. In fact it is not any power-wielding institution. It is ordinary people using the tools they have to take power into their own hands to effect change.
Los Indignados, the social movement protesting austerity measures in Spain that predates the Occupy movement, had similar success. “One of the most remarkable aspects of this sustained protest organization was its success at keeping political parties, unions, and other powerful political organizations out: indeed, they were targeted as part of the political problem” (Bennett and Segerberg 741). The success of Occupy Wall Street and Los Indignados is disputed because of its broad message and vague goals. What cannot be disputed, though, is the effectiveness of memes to spread the word.
The ability of memes to distribute power grows when they infiltrate mainstream media. Because memes are such a new cultural phenomenon, news sources often take notice, and the message behind the meme spreads further still. This was demonstrated with Los Indignados. “The indignados (sic) achieved impressive levels of communication with outside publics…when anonymous Twitter streams and YouTube videos were taken up as mainstream press sources” (Bennett and Segerberg 741-2). Here we see memes not only working to distribute power through Los Indignados, but the memes themselves are given credibility through the media’s use of them.
That mainstream media now scavenges social networks like Twitter and YouTube for news sources is further evidence of the rhetorical power of memes. It also illustrates the viral nature of memes. As Dawkins says, “[Memes] propagate themselves … by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (192). This imitation is inherent to memes with the duplicated efforts and copied formats spreading from one person to the next until it becomes noticeable enough to be reported on in news sources. Then it spreads exponentially.
While most memes do not have the gravitas as those used for the Occupy orIndignados movements, even frivolous memes factor into the distribution of power. LOLCat, Condescending Wonka, and Success Kid function through shared humor, and as George Orwell said, “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” As memes are shared and replicated, their impact increases until eventually the real power behind memes takes hold and the once private joke becomes public knowledge.
This transition from private to public, highlights the rhetorical ability of memes to shape knowledge:
“Although [memes] spread on a micro basis, their impact is on the macro level: memes shape the mindsets, forms of behavior, and actions of social groups. This attribute is highly compatible to the way culture is formed in the Web 2.0 era, which is marked by platforms for creating and exchanging user-generated content” (18).
— Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture
As users share memes with friends and family, their values and beliefs are distributed right along with the laughs.
Repetition is a characteristic of memes that helps them achieve the level of influence Shifman describes. It is a frequent and effective rhetorical device that is a trademark of successful memes. Sharing can reinforce knowledge, but the repeated and viral nature of memes can shape it. LOLCats, one of the most popular and enduring meme genres, offer an example. The memes feature a cat picture superimposed with a misspelled and grammatically tortured caption. The explosive popularity of the meme spawned Cheezburger Networks, which received $30 million in venture funding in 2011, two best-selling books, a Bible translation, a play, an art show, and a massive worldwide following (Miltner 9). The quirky captions now known as lolspeak are an essential element of the meme. “[Lolspeak] has been taken up with great gusto by the LOLCat community and operates as the lingua francaof the I Can Has Cheezburger comment boards” (Miltner 30). In order to produce a successful LOLCat meme, a user must have knowledge of proper lolspeak usage. “LOLCats are operating as a genre, and the appropriate execution of that genre is central to their enjoyment” (Miltner 7). These memes are lighthearted entertainment, and learning lolspeak does not have much value outside the Cheezburger comment boards. Yet the number of people who know and use the dialect is indicative of the power of memes to shape knowledge.
The knowledge created and dispersed by the “We Are The 99 Percent” meme carries more weight than LOLCats, but it similarly illustrates the power of memes to share knowledge. We are the 99 Percent was created in support of Occupy Wall Street. It provides an example of the rhetorical use of kairos, using an opportune moment or situation to convey a message appropriate to that moment” (Herrick 47). The meme based at wearethe99percent., is a series of user-generated photos and handwritten notes describing personal financial difficulties resulting from the severe economic inequity in the United States. Together with Occupy Wall Street, the 99% meme furthered the message and created new knowledge and greater awareness. The repetitive format of the photographs reinforces that knowledge.
