A Meme is a powerful thing to waste…

Understanding the potential of the meme…

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An internet meme (pronounced meem) is a moving feast. What was cool last week is now so over, and it can seem like a full time job to keep your finger on the pulse. A meme is what everyone is talking about right now. Some of the best known during the past few years include Success Kid and one of my personal favourites, Dog Shaming. Some of the most well known internet memes are recognisable as an image with a pithy quote overlaid., but they can be a cartoon, a short video – anything that captures a message of the moment and transmits it in a way where it travels quickly from person to person.  Memes range from hilariously funny, insightful social commentary or just crude, however as a contemporary form of communication, they are a way of expressing ourselves in mode which requires a range of digital literacies that may surprise you.

The term meme was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, as a way of explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena such as melodies, catchphrases or fashion using evolutionary principles. Imitation and innovation upon an original idea spread these small units of culture. In fact, the way that memes spread is so similar to a virus, going through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, that the concept of ‘virality’ has moved from the health zone, and now heavily infects marketing. It is this virality, and the each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success.

The meme at the beginning of this post, known as ‘One does not simply’ is a good example. Drawn from a quote from The Lord of the Rings, where the character Boromir makes the quote “One does not simply walk into Mordor”.

The meme spread across sites such as Reddit, Tumblr and Imgur, with variations firstly on the word walk –

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and became so well known it was included as an Easter Egg on Google Maps:

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Now, the phrase “one does not simply” is well known enough that memes such as the one shared at the beginning of this post can be applied to a wide range of scenarios, with an underlying understanding of the context – that whatever is being suggested is no simple matter.

Features of Memes

It is this rich intertextuality  that makes memes both worthwhile, yet challenging. It requires a knowledge and understanding of the individual texts, as well as the application of cognition to make meaning of the additional layer of meaning created by the meme that provides a learning opportunity. The example here requires a knowledge of the Star Wars canon, combined with the political advertising of Obama’s first election campaign:

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Memes also rely on indexicality.  This is what makes the meme reproducible, as well as what requires the digital literacy of creativity. Identifying an image that will communicate meaning across a range of different contexts requires a certain level of sophistication. A photo that will be easily photoshopped and features a character with a unique expression is one of the simplest ways that a meme can be easily reproduced with a variety of meanings. E.g. Evil Toddler: (there are more cheeky examples here!)

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with a simple text overlay:

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and completely re-interpreted:

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It is the templatability that leads memes to be logical lesson choices. While more advanced students can play with a range of different meme styles, those students requiring more support can rely on one of a number of templates that common memes take advantage of. An example is the popular ‘what people really think I do…’. This meme has a great template that is terrific for students to develop not only digital literacies, but also perspective taking. (if the template maker is blocked because of inappropriate language etc, this is an easy one to recreate using Word or PowerPoint). Have students choose a role – student, sportsperson, musician – whatever is most relevant to them; and get them to complete the template. Here’s the background information to give you context.

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Internet memes, and their viral spread, are an example of participatory culture, as contemporary digital communities rely on their reproduction, imitation and re-interpretation as a form of communication; a language specific and identifiable to that group. In fact, Limor Shifman, in her text Memes in Digital Culture goes so far as to say hypermemetic logic drives our modern existence, and this may be seen as almost every major public event sprouts a stream of memes. She argues that while on the surface they appear to be trivial pieces of pop culture, upon more careful examination one recognises that they play an integral part in some of the defining events of the 21st century.

Limor Shifman defines internet memes differently to the original concept of a single cultural unit as described by Dawkins. Her definition describes an internet memes as

(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users. 

So why do educators need to be aware of memes and their role in communicating culture and developing digital literacies? They don’t. Educators don’t NEED to be aware of memes, anymore than they must play Minecraft or read John Green’s books. However, there are several compelling reasons to consider taking the time to think about memes and how they might play a role in teaching – particularly of older students.

