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Internet Memes As A New Visual Language

Dissertation Draft
By Ana Novakovic Tutor: Wendy Maekin

Abstract The Internet meme is an idea that spreads through World Wide Web in a range of media such as images (LOLcats, Advice Animals), videos (keyboard cat, Rebecca Black), single words (spelling more as moar on purpose), etc. The messages they spread may differ drastically one from another (from humour to stereotypes), but what they all have in common is the way they connect people almost if they are sharing an inside joke, the way they are generated and adopted by internet subcultures. Although being an on-going social phenomenon, they havent been analysed as much as they deserve. Their significance in popular culture and the impact they have on ways people communicate online are undeniable, but questions like what turned them into one of the most approachable way of social commentary and what makes them such an effective visual language still remain unanswered. Now that they are spreading not only over the internet, but also to media such as newspapers and billboards, I believe its the right time to dig deeper into their meaning. This dissertation will try to answer these and similar questions and hopefully serve as a reference for further research on this topic. But since the world of Internet memes is too broad to cover, I will focus on the specific group called Advice Animals. This group is just narrow enough to make it possible to analyse it properly, but it still covers a very wide range of ideas and messages which makes it a legitimate sample of Internet memes.


The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene and it means "an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture". I plan to look into this as a starting point, how memes work as a part of evolutionary theory, undertaking research on the scientific part of the issue. Understanding its origins will give me a better insight into its current status and it will enable me to draw parallels on how they spread in different aspects of culture. I believe a psychological aspect should also be considered, and may help understand the development of internet memes, why imitating some is more effective than others and how come despite following all the rules of a successful Internet meme, creating a new one that will stick around can rarely be done on purpose. Furthermore, I will investigate how visual languages develop and how they grow from a specific to universal mean of communication. The question I want to answer is: Will the memes still be a way of communication in 10 (20/50/100) years? I will do this by looking into evolution of visual languages in general and analysing why they maintained to exist. The term meme was modelled on gene is a shortening of mimeme ( Ancient Greek, something imitated) and it was coined by Richard Dawkins as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles that would explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples in the book included fashion, catch-phrases, melodies, etc. Memes act as units for transmitting cultural ideas, symbols and practices from one mind to another through writing, rituals, gestures, and

other imitable phenomena (1976). They represent the basic building blocks of culture, languages, societies and religion (on the macro scale) in the same way gene is the fundamental building block of biological life. On the micro scale they are building blocks of each human mind. They parasitize people into propagating them similarly to the way viruses do (Thomas, 1995). Every time we wear some in fashion we help the idea of that fashion enter other peoples minds. Every time we hum Beethovens 5th symphony, or the Happy Birthday song, these ideas are successfully replicating. These memes are not only spreading through millions of minds, they also managed to leave copies of themselves on paper, in books, on audiotape, and computer hard-drive (Silby 2000). What makes memes so different to genes is the fact that they are abstract, intangible and immeasurable. Genes have grounding in physical substance they replicate with near-perfect fidelity, and evolution depends on that, but memes are seldom copied exactly. Their boundaries are always fuzzy and they mutate with a wild flexibility that would be fatal in biology (Gleick, 2011).


Books George Silverman, 2001. The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing: How to Trigger Exponential Sales Through Runaway Word of Mouth. 1 Edition. AMACOM. Richard Dawkins, 2006. The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author. 30th Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press, USA Susan Blackmore, 1999. The Meme Machine. First Edition Edition. Oxford University Press, USA. Essays Patrick Devison, 2012. The Language of Internet Memes. In: M. Mandiberg The Social Media Reader. New York: New York University Press. p120-134. Online articles Evolution of Technology by Brent Silby. 2012. Evolution of Technology by Brent Silby. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.def-logic.com/articles/evolution_of_technology.html. [Accessed 4 May 2012]. Vibrant Living Newsletter - Article: Memes or Values?. 2012. Vibrant Living Newsletter - Article: Memes or Values?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://vibrantliving.subtleenergysolutions.com/newsletter-memes-values.html [Accessed 6 May 2012]. What Defines a Meme? | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian Magazine. 2012. What Defines a Meme? | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian Magazine. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/What-Defines-a-Meme.html?c=y&page=4. [Accessed 4 May 2012]. What is a Meme by Brent Silby. 2012. What is a Meme by Brent Silby. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.def-logic.com/articles/what_is_a_meme.html. [Accessed 4 May 2012]. Websites Know Your Meme. 2008. Know Your Meme - Advice Animals. [ONLINE] Available at: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/advice-animals. [Accessed 01 May 12]. Sociodestruction. 1995. Memes and Mind Viruses by Brett Thomas. [ONLINE] Available at:http://asocial.narod.ru/en/articles/memes.htm. [Accessed 04 May 12].

Supporting Images

Advice Dog

Socially Awkward Penguin

Not Sure If.. Meme