Memes as Means

The second morning panel of the Urgent Publishing conference was kicked off with some remarks by its moderator, Inte Gloerich, and an explanation of the panel’s title. The Institute of Network Cultures, at which Inte is a researcher and editor, has a history of looking at online visual culture and senses of community in it: selfie culture, video culture, meme culture. The notion of ‘means’ adds several dimensions to this longer research trajectory. Apart from referencing a whole body of dank memes for Marxist teens, it addresses memes as having financial capacities, and as ‘means to an end’. What kind of (activist) strategies can memes as means inform today? Should we use them in every way we can, because ends justify means, or can we employ memes with laser point precision?

If memes are considered to be means, the question of their meaning is given new urgency. What kind of meaning is implied in the means-being of memes? How meaningful is it to decipher their ever-changing meanings and to partake in the land-grabbing of symbols? Can we hold public figures accountable for their adherence to memes, as if they represent some fixed meaning? Is it possible to start creating online digital symbols anew, and if so, how?

There are also questions of authorship and ownership over these means. Crediting meme-makers (or Memelords) becomes more widespread on the left flank of the political spectrum, which suggests that memes are no longer considered as post-author entities. What does that mean under the rule of Article 13? What will be the relation between more severe copyrights and the anonymous army? Is there a chance of meme revenue models, of being paid for previously unpaid work? Is it time to unionize meme-work? Is meming a matter of being professional or of fighting a trench war?


Evelyn Austin

The first speaker, Evelyn Austin, who works at Bits of Freedom and The Hmm, joined the panel to talk about digital human rights such as freedom of publishing and distributing in the context of Article 13. The internet has always carried the promise to empower the powerless, and indeed it does empower. But as it usually goes with means of empowerment, the internet also empowers the already powerful – and this latter group is catching up.

Many examples show the hampering of communication of suppressed groups by those in power: Facebook took down pictures of Femen in Yemen on basis of nudity regulations; Dutch pro-choice organization WomenOnWaves were blocked in Ireland four times in the run-up of abortion referendum; YouTube videos with the word ‘trans’ in their titles are systematically categorized as ‘adult’.

This shows that there is a need for different modes of publishing and for alternative platforms, but also for new strategies of communication and distribution. We need good, strong, and wide networks of digital rights organizations and journalists. What we got is Article 13.

So, what exactly is Article 13 again? The article (which in the end turned into Article 17) makes platforms and other ‘hosts’ accountable for what users are saying on their site. An individual’s speech on a company’s website is automatically the company’s speech. This is of course threatening to companies, and there are two solutions to the threat:

1. Licensing agreements with rights’ holders (however, so many different users use so much different and often mixed content in so many ways, that it would be nearly impossible to come to sufficient agreements in all cases).

2. Upload filters (but, making filtering software is hard and expensive). This means that all of our content will be monitored and filtered, with the result that one’s speech is from now on only free online insofar as you can prove that it’s allowed to be, instead of the other way around. With this new regulation, governments are allowing companies to discipline citizens in a way that they’re not allowed to do themselves.

Thus, we find ourselves in a complicated situation. We can try to abandon the big platforms and go to alternatives, but not everyone is in the privileged position to do so. Realistically, we’re stuck with the big platforms for now. This means there will be loads and loads of frustration about filters of ‘possible’ terrorism, child abuse, nudity, etc. At the same time, #gamergate, as an example of how heteronormative white male power was in the end subverted, shows that we have to remain critical and that we do have the means to change things even in mainstream media.


Clara Balaguer

Cultural worker and avid troll Clara Balaguer has been occupied with online troll wars against the rise of authoritarianism in the Philippines for years. Two years ago, it became untenable to do critical cultural programming in the Philippines for under-served communities and Clara decided to come to the Netherlands. In the inevitable comparison of these two countries, it is clear that the levels of ‘urgency’ generally felt in the Netherlands are much lower than those in the Philippines, because of the cloudy cuteness, order, and privilege we have here. Reflecting on her experiences as troll in the Philippines, Clara shared five aphorisms with the predominantly Dutch public:

1. Nobody gives a shit about your kerning, but graphic design is important. A lot of activists are hold-overs from the 70s (baby boomers trying to understand what’s happening online). We have to understand that memes should not look like professionally designed (and paid-for) posters, because that makes them less trustworthy. Making ‘nice’ stuff does not work anymore. Professional designers: demodernize and decolonize!

2. Trolling is a ladylike pursuit. The idea many people hold of the troll is a neck-beard guy trolling for the lulz in his mom’s basement. But when ideology comes into play (political trolling), the alternatively gendered and women become way more active. Pro-Duterte trolling in the Philippines is dominated by female and non-conforming voices. This success is because the purple-color workforce controls pop culture language and is used to role-switching (in terms of gender, etc.).

3. Outside of the echo chamber, check yourself (you are not immune to neurolinguistics programming). No-one is immune to dogpiling, especially when it’s a durational process. Never assume that you’re above the narcotic effects of being outside of your echo chamber. Still, also from a position of privilege, we have to engage. Let the energy course through you. Use the troll as platform. There has to be that counter-voice, which protects those who feel depressed and alone in a toxic environment. This is where the organic discourse is made.

