Mitlner insists memes can be a ‘tool for speaking truth to power’ (Miltner, 2018, ch.22), suggesting their ability to surpass their comic purpose and function as something more than just a circulated image. To understand the nature of a meme, first acknowledging the origin of the word is significant. The first usage of the term originated from author and biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). He emphasises human culture immersing in the transmission of information and being a unit of replication. He abbreviates the Ancient Greek word ‘mimeme’ (to imitate/imitated thing), to ‘meme’ and provides examples being ‘tunes, ideas, catchphrases’ (Dawkins, 1976). Therefore, if the term is coined as a response to cultural transmission of information, the aim of a meme can be considered to replicate this information and according to Aunger, this is what ‘most social learning involves’ (Aunger, 2006, p.89). Memes depict information such as ‘an idea, a skill, a behaviour, a phrase, or a particular fashion’ (Rogers, 2019). Being a media-orientated phenomenon, this is essentially communicated through usages of captioned images shared through the internet, but other forms of memes can also include videos and texts.
One of the most popular forms of memes are images with captions (Longhurst et al, 2017). Captions are a form of anchorage, a term Barthes (1964) uses to describe the text alongside a photograph (Fiske, 1990). He asserts the words function to guide the user to a prescribed meaning and sociologist Stuart Hall calls this a ‘preferred reading’ of the image (Hall, cited in ibid:111). For various image memes the picture holds no or limited logic without its accompanying caption. Florence asserts: ‘as ‘prosumers’ we no longer settle for consuming content. We want to produce it too’ (Florence, 2016 cited in Castro, 2018), underlining the ability for the common peoples’ right and practice to publish content online. Therefore, through memes, users possess the freedom to create their own. This imbues a series of shared and recreated images with different anchored captions, giving one image various meanings. A meme can thus become a universal symbol to depict certain concepts, such as an emotion, a shared experience or human behaviour.
To simplify it practically, an example is the ‘Pepe’ meme, the viral green frog drawn by Matt Furie for his internet comic: Boy’s Club (2006). What intentionally pioneered as a harmless and humorous character eventually developed as a cultural symbol of hate.
The meme initially became popular on internet forum boards such as 4chan, with users editing Pepe with human emotions, including onto pop culture symbols such as cartoons, captioning it with whatever suited the user then sharing it online. Political reporter Olivia Nuzzi insists it was a meme open to interpretation and ‘meant whatever you wanted him to mean’ (Nuzzi, 2016). This is an example of texts immeasurably anchoring pictures of the same popular icon– which in Pierce’s framework of how signs convey meaning, is something that resembles an object rather than being the object itself (Fiske, 1990, p.50). Similarly, a symbol has ‘no…resemblance between the sign and the object’ (ibid), hence Pepe as a meme developed into a symbol of ‘relatable’ human behaviour and emotions. What Pepe stood for had been agreed upon by conventions of internet culture. Hence, Furie’s comic character became an emblem for online communities to produce, consume and immerse themselves in. This is essentially how memes become viral and how trends in social culture and subcultures are formed, through its replication and ‘imitation’ between various members of a community, suitably fitting Hawkins’s original definition.
However, through time and more notably, global events, Pepe has descended to become a mascot for ‘internet neo-Nazis’ (Weill, 2018). In 2015, Donald Trump tweeted a Pepe version of himself captioned ‘you can’t stump the Trump’ which was re-tweeted over seven-thousand times. The meme is an example of what Barthes calls relay, wherein both ‘text and image stand in a complementary relationship’ (Barthes, 1977, p.41 cited in Manghani, 2013, p.80). The icon of Pepe presented as Trump, communicates his ostensible involvement in mainstream internet culture and thus his ability to flexibly appeal to such audiences; an attempt to increase his campaign popularity. The relayed caption exemplifies this further through the use of humour in the rhyme, simultaneously depicting an implicit arrogance about his position as (then) running presidential candidate. ‘Barthes acknowledged that both anchorage and relay can be active within the same icon’ (Resina, 2003, p.16) thus the caption also anchors the image to this interpretation of Trump’s confidence in his victory, as well as relays it.
The tweet hence provides a meme that unifies Trump supporters, but it can be argued such a meme subsequently inaugurated an ‘extreme’ online social community. Following the tweet, various users online began to depict Pepe through politically radical representations such as swastikas and the KKK (BBC, 2017). Furthermore, after Trump’s 2016 victory, some became involved in a ‘right-wing movement’ and the most common imagery on posts and forums pertaining to this, was Pepe (Nagle, 2017). Writing for the Time magazine, Pepe creator Furie claimed the meme had become a ‘sinister nod to some fringe, racist groups that used Pepe as a mascot for their agenda’, and thus become a ‘symbol of hate’ (Furie, 2016).
Another notable example is the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting, where a man opened fire killing 9 people. A day before the shooting, a 4chan user warned audiences of the upcoming event in a post, commanding people from the Northwest not to ‘go to school tomorrow’, alongside a Pepe meme holding a gun (Griffin, 2015). This suggests that the ability to employ a viral meme and anchor it alongside such a caption gives rise to dangerous misuse of user-generated content.
This goes back to Florence’s coined term ‘prosumer’ culture, wherein users’ possess freedom to invent their own memes through different levels of anchorage, spreading ideas and opinions and potentially dangerously, radical political ideas. As a consequence, it provides a certain free speech that has the power to thwart censorship and Pepe is a prime example of how memes can ‘become a central practice for political contention’ (Mina, 2019, p.153). This is the outcome of what Pepe the meme has become through time, epitomising the impact of misappropriation. Therefore, memes and users’ ability to customise and alter captions suggest how subcultures can emerge to produce and reproduce such icons, spreading and promoting certain ideas. This is essentially how Dawkins fundamentally described the meme as the imitation of information, reflecting how they inhabit a cultural cycle that shape and define societal values.
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