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Shifman, L. (2014) ‘Defining Internet Memes’, In: Shifman, L. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 34 – 54
In this chapter, Shifman aims to describe what a ‘meme’ essentially is. To do this, he draws on Dawkins’ categorisation of memes (1982, cited in Shifman, 2014).
Expanding on these 3 positions, Shifman notes that the Mentalist Drivenmemes are ideas constructed in one’s mind, which are then transported or spread across digital culture with the use of vehicles such as images, texts, rituals, or idols. Essentially, memes here are ideas and the vehicles of distribution are tangible modes. This school of thought was also endorsed by Daniel Dennett (1995) (cited in Shifman, 2014).
Alternately, the Behaviour Drivenmemes saw ideas and its vehicle as one entity. Thus, the meme only serves its purpose when it is encoded, and as such cannot exist in the outside world devoid of its vehicle. Shifman notes that, by defining memes as a concrete body, it’s easier to empirically study their evolution and dissemination.
In contrast, the ‘Inclusive Memetic Approach’ takes on a broader definition. Presented by Susan Blackmore in “The Meme Machine” (1999, cited in Shifman, 2014), it summarises that any information that can be imitated can be referred to as a ‘meme’. The drawback of such an approach is the very nature of its vast inclusivity, which presents a challenge to it serving an analytical purpose.
Instead, Shifman took on a different approach in his attempt at defining memes. Building on the ‘mentalist driven’ approach, he breaks down memes into 3 dimensions that can be imitated – form, stance, and the content itself. While ‘content’ essentially relates to the ideas in the text, and ‘form’ can be described as the vehicle it uses (images, text, videos, etc.), it is the ‘stance’ that Shifman introduced to better understand the coded information in memes, how the text is positioned, who the intended receiver is, and who the potential proponents could be.
He further breaks down this third dimension into 3 sub-categories: participation structures, keying, and communication functions. These sub-dimensions draw on ideas taken from Susan Phillips, Erving Goffman, Shoshanna Blum-Kulka, and Roman Jakobson. (cited in Shifman, 2014, pp. 40-41).
To this, Shifman found it necessary to form a standalone definition for ‘Internet memes.’ According to him, such memes can be defined as “digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance were created with awareness of each other, and were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.” (2014, p. 41).
This chapter is highly useful in the understanding of the proliferation of memes in general. It helps to lay a foundation on which we can analyse and distinguish between different forms of memes, and how they go on to become a digital phenom.
Shifman, L. (2014) ‘When Memes Go Digital’, In: Shifman, L. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 17 – 35
This chapter of Shifman’s book expands on the proliferation of memes on the World Wide Web. Drawing from Dawkins’ analysis, where he defines successful memes as having 3 basic properties; Shifman explains how these properties are enhanced by the Internet (Dawkins, 1982, cited in Shifman, 2014).
First, the longevity of a meme increases as information can be stored indefinitely in the digital realm (read archives and cloud). Secondly, it’s copy fidelity, i.e., its accuracy, increases as there is no information loss in the process of reproduction in digital form. Finally, what Dawkins referred to as fecundity or “number of copies made in a time unit” (Shifman, 2014, p. 17) increases due to the swiftness and multiplicity that Internet facilitates.
In this section, Shifman further tries to define attributes that can be attached to memes in digital culture. He notices that through time, memes expand from bein shared on a micro level, to eventually crossing borders, and thus leading to information dissemination on a macro-level. He also notes that digital media allows memes to not just be replicated by directly copying context, but they are also subsequently “repackaged” by changing both content and form (2014, p. 19). He also notes that the success of a meme or its acceptability in social and digital culture, in turn, form an integral part in the selection and spread of certain memes.
This spread in the digital realm soon infiltrates our “real” world, a phenomenon that Shifman tags as “hypermemetic”. (2014, p. 23).
This source helps us grasp how a term that existed in the pre-Internet era is still relevant in modern times, how it shapes our interaction, and what motivates us to participate in the shared understanding or spreading of such forms of information through digital media.
