Tag: memes

Where memes come from

In my TEDx talk six years ago, I explained how the understanding and remixing of memes was a great way to develop digital literacies. At that time, they were beginning to be used in advertisements. Now, as we saw with Brexit and the most recent US Presidential election, they’ve become weaponised.

This article in the MIT Technology Review references one of my favourite websites, knowyourmeme.com, which tracks the origin and influence of various memes across the web. Researchers have taken 700,000 images from this site and used an algorithm to track their spread and development. In addition, they gathered 100 million images from other sources.

Spotting visually similar images is relatively straightforward with a technique known as perceptual hashing, or pHashing. This uses an algorithm to convert an image into a set of vectors that describe it in numbers. Visually similar images have similar sets of vectors or pHashes.

The team let their algorithm loose on a database of over 100 million images gathered from communities known to generate memes, such as Reddit and its subgroup The_Donald, Twitter, 4chan’s politically incorrect forum known as /pol/, and a relatively new social network called Gab that was set up to accommodate users who had been banned from other communities.

Whereas some things ‘go viral’ by accident and catch the original author(s) off-guard, some communities are very good at making memes that spread quickly.

Two relatively small communities stand out as being particularly effective at spreading memes. “We find that /pol/ substantially influences the meme ecosystem by posting a large number of memes, while The Donald is the most efficient community in pushing memes to both fringe and mainstream Web communities,” say Stringhini and co.

They also point out that “/pol/ and Gab share hateful and racist memes at a higher rate than mainstream communities,” including large numbers of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi memes.

Seemingly neutral memes can also be “weaponized” by mixing them with other messages. For example, the “Pepe the Frog” meme has been used in this way to create politically active, racist, and anti-Semitic messages.

It turns out that, just like in evolutionary biology, creating a large number of variants is likely to lead to an optimal solution for a given environment.

The researchers, who have made their technique available to others to promote further analysis, are even able to throw light on the question of why some memes spread widely while others quickly die away. “One of the key components to ensuring they are disseminated is ensuring that new ‘offspring’ are continuously produced,” they say.

That immediately suggests a strategy for anybody wanting to become more influential: set up a meme factory that produces large numbers of variants of other memes. Every now and again, this process is bound to produce a hit.

For any evolutionary biologist, that may sound familiar. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a process that treats pHashes like genomes and allows them to evolve through mutation, reproduction, and selection.

As the article states, right now it’s humans creating these memes. However, it won’t be long until we have machines doing this automatically. After all, it’s been five years since the controversy about the algorithmically-created “Keep Calm and…” t-shirts for sale on Amazon.

It’s an interesting space to watch, particularly for those interested in digital literacies (and democracy).

Source: MIT Technology Review

On the cultural value of memes

I’ve always been a big fan of memes. In fact, I discuss them in my thesis, ebook, and TEDx talk. This long-ish article from Jay Owens digs into their relationship with fake news and what he calls ‘post-authenticity’. What I’m really interested in, though, comes towards the end. He gets into the power of memes and why they’re the perfect form of online cultural expression.

So through humour, exaggeration, and irony — a truth emerges about how people are actually feeling. A truth that they may not have felt able to express straightforwardly. And there’s just as much, and potentially more, community present in these groups as in many of the more traditional civic-oriented groups Zuckerberg’s strategy may have had in mind.

The thing that can be missing from text-based interactions is empathy. The right kind of meme, however, speaks using images, words, but also to something else that a group have in common.

Meme formats — from this week’s American Chopper dialectic model to now classics like the “Exploding Brain,” “Distracted Boyfriend,” and “Tag Yourself” templates — are by their very nature iterative and quotable. That is how the meme functions, through reference to the original context and memes that have come before, coupled with creative remixing to speak to a particular audience, topic, or moment. Each new instance of a meme is thereby automatically familiar and recognisable. The format carries a meta-message to the audience: “This is familiar, not weird.” And the audience is prepared to know how to react: you like, you respond with laughter-referencing emoji, you tag your friends in the comments.