The “Successful Black Man” meme is an excellent illustration of the ability of memes to shape knowledge. The style is similar to LOLcat and features a photo of a well-dressed black man with a superimposed caption. The top caption relates a racial stereotype that the bottom caption quickly contradicts. “On the one hand, its name, “Successful Black Guy,” hints at the racial presumption that the modifier “successful” needs to be inserted before the “black man” category in order to differentiate between this guy and the “regular” black man. The meme thus reinforces stereotypes by presenting the exception that proves the rule. Yet at the same time, this meme is poignant with a strong anti-stereotyping message” (Shifman 162). The message calls attention to potential racist assumptions in a joking, familiar way. It is a joke, but the joke is on the racist reader.
The formulaic style of memes enhances their effectiveness, and their repetitive nature develops familiarity and easier acceptance. But the benefits of a consistent look go beyond the messages memes send. It also plays a part in building community. In “The Discourse on Language,” Foucault says, “In every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures…” (Foucault 216). At first glance this idea seems to go against the underground world of meme creation. While there are no gatekeepers for the production and distribution of memes, they do follow a specific format and rules of engagement. “In theory, all Internet users are free spirits, individuals who take their unique path to the hall of digital fame. In practice, they tend to follow the same beaten tracks of meme creation” (Shifman 99). Memes by their nature are imitative, but the individuals Shifman refers to may not be as solitary as they seem.
It may be paradoxical to think of meme creators and fans as members of a community, but the popularity of creating and sharing memes contradicts that idea. This can be tied to Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification and the drive for communion. “Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division…If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (1326). The community that meme sharing builds, both within message board cultures and between friends and family who share favorite memes cannot be denied. As Shifman explains it, “In an era marked by ‘network individualism,’ people use memes to simultaneously express both their uniqueness and their connectivity” (30). The connectivity is the thing, and in sharing, communities are created and thrive, both online and in real life.
One of humanity’s most pleasurable ways of connecting is through humor. As seen in the Occupy Wall Street and similar movements, one purpose of memes is to compel action, but their original intent, which is still very much alive, was to make us laugh. “Ultimately, LOLCats are funny pictures of cats; however, the ways in which they traffic in fundamental human needs like belonging and emotional expression are no laughing matter” (Miltner 7). The need for belonging is answered in memes’ power to build community, an essential social function of rhetoric. It is through the laughter that memes provoke that we can more easily connect.
Memes distribute power by creating a more egalitarian platform to generate and disseminate information. They also allow for easier access to information that might otherwise be censored or destroyed. Their effectiveness in shaping knowledge is assisted through repetition, which reinforces the message, andkairos, which uses the opportune moment to build onto other messages, such as the “We are 99%” meme did with Occupy Wall Street. Finally, memes work in a number of ways to build online and real communities. These functions combine in memes to create a new avenue of rhetoric that is effective, powerful, popular, and funny.
- Bennett, W. Lance, and Alexandra Segerberg. “The Logic of Connective Action.” Taylor & Francis. Information, Communication & Society, 14 Nov. 2011. Web. 24 April 2015.
- Burke, Kenneth. “A Rhetoric of Motives.” Modern and Postmodern Rhetoric. (1325) PDF file
- Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene (30th Anniversary Edition). Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press, UK, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 24 April 2015.
- Foucault, Michel. “The Discourse on Language.” The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. NY: Pantheon, 1972: 215-37. PDF file
- Herrick, James A. The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. Boston: Pearson, 2013. Print.
- Miltner, Kate. “SRSLY PHENOMENAL: An Investigation Into The Appeal Of LOLCATS.” Diss. London School of Economics, 2011. (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
- Orwell, George. “Funny, but Not Vulgar” The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968. ., 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2015
- Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. The MIT Press, 2013. 24 April 2015. Web
Essay completed in response to an assignment for ENG 472 Rhetorical Studies, Arizona State University, Dr. Katherine Heenan, Spring 2015. Grade: A.