Internet memes and networked individualism: A perfect couple?

Memes are conceptual troublemakers. While academics have been debating over their theoretical usefulness ever since Richard Dawkins coined the term back in 1976, internet users speak of memes daily, as uncontested givens. Recently, I’ve been thinking of ways to bridge the yawning gap between academic and popular discourses on memes. I agree with some of the criticism of the ways the term has been used so far, but still see it as a powerful concept for unpacking many aspects of digital culture. Users are on to something, and I believe that researchers should follow – carefully and critically, of course…

A drop in a memetic ocean (1)

As an initial step, I’d like to highlight three points that I made in a recent paper, An Anatomy of a YouTube Meme, each relating to a different question about memes:

What’s the difference between “memetic” and “viral”?
While “viral” and “memetic” are often used interchangeably, disentangling them may lead to a more nuanced understanding of digital culture. Looking mainly into videos, I suggest treating the “memetic” and the “viral” as two dynamically interconnected video-types. A viral video can be defined as a clip that spreads to the masses via digital “word-of-mouth” mechanisms without significant change. The memetic video, in contrast, invokes a different structure of participation. It is a popular clip that lures extensive creative user engagement in the form of parody, pastiche or mash-up. Leave Britney Alone, the Star Wars Kid, and the Hitler Downfall parodies are particularly famous drops in a memetic ocean. Off course, there is a temporal element lurking here: many memetic videos started-off as viral ones. While still unsung in academia, this distinction is part of popular discourse, as evident in Know Your Meme.

Both the viral and the memetic seem to fall in line with what Henry Jenkins calls “spreadable media”, yet the analytic distinction between them highlights two different aspects of participatory culture: the first relates to a mode of diffusion, the second to a prevalent mode of mimeses-based communication. While so far research has tended to focus on the diffusion of specific “viral” videos, probing practices of mimesis may enrich our understanding of cultural formation.

A drop in a memetic ocean (2)

What makes a video “memetic?”
My analysis of 30 “mega-memetic” videos yielded six common features: a focus on ordinary people, flawed masculinity, humor, simplicity, repetitiveness, and whimsical content. Each of these attributes marks the video as incomplete or flawed, thereby invoking further creative dialogue. In other words: it seems that “bad” videos make “good” memes in contemporary participatory culture. But this, of course, is only one suggestion based on one case study of memetic videos: probing text-based and image-based memes would probably lead to different stories.

Why are so many people re-making YouTube videos?
By the time you finish reading this post, thousands of new videos will have been uploaded to YouTube. A good chunk of them will be remakes, mash-ups or parodies of existing videos. The answer to the question of why so many people are doing this is far beyond the scope of a single post, article, or even book, but I’d like to play with one idea here. I suggest that re-creating popular videos is the cultural embodiment of what Barry Wellman and others describe as “networked individualism.” On the one hand, users who upload a self-made video demonstrate their creativity and uniqueness; on the other, derivative videos often relate to a common, widely shared memetic video. By this act of cultural referencing, users both construct their individuality and their affiliation with the YouTube community.

More about these points, and about other aspects of memetic videos, can be found in An Anatomy of a YouTube Meme over at New Media anf Society (and here is the pre-print version).

Feedback is absolutely welcome! (also to
I’m currently working on a book on internet memes (for MIT Press), and hope to include as many voices as I can. So I’d love to receive emails about weird memetic phenomena, as well as research papers on the topic.