Memes shape new type of internet culture

By YUAN XUE / 03-21-2019 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The top discipline watchdog of the CPC published 16 emojis themed on the eight-point austerity rules, quickly becoming a hit on the internet. These emojis each promote a specific idea, for example, opposing formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance, opposing privileges, or reducing the number of meetings. Photo: FILE


With the support of visual and communication technologies, content production in the Web 2.0 era has given way to a variety of creative sharing. New social media such as live streaming platforms and short video sharing platforms have a common feature—they form a participatory culture. In the context of the integration of mainstream media products and user-generated content (UGC), a participatory culture promotes a new dialogue among media audiences, cultural industry consumers and mass culture participants. In this light, we have witnessed a unique form of media content distribution—the internet meme.


Richard Dawkins, an English evolutionary biologist, coined the word “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena.

The word meme is a portmanteau of gene and mimesis, describing the replication, imitation and dissemination of cultural content. As a basic unit of culture that is transmitted through imitation, memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution, like a mass of infectious flu and cold viruses.

With the virtual connections of social networks, Dawkins’ meme and the internet meme have gradually become synonymous. The word is widely used in various ideas or phenomena presented in text, language, picture, video or other cultural forms on the internet. Examples of memes can be a musical melody, a catchy phrase, or trending news and behavioral patterns. When a specific cultural text, such as a picture or an audio-visual product, becomes a meme, it will spontaneously spread online in various forms.

For example, the picture of Wang Sicong wolfing down a hotdog became a meme, spurring an enthusiastic creation of cartoon images, car stickers, funny eye-test charts, T-shirts and iPhone cases with the viral photo. It all started when the 30-year-old son of mega-rich property tycoon Wang Jianlin was caught on camera stuffing his mouth with a hotdog at the League of Legends World Championship in South Korea. 

The reason that memes have become an internet fad could be attributed to how the prolific nature of memes is highly compatible with the formation of internet culture, where information is transferred between people by imitation and leaching, subject to variation and selection. Whenever something is copied, multiple copies are made with variations, and only some of the variants survive to be copied again. The key of this iterative process is the replication of that information. Internet users often copy specific memes and modify pictures with the technology-based synthesis, this process being the most valuable aspect of participatory culture.


Meaning mechanism
Technological empowerment and mass innovation have changed the way people record, process and share the real world. New motion technologies make it convenient to record live video. The new digital media enables people to share content through social media, which greatly increases the possibility of interpersonal communication. The popularization of photo modification apps has also changed the participation of mass culture and broken down the time and space barriers for de-textualized photo communication. All these together lay the groundwork for the popularity of memes.

Memes first gained popularity in subcultural circles. In recent years, they started to move into the mainstream culture as typical representatives of digital culture or participatory culture. The main participants in memes are the younger generation, who are immersed in an audio-visual environment and who also create the most vibrant cultural landscape at present.
The Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2017 is “youthquake.” It is defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” It can even be said that the young generation, with innate audio-visual experience, has reconfigured all kinds of discourses including news in the digital age with unique creativity via means such as memes.

Needless to say, the internet is an important field for people to participate in pop culture, because it makes it easier for people to participate in reproducing, redistributing and sharing information. At the same time, the internet, as a tool, helps to visualize the collective memory, so that internet users can conveniently reconstruct, disseminate and discuss the texts produced by the mainstream media and cultural industries.

The biggest charm of the internet meme lies in its intertextuality. Users are able to accomplish identity construction and shape public discourse through cooperation. From this perspective, the internet meme is the essence of pop culture. People make and share memes not only for fun, but also for communication and discussion. Internet memes have become an important form of online discourse and a popular discussion tool for social, cultural and political issues.


Different types of memes
There are various forms of memes. In the digital era, photo and video memes are the most common. Photo memes are generally composed of photo with text scripts. In this type of meme, the background image is fixed, but text scripts are constantly changing, featuring bold titles, standardized fonts, flexible themes, and a wild imagination.

Though the aesthetics of each work is different, users often make their own contributions to the theme by retaining and changing some elements of the meme. It is this cooperative nature that elevates memes to the level of participatory discourse.

Photo memes can be further divided into two major themes, namely entertainment and politics. The former usually tries to make a big laugh, sometimes to express disagreement and cultural anxiety. In such creations, internet users often take images from popular culture or news, modify them, and add visual commentary to give them a new meaning.

In addition, photo memes often adopt the strategy of reconstructing scences from TV programs by juxtaposing stills and adding words to them, which is generally used to express different views to show dramatic confrontation.

Some political memes are constructed in a relaxed way, while others are extremely serious. Whatever the sentiment, it is intended to carry out a normative discussion, to influence public opinion and political participation by compressing complex ideas into a visual package, and to emphasize the cultural politics conveyed in it.

For example, in December 2017, the top discipline watchdog of the CPC published 16 emojis themed on the eight-point austerity rules, with each emoji promoting a specific idea, such as opposing formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance, opposing privileges, or reducing the number of meetings. They can be downloaded free of charge on China’s most popular messaging tool WeChat. Soon after the collection went online, they were reposted by many mainstream news portals and read by millions of readers. The government set a good example in making use of popular online tools to convey serious subjects to citizens.

In recent years, UGC has grown out of its initial text and photo formats, making video memes a trend. Take Douyin, a top Chinese short video app, as an example. With powerful editing capabilities, it enables users to add music and effects to their videos in order to make them more interesting and creative. The themes of these video clips cover dance, games, comedies and daily life. What makes them unique is their grassroots imitation and replication—similar performances by different users accompanied by the same music can become a set of videos, which conforms to the characteristics of the internet meme.

Video memes have a set participation structure: the same music and actions, similar scenes and plots. A viral video could engage a large number of users by encouraging the processes of imitation, copying, mimicking, remixing or repackaging. This intuitive and vivid symbolic system has become the main expression of short video users, and the user experience and media practice thus have been comprehensively upgraded. The streaming media technology enables the video meme to rapidly iterate and spread, creating a synchronized viewing experience.

As an important form of internet culture, memes are a set of iterative texts rather than a single or dispersed cultural unit. They share common features in content, form and stance, providing internet users with an alternative way of expression. In this era marked by media convergence, network communication and user participation, memes are an important part of advocating, accepting and competing for power relations through concepts, values, symbols and daily practices.

However, for a meme originating from a subculture, its uniqueness is hard to understand for offline audiences who are not familiar with that culture. Therefore, creating, interpreting, understanding and enjoying internet memes is a new media literacy, which requires new skills, strategies and social practices.


Yuan Xue is from the School of Journalism at Renmin University of China.

edited by YANG XUE