Gal, Noam, Shifman, Limor & Kampf, Zohar, (2016). ‘It Gets Better’: Internet Memes and the Construction of Collective Identity. New Media & Society, 18(8), pp.1698–1714.
This article chose to focus on a body of 200 viral meme videos titled, “It Gets Better”, to understand how Internet users respond to LGBTQ themes, to what extent they accept or imitate the relayed information, and to what degree they altered the context presented in the original meme.
To do this, the authors analysed theories surrounding identity construction, the nature of participatory culture, and various Internet memes whose central themes focused on LGBTQ rights. They built upon the understanding of memes as previously underlined by Shifman (2013) and Dawkins (1976) (cited in Gal, Noam, Shifman, Limor & Kampf, Zohar, 2016, p. 1700).
Subsequently, they took a two-fold quantitative and qualitative approach, using the former to analyse content, and the latter to critically analyse the narrative approaches taken by this meme body. They noted that the inclusive nature of digital media, and the public stage it provides, helped these minorities voice their struggles and find solidarity with those who shared similar experiences.
This article is a valuable source for not only understanding how memes in digital media help construct socio-cultural identity and influences behaviour, but also relays how using multiple research approaches can help us effectively deconstruct and analyse a body of work.
Seiffert-Brockmann, Jens, Diehl, Trevor & Dobusch, Leonhard, (2018). ‘Memes as Games: The Evolution of a Digital Discourse Online’. New Media & Society, 20(8), pp.2862–2879.
This source creates a theoretical framework to better understand how some memes are used in digital culture to propagate political debates. To analyse the vast array of memes that float through this space, the researchers categorised memes into 3 major types based on the logic of communication employed; these being – “wasteful play online, social media political expression, and cultural evolution.” (2018, p. 2862).
They note that the ease of access and multiplicities with regards to the means and the platforms on which they can be shared has allowed, “citizens a means to undermine elite
influence of mass media (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006), mobilize political movements,
and voice political dissent (Bennett, 2012; Hristova, 2014; Milner, 2013; Mina, 2014)” (cited in Seiffert-Brockmann, Jens, Diehl, Trevor & Dobusch, Leonhard, 2018).
As with the previous article, the authors build upon the definition of memes provided by Dawkins and Shifman to create their theoretical outline. They go on to trace the evolution of memes from being mere “games”(2018, p.2865), that indulge in playfulness and create a sense of shared interest, to something that facilitates “social media political expression” (2018, p.2865), essentially building online political identities based on pre-existing beliefs. Finally, it leads to cultural evolution, wherein the meme proliferates into the real world and has wider implications on socio-political structures, discourse, and inadvertently, audience beliefs.
Like with the previous article, this source helps users gain insights into the way memes evolve from merely being ideas in the digital realm to socio-cultural identities in the real world. By using methodological tools of analysis, and providing detailed references and inferences, it helps outlines a clear path of a meme’s influence on political-identity construction.
Shifman, L. (2014) ‘When Internet Memes Go Global’, In: Shifman, L. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 151 – 170
In this final article, Shifman explores how memes cross borders to have wider impacts on global discourse.
Shifman focuses on the idea of “glocalisation” a term coined by Roland Robertson (cited in Shifman, 2014), which suggest that local forces combine pre-existing beliefs and norms with foreign ideas and policies to create what he calls “multifaceted, hybrid cultures” (2014, p. 154).
To further understand how memes can have a global impact on a multilingual digital sphere, he coined the term ‘user generated globalisation’– “a process in which memes are translated, customized, and distributed across the globe by ordinary Internet users.” (2014, p 155).
But doing case studies on various English jokes across the internet, Shifman and his peers concluded, that while the basic format remained the same, certain details and context were changed during translation into different languages, to keep in tune with local culture and understanding.
Referencing the chapter “When Memes Go Digital” (2014, p. 17 -35), he reiterates that while each recreation of a meme presents the creator’s individual identity and beliefs, it also shows membership to a shared group of people who draw upon the understanding of the original meme to create their own versions.
Shifman’s views help us understand why memes form a big part of our digital discourse, and despite socio-cultural differences, a shared appreciation of ideas can lead to the dissemination of memes that are relevant in the global landscape.
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