At the start of the third decade of the 21st century, while internet Memes certainly can’t be considered a cultural novelty anymore, their definition remains as elusive and difficult as ever.
According to Limor Shifman, the three main attributes of memes are their gradual propagation from individuals to society, their reproduction via copying and imitation, and their diffusion through competition and selection. Many other aspects, such as their contextual and historical nature (the true meaning of a meme becoming clear only when viewed in its original context, and when considering its origins and evolution over time) or their ironic, quasi dada ethos, are often proposed as discriminating factors when trying to differentiate memes from other digital imagery.
One salient feature, however, seems to enjoy almost universal consent when trying to char- acterize memes: ‘The value of a meme arises not from the work of one author but from that of many’ according to copyright law experts May Cheng and Maryna Polataiko. Memes don’t care about copyright; memes don’t care about authorshipFrom a copyright lawyer’s perspective, the answer clear: ‘To this day, copyright law is heavily influenced by individu- alistic conceptions of authorship. Yet unlike a literary work penned by the “author-genius”, memes are collective creations comprising diffuse and oft-anonymous involvement’.
If only it were this simple.
As Clusterduck, we’re currently working on a project called Meme Manifesto. During our research, we bumped into a cluster of images that shattered our preconceptions about memes. They looked like memes. They felt like memes. However, they presented with some important differences: while often quoting or referencing popular memetic formats, they didn’t rely on them. They weren’t playing according to the usual rules. Sure, the basic mechanics were the same: images and texts of all sorts, juxtaposed through remixing and collage. However, the thought and care given to these creations was unusual. The visuals were polished, the fonts refined. The roughness and ‘ugly’ aesthetics of these works was clearly the result of careful work, inspired by undeniable visual savviness. In more than one case, the quoting of artistic currents or famous artworks was explicit, though of course masked under the usual layers of memetic irony. Most importantly: not only could these images easily be traced back to their original author, individual authorship seemed to be one of their main hallmarks.
While trying to identify these artefacts, we couldn’t help but ask ourselves: were these meme d’auteur? Did we need to revise some of the most common assumptions about the nature of memes?
We don’t want to give a final answer to this question here. Instead, we are going to share some of our reflections and present the three lines of investigation we have been following so far. The first is related to platform architecture, platform politics and how these both relate to deplatforming and community diasporas. The second is related to the conflicts surrounding identity politics, and to the online culture wars that arise from them. And finally, the third path is searching for hints in contemporary revisions of the concept of social class.
This article continues in INC Reader #15: Critical Meme Reader: Global Mutations of the Viral Image. Download or order it for free here: https://networkcultures.org/blog/publication/critical-meme-reader-global-mutations-of-the-viral-image/