Let’s take this example, that Owens cites in the article. I sent it to my wife via Telegram, which an instant messaging app that we use as a permanent backchannel).

90s kids

Her response, inevitably was: 😂

It’s funny because it’s true. But it also quickly communicates solidarity and empathy.

The format acts as a kind of Trojan horse, then, for sharing difficult feelings — because the format primes the audience to respond hospitably. There isn’t that moment of feeling stuck over how to respond to a friend’s emotional disclosure, because she hasn’t made the big statement directly, but instead through irony and cultural quotation — distancing herself from the topic through memes, typically by using stock photography (as Leigh Alexander notes) rather than anything as gauche as a picture of oneself. This enables you the viewer to sidestep the full intensity of it in your response, should you choose, but still, crucially, to respond). And also to DM your friend and ask, “Hey, are you alright?” and cut to the realtalk should you so choose to.

So, effectively, you can be communicating different things to different people. If, instead of sending the 90s kids image above directly to my wife via Telegram, I’d shared it to my Twitter followers, it may have elicited a different response. Some people would have liked and retweeted it, for sure, but someone who knows me well might ask if I’m OK. After all, there’s a subtext in there of feeling like you’re “stuck”.

Owens goes on to talk about how that memetic culture means that we’re living in a ‘post authentic’ world. But did such authenticity ever really exist?

So perhaps to say that this post-authentic moment is one of evolving, increasingly nuanced collective communication norms, able to operate with multi-layered recursive meanings and ironies in disposable pop culture content… is kind of cold comfort.

Nonetheless, author Robin Sloan described the genius of the “American Chopper” meme as being that “THIS IS THE ONLY MEME FORMAT THAT ACKNOWLEDGES THE EXISTENCE OF COMPETING INFORMATION, AND AS SUCH IT IS THE ONLY FORMAT SUITED TO THE COMPLEXITY OF OUR WORLD!”

Amen to that.

Source: Jay Owens

Everything is potentially a meme

Despite — or perhaps because of — my feelings towards the British monarchy, this absolutely made my day:

Town crier meme - library

Town crier meme - Virgin media

Isn’t the internet great?

Source: Haha

Why do some things go viral?

I love internet memes and included a few in my TEDx talk a few years ago. The term ‘meme’ comes from Richard Dawkins who coined the term in the 1970s:

But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept?

Memes aren’t things that you necessarily want to find engaging or persuasive. They’re kind of parasitic on the human mind:

Dawkins’ memes include everything from ideas, songs, and religious ideals to pottery fads. Like genes, memes mutate and evolve, competing for a limited resource—namely, our attention. Memes are, in Dawkins’ view, viruses of the mind—infectious. The successful ones grow exponentially, like a super flu. While memes are sometimes malignant (hellfire and faith, for atheist Dawkins), sometimes benign (catchy songs), and sometimes terrible for our genes (abstinence), memes do not have conscious motives. But still, he claims, memes parasitize us and drive us.

Dawkins doesn’t like the use of the word ‘meme’ to refer to what we see on the internet:

According to Dawkins, what sets Internet memes apart is how they are created. “Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity,” he explained in a recent video released by the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. He seems to think that the fact that Internet memes are engineered to go viral, rather than evolving by way of natural selection, is a salient difference that distinguishes from other memes—which is arguable, since what catches fire on the Internet can be as much a product of luck as any unexpected mutation.

So… why should we care?

While entertaining bored office workers seems harmless enough, there is something troubling about a multi-million dollar company using our minds as petri dishes in which to grow its ideas. I began to wonder if Dawkins was right—if the term meme is really being hijacked, rather than mindlessly evolving like bacteria. The idea of memes “forces you to recognize that we humans are not entirely the center of the universe where information is concerned—we’re vehicles and not necessarily in charge,” said James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, when I spoke to him on the phone. “It’s a humbling thing.”

It is indeed a humbling thing, but one that a the study of Philosphy prepares you for, particularly Stoicism. Your mind is the one thing you can control, so be careful out there on the internet, reader.

Source: Nautilus