By Ben Davis
It’s August, David Cameron has been pointing at fish, Legoland is doing a roaring trade and I’m allowed to write a post about memes.
With a science education and a marketing vocation, I like to read firstmonday.org and its peer-reviewed research papers about the internet. Okay, it’s often social science and can be pretty qualitative, but it’s still interesting to see the internet analysed in such a way.
I thought I’d bring you the highlights from some research by Katie Miltner into the enjoyment of memes, typically titled ‘”There’s no place for lulz on LOLCats” The role of genre, gender and group identity in the interpretation and enjoyment of internet memes’.
This paper uses LOLCats, one of the most popular and enduring internet memes, as a case study for exploring some of the social and cultural forces that contribute to memes’ popularity.
So why do we love memes?
A qualitative audience study of 36 LOLCat enthusiasts.
An introduction to the meme
User–generated content, its broad consumption and creation, has allowed a participatory culture to arise.
This culture has meant consumers can easily become producers. This is seen clearly in the trend for YouTubers, Viners and Instagrammers, graduating from amateur to professional, being picked up by brands to promote products from electronics to cosmetics.
Jean Burgess, an associate professor in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology, developed a theory of ‘vernacular creativity’, describing the blending of traditional folk activities (such as storytelling and scrapbooking) with contemporary media knowledge and practices.
Internet memes have become ubiquitous in networked environments. Vanessa Grigoriadis in Vanity Fair posits memes have become ‘as important to the American consciousness at this point as Hollywood movies’.
Miltner recognises that..
Advertisements emulate them, political campaigns incorporate them, and popular TV shows reference them, all in an attempt to capture the zeitgeist.
An introduction to the LOLCat
I Can Has Cheezburger is the website responsible fo popularising LOLCats (see below for an example).
The popularity of I Can Has Cheezburger, and other sites in Cheezburger Networks, led to $30 million in venture funding in January 2011. LOLCats have spawned much content in many media – a product line, a Bible translation, international art shows, an off–Broadway musical and a TV show on the Bravo Network.
Who are the casual meme folk?
A quarter of Miltner’s audience in the study were casual users of memes, these typically comprise of the ‘bored at work’ population and cat owners.
Casual users do not create their own LOLCats, but share and consume pre–existing images. The appeal for this group is grounded in the LOLCats’ humor.
Why do we use memes?
As one interviewee put it:
Sharing humor signals similarity and similarity breeds closeness … laughing together is a sign of belonging.
LOLCats were part of a fantasy world with a cast of recurring characters and plotlines, and one of the reasons the meme was so emotionally resonant for them was because their favorites would crop up time and again.
LOLCats often include multiple layers of selective cultural knowledge. This includes reference to other obscure memes and elements of ‘old school’ computer and gaming culture.
Repeated references take on significance, providing “codified forms of group–specific meanings” (Baym, 1995). Continual reinterpretation and remixing results in a dense thicket of references that are cryptic for those outside of a group.
As emotional ciphers
LOLCats and memes in general allow people say something important, often about their relations to others.
Participants reported using LOLCats to express a range of emotions – caring, embarrassment, and frustration. Thanks to the fact that they are highly anthropomorphized, LOLCats are particularly useful for expressing feelings; they are fundamentally a storytelling medium.
The rules of LOLCat
The sentence below was perhaps the most amusing in Miltner’s writeup. It seems adherence to rules hints at the aggressive origins of the LOLCats, see the bottom of this post.
Even if the content (such as the image or joke) contained within the LOLCat was humorous, participants explained that using the wrong font or diverging from stylistic expectations essentially ruined it for them.
It’s fun to be creative. And that’s changing media.
Participants in Miltner’s study pointed out that creating memes is not about ownership. It’s very difficult to claim ownership of a partiuclar meme, or indeed LOLCat. And yet, this doesn’t prevent people making new ones.
This, to me, hints at not just a new culture of proudction by consumers, but also an openness, young people don’t identify with ownership in media (this is increasing as subscriptions services for music and film garner more users).
One participant puts it thusly:
We’re spending hours making these fun things for no compensation, and not even any recognition. I guess like, the Cheezburger platform and reddit, like, with the upvoting and downvoting, they try and make it so that you can have some kind of mechanism for rewarding people for their creativity, but I feel like, you know, people are going to do it anyway, just because the inherent fun in it, and just, being able to share something with someone else, enough to motivate them to spend all that time and effort.
The aggressive origins of the LOLCat
One thing I didn’t know about the LOLCat is its origin as something that isn’t about emotion or earnestness, rather a blunt way of pointing out weakness.
4chan was responsible for turning LOLCats into a subculturally significant format. This is governed by the so-called ‘logic of lulz’, which sees earnestness and emotions as weak. Technical skills and autodidactism are much more highly regarded in these communities.
Thus when LOLCats became associated with sentimentality, the early users from 4chan moved on to other meme pastures, seeking to find something that represented an attack on failure. The obvious point is that as content passes through various communities, it is interpreted in new ways and takes on new connotations.