Reason One: Engagement

There is a reason memes spread like a virus. They can hit home at a number of levels. They can be playful, hit your funny bone, or make you think.  Select use of memes can hook students in. However, be careful to choose wisely. Simply slapping text on an image does not a meme make! Why not put this to the test by challenging students to create a meme? This demands higher order thinking and digital literacies at a level students often are not required to meet. The need to not only respond to a context, but respond creatively and concisely is difficult, and the most successful internet memes are often actually very clever. Please note that I am not saying ALL memes are clever; like everything online, there are many in poor taste, and with little depth. However, an example of inferential comprehension required to understand a meme is evident with the popular ‘Soon’ meme:

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What appears to be an innocent cow in a field is rendered threatening by the simple addition of the word ‘Soon’…why is this so?

Reason Two: Information Literacy/ Digital Literacy

Dr Alec Couros argues that the digital participatory culture within which students communicate, socialise and learn provides essential opportunities for information literacy, and suggests that memes are a powerful way of discussing many different aspects of this literacy. A starting point is to draw attention to how information travels online. This is an important lesson for students to develop their digital literacies to manage their online privacy as well as their ability to self-broadcast.  Whether by merit, messenger or manipulation, the viral nature of memes means that a chunk of information/culture/art may be spread via networks at an astonishingly fast pace. Students who understand this are not only more likely to be aware of what and where they share online, but will also more prepared for a world where marketing is pervasive. Info-savvy students are what we want to develop; using memes is a perfect example of the saying ‘news travels fast’.

Reason Three: Critical understanding of current world events

The 2016 Australian Federal election has given us a rich example of how memes are being used to capture audience attention, convey messages and communicate with specific interest groups. Interestingly, some groups are taking an even more extreme approach, by using ‘dank’  memes to poke fun at the current government. This implies a level of digital literacy that assumes one not only understands the concept of memes, but also recognises the use of intentionally bad. As the federal election campaign continues, many expect the list of memes to grow.

A knowledge of memes also goes some way to guard against misguided usage, as seen last year in the ‘Fresh in our Memories’  debacle Woolworths experienced. Creating their own ‘meme generator’ where participants were encouraged to upload their own images of family lost in war efforts, along with a message and the Woolworths logo with the text ‘Fresh in our Memories’, was a huge social error. Not only did they demonstrate a lack of respect, trivialising the ANZAC legacy, they also were taking a huge risk that the move would spark inappropriate use.

Make your own!

So how to make a meme? There are several ways. The first being to let loose with photoshop and other image manipulation tools. Of course, this is beyond the skills of many of us, and so many meme generator tools have evolved.

The original meme generator creates the type of meme many of us are most used to; a simple image, with a witty overlaid comment. Create your own Bad Luck Brian, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, Philosoraptor or Grumpy Cat meme here. This is also a great place to find trending images, to make sure your memes are always fresh.

Another easy to use meme generator with lots of familiar templates is available on Imgflip. Please note that on all of these sites, there is the strong possibility that students will encounter inappropriate language. Keep this in mind when working with memes and your students, and be guided by the age and maturity of your students.

Using an app downloaded onto a device, such as this may provide more control, as the meme templates are provided, but collections of memes created by others may not be as easily accessible. Make sure you download and test each tool to check for suitability in your context.

Whether you are working with your students to analyse a range of memes, or asking them to create their own, there is a huge range of digital literacies that are embedded within successfully interpreting the meme.

Internet memes are an interpretation of the fad joke that has always been there, however with the power of the crowd and the potential to manipulate and remix in the hands of so many, they have become a much larger part of internet and general culture. It is important to be aware of the complexity behind many of these simple jokes (and be able to enjoy the ones that are indeed just simple jokes).

So go ahead! Create a meme and have some fun! Share in the comments. If you have taught using memes, please share your experiences and resources in the comments!

8 thoughts on “A Meme is a powerful thing to waste…”

    1. That’s so cool, thank you for letting me know that my blog post has inspired you – that’s awesome! :).

  1. I love this post