4. Meatspace is just as important as cyberspace for the troll farmer. Don’t stick to fingertip activism but go to conventions and meet-ups. You have to be present physically as well. We can troll together, run organic troll farms. Trolls are not feeding on the opposition, but on their own community. They will grow. So, we should also get communities involved. Families that troll together will survive together.

5. You are what you eat, a.k.a. trolling is an embodied, physical experience. Trolling is exhausting and stressful, and it can be harmful. Consciousness about food and drink consumption influences the troll experience. Learn when to stop. Learn how to exit the vortex. Confuse yourself.


Isabel Löfgren

Isabel Löfgren, a Swedish-Brazilian artist and educator currently based in Stockholm, took up the theme of memefascism vs. autonomous zones of resistance in Brazil. The fact that memes are a serious means is very clear by the fact that Jair Bolsonaro has been elected president thanks mostly to ‘bolsominions’: an army of trolls campaigning for Bolsonaro through WhatsApp. Because of this politicization of WhatsApp, everyone started creating an enormous overflow of public political expressions. Jair Bolsonaro has even claimed to be, next to president, the official controller of memes.

This situation also shows us something about the so-called post-truth condition. Studies show that half of the troll messages during the election campaign came from WhatsApp family groups. This signals that, first, it’s not about truth but about trust, and, second, that the crisis of authority in relation to truth effectively splits families and social structures as we know them.

A family that is certainly not split is the Bolsonaro family. Father Jair and his three sons are in power together, all four of them fulfilling elected positions. One son, Carlos, is fully occupied with the control of all social media accounts connected to the presidency. In the presidential palace, there is even an official social media farm. The most successful bloggers and vloggers from the campaign are hired to work here for Bolsonaro’s official PR bureau. Together, they effectively create a bombardment of disinformation.

However, Bolsonaro’s disinformation and repression of minority voices is not unbreakable. When, during carnival, black, poor, and gay voices let themselves be heard on the streets, Bolsonaro started tweeting about golden showers, subsequently asking: What is a golden shower? He was met with cunning and humor, when Twitter and Facebook accounts named Golden Shower started asking: What is Jair Bolsonaro?

In fact, this type of humorous grass-roots mobilization is a consistent trend in Brazil. Already during the election campaign, women, black people, and other minorities repressed by Bolsonaro came together in the Not Him-campaign (#elenão), which was huge and powerful.

#elenão was followed by a storm of other resistant trends and movements on social media, including #MarielleFranco, #éalei, @coleraalegeria, @PretaLab, and @Designativista.

Bringing the point back to memes as means, it is clear that the far-right kidnaps forms and thereby subverts democracy, but that counter-meming can be a powerful means of the Left, too. The questions that rise for the audience of Urgent Publishing include: How to level out this battlefield of meme-wars? What is the role of poetic justice in memes? How can art collapse meaning and contribute to meming?


Silvia dal Dosso and Noel David Nicolaus

A last contribution to the panel was made by Silvia dal Dosso and Noel David Nicolaus, as representatives of Clusterduck, a hypergeeky online environment for the study, production, and exploration of memes.

Memes cannot be reduced to a consistent explanation, as mainstream media often try to do. For example, the narrative of the American election running from alt-right fascist sentiments living on social media, to Trump endorsing these memes, to Hillary falling into the troll trap, to Russian bots intervening in the campaign is as nicely linear as it is wildly inaccurate. Have we completely forgotten that there were also Berniepepes? To really understand memes, we have to go deeper into the actual images and see how they’re currently used as means.

There are a ton of major stories in meme history that remain almost completely unknown to the wider public. We know the Great Meme War, Gamergate, 4chan, and maybe LeftBook, but hardly anyone knows about phenomena like Gondola or Griffy. (For more information, check Jules Durand’s Meme Manifesto, which will be published by Clusterduck.)

The history of memes is a history of exodus, in which meme communities migrate from one medium to another. The most recent major example would be memelords changing to Instagram after Tumblr changed its terms of use. (Side note: why don’t we migrate from FB?)

Even though there seems to be some agency in this mobility of communities, it is a complicated issue. At present, there is an on-going effort to make a memers’ union, to start protecting the authorial rights of meme-makers from expropriators like fuckjerry. The initiative went viral and was picked up on by the media. And it’s not just a prank: there is an actual, functional website, where anyone can join the union. However, despite media coverage, the union itself has not been very successful in terms of members. And even when large numbers of users change their behavior, such as during #thezuccening, this might still have very little impact on the megascale of social media today.



The plenary discussion after the individual contributions came down to one lesson, which is as powerful as it is simple: democracy is not a given. Fascism is a reality, which has to be faced. It is time for the Left to stop being disdainful to the means of memes, disdainful to co-opting, and disdainful to organization, because this why the Right is winning right now. The Right organizes, has money (which comes with being in power), doesn’t claim a moral high-ground, and is willing to accept pluralism. We should not give in to the instantism we’re being pushed into by dominant modes of knowledge-producers, but start taking back initiative, and: start to troll.