Digital Reviewer

#EmptyShelf 2016 #41: Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman (MIT Press, 2014)

memes-digital-culture-shifmanAs I continue to move my PhD towards publication at a very glacial pace, my reading is focusing around the notion that Keep Calm and Carry On would not have become such a phenomenon without the ‘digital revolution’ – so I’m looking at memes, sharing, what makes things viral, etc. First up, Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture.

This is a really small and readable book, but packs a really strong punch in the material that it deals with, including a finish in recommendations for research directions that could be taken to move such research forwards.

For someone who has been deeply embedded in digital culture since 1997 (particularly deeply since 2009), many of the examples that are given – including Gangnam Style, The ‘Pepper-Spraying Cop’, planking, Grumpy Cat, Occupy Wall Street, are incredibly familiar, but with a lot of theoretical and contextual background indicating how these may have ‘caught’ the public attention.

The importance of intertextuality is highlighted, with most memes blending pop culture, politics and mass participation in interesting ways – thus requiring familiarity with a large number of things to be effective/catch mass attention. As with Second World War propaganda – 1930s theorists had already indicated that they would only be successful if they ‘canalise a pre-existing stream’, Shifman indicates “only memes suited to their sociocultural environment spread successfully’.

As with much conversation related to technology, users have often been constructed as helpless in the face of technological (viruses) – something which Henry Jenkins et al have challenged. Rosaria Conte suggests that people should not be ‘treated as vectors of cultural transmissions, but as actors in the process’, intentionally making decisions subject to social norms, perceptions and preferences.

In a digital era in which it is easy to copy ‘as is’, it is questioned why people bother to adapt and change designs. A key quote: “In an era marked by ‘networked individualism,’ people use memes to simultaneously express both their uniqueness and their connectivity,” as they actively ‘construct themselves’ online. There’s a huge amount of useful information in this short text, but I’ll leave you with another quote re the difference between a meme and a viral: “Whereas the viral comprises a single cultural unit (such as video, photo, or joke) that propagates in many copies, an Internet meme is always a collection of texts.”