Meme Historians Are an Inevitability

Memes now have as much power, influence, and reach as the propaganda posters of yesteryear. Of course they're going to be academically studied.

by Justin Caffier
May 19 2017, 9:00pm

Earlier this month, cartoonist Matt Furie killed off his most noteworthy character, Pepe the Frog. Over the past few years, the crudely drawn amphibian has transformed from benign underground comic character to everyman slacker meme to political movement mascot to officially-recognized-by-the-ADL hate symbol being discussed on the evening news.

As Pepe graduated from an esoteric joke to a virtue signal being shared by political figureheads and foreign states, so too did our need to earnestly catalog and contextualize memes as the cultural and political artifacts they truly are. With entire organizations and academic fields already dedicated to the study of political and propaganda posters—the memes of the pre-digital age—it stands to reason that internet memes, already playing a role in shaping history, will eventually be examined with similar gravitas.

Once merely a punchline in Northwestern University's satirical campus paper, the concept of the meme studies major is fast approaching reality. The University of California, Santa Cruz announced it would be offering a class called Linguistics 135: Memes: When Language and Culture Go Viral as part of its 2016 winter quarter roster, while individual graduate and PhD students have been focusing on the topic for nearly a decade. Furthermore, their research projects on the subject of memes are beginning to peek through the shroud of academia as more easily digestible content for the layman.

Meme researcher Ryan M. Milner's book, The World Made Meme, was published by the MIT's university press last September and touches on the importance of cataloging this new breed of digital shibboleth.

"As internet memes grow in popularity, prominence, and consequence, they become a more serious endeavor," says Milner. "And from a cultural lineage standpoint, this stuff is more and more wrapped up in popular culture, people's everyday lives, and how we communicate with one another, so having the resources and ability for someone to know where something comes from will be essential going forward."

But to learn "where something comes from" isn't as cut and dry an endeavor as it used to be. Milner feels genuine objectivity will be easier said than done when it comes to chronicling memes for posterity. With so many important or noteworthy memes firmly rooted in antagonistic political, social, and moral posturing, future catalogers may over-compensate in their attempts to divest themselves of all bias when collecting and curating, "ignoring the truth for the sake of being painfully neutral."

KnowYourMeme and Encyclopædia Dramatica's entries on feminism

One solution to this problem would be for meme historians to "overload with context," according to Milner, who praised meme explanation sites, KnowYourMeme and Encyclopædia Dramatica for their part in satisfying that need. While on the surface, the two sites may appear redundant as they both essentially explain memes, the more clinical (and advertiser-friendly) database at KnowYourMeme complements the intentionally abstruse and problematic slang-filled Dramatica pages, just as studying Latin benefits from exposing one's self to both the formal structure of classical and the common parlance of vulgar.

While Milner hopes that, as the sites grow, they'll implement a standardization of the criteria needed for adding and amending meme entries, he acknowledges that, even in their current less-polished form, they're "effective" tools for historicizing.

To a degree, KnowYourMeme has become something of a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the propaganda shaping the modern world. Brad Kim, the site's editor-in-chief, shares Milner's deference toward the power of memes. Having been with the site for nearly a decade, watching it grow from a silly web series to an academic resource, Kim feels that the site's obligations have shifted as more political and corporate entities begin to experiment within the culture.

"Before the 2008 [US presidential] election, the use of memes as propaganda was limited to the context of the election," says Kim, noting that prior viral gaffes like the infamous Howard Dean scream had to originate from a participating entity from within a race, whereas by the 2016 election, preexisting memes like Pepe affected the race by non-participants inserting them into the landscape.

Kim notes that some of these political memes fomented by non-participants do tread into territory "similar to folklore or urban legends, albeit the sort where everyone sharing them is fully aware that the story is untrue." He points to the 2016 election meme that posits Senator Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer. Despite this claim being demonstrably false, the meming community pushed the idea so doggedly across a variety of platforms that mainstream-media outlets were eventually forced to address the issue. In this case, Kim feels that meme historians would be instrumental in not only contextualizing this insane theory but also in assuring future generations that everyone was in on the joke, helping to "make sense of the mythification of things that should be regarded with sobriety."

But how will the historians of tomorrow be able to objectively catalog and curate the numerous dog-whistle memes that have sprung up in recent years, while many of their present day users publicly deny any subtext?

For example, the phrase "Deus Vult" originated as a fun-to-say Crusades-era battle cry pulled from the 2012 PC game Crusader Kings II. While there are plenty of innocents playing with this meme, a contingent of its users today have loaded it with anti-Islamic sentiments and wishful aspirations of another attempt at reclaiming the Holy Land. Kim, like Milner, feels a clinical deluge of context is the best approach for these memes and trusts the readers of a meme's history to "discuss the propriety and worth of perversions like these in the comment sections."

Having said that, Kim notes that KnowYourMeme is still weighing out whether or not editorializing entries would "serve as a public service" in the internet's current omniskeptical climate. Overall, he feels that fretting about each hateful perversion of a formerly pure meme would be pointless as "once a character or idea gets popular enough, It's bound to be misappropriated in that direction. It's just the nature of the internet."

Former KnowYourMeme employee Amanda Brennan spends her days dissecting, studying, and classifying memes for Tumblr. Though her official title is Senior Content Insights Manager, she's more commonly known as a meme librarian. Mastering in library sciences, but wanting to work more with new media information than in a traditional library setting, Brennan turned her love of internet culture into a career exploring the stratification and evolution of meme culture.

"Over the years, taxonomy has taken a backseat and people now speak about memes in broader terms than they did just a few years ago," says Brennan. "It's like 'that's the meme of the girl eating popcorn' instead of thinking of it as 'the meme of the popcorn eating reaction gif.'"

Brennan, who herself regards a meme as "a unit of culture defined by the people using it that gets mutated along the way" thinks this shift away from specificity is a symptom of memes becoming so integral to world culture that the technical framework around them is abandoned.

Beyond offering a deep dive into context and categorization for individual memes, Brennan and future meme historians will also provide analysis of how the changes in overarching format and tone reflect the general mood of a particular era and location's populace. Brennan notes that where the Advice Animal image macro age explored stereotypes and the rage comic age explored feelings, the rise of the "wholesome meme" today could be regarded as a sort of "culture-wide therapy" or "coping mechanism" to deal with the grim realities of the present.

Brennan recognizes the limitations of her position, lamenting that she isn't able to write in depth about the background and ecology of the modern memescape, and imagines that a meme historian would fill in the gaps by focusing more on the contextual analysis and writing aspects of the discipline with the two vocations acting as "complementary pieces of the same puzzle."

As memes continue to evolve and proliferate over time, attracting fans in everyone from housewives to jihadists, Brennan and the historians to come will be there to help make sense of them. And she's optimistic that, despite the pockets of hateful memes that pop up here and there, this emerging field won't ever become too much of a drag to study.

"There's already so much stress in the world," says Brennan. "Most people are just here to post weird pictures of cats."

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