In defense of the meme

I recently came across this piece which asks “Do memes kill culture’s meaning?” It’s a reactionary and relatively emotional piece, to be sure, but there are some very troubling falsehoods in it I’d like to address.

Firstly, the author claims, “Reducing the world into one viral image or GIF is the media’s standard operating procedure in 2014.” However, memes typically do not rise out of the media, proper. And while memes often rely on a particular image, reducing the concept of a meme to mean one thing is incorrect.

Memes evolve; they merge; they change to reflect cultural values and current happenings. Often, it takes a savvy understanding of culture to understand a meme in the first place. So, when the author asks, “what about the poor souls who read only what’s on their Facebook timeline? Those people are getting content straight from the Internet’s viral colon,” there is an underlying elitism that I struggle to accept. In regards to the 2012 election, understanding the binders meme in the first place required having seen the debate. What did the binder come to represent? Unlike the author, I can’t claim to speak for the millions of people who reshared a binder-themed meme, but for me it represented women’s issues in the election. Does that sound culturally void or uninformed?

What the author misses is this: Memes are both simultaneously reflections on and artifacts of culture. So although he finds it disturbing that there are over 786,000 variations of the Picard meme, they each stand to correct his simplification. The author is inciting the “high” and “low” culture debate, even if he does so without acknowledging it. And perhaps most importantly, because memes have a bottom-up structure, they are often presented in the face of manufactured and manipulative messages such as the Olympic coverage. I may not be able to tell you who won gold at Sochi (actually, I can: Canada men’s and women’s hockey, the American Ice Dancers, the American woman won bronze in skeleton and was stoked about that, Americans got their butts handed to them in speed skating, Bode Miller didn’t win a gold, but he got some hardware and a woman made him cry…I could keep going, but you get the point) but I can say for sure that lots of people on my Facebook timeline surprised me by talking about gay rights in Russia. I might have seen a meme or two about that, in fact. And although he quotes Nathan Jurgenson in his piece, he misses Jurgenson’s point: “Traditional media narratives are still overwhelmingly dominant, but the cacophony of voices from the bottom do occasionally congeal into something of a competing narrative, one that is about participation, authenticity, and, of course, about saying something of ourselves as much as it is about…” the election or the Olympics or whatever topic is at the heart of a meme. Putler

To be fair, I believe the author is more concerned about the manipulation of news in an effort to generate clicks on websites…he just places memes as the root cause of the problem. In so doing, he skips over the last few decades of media research which have confronted this very topic. A quick search on “infotainment” will give insight into the issue as media scholars have been addressing it for years.

Are memes the problem? Not in my opinion. In fact, I would argue that often, memes are a direct response to and rejection of the very culture the author is criticizing in the first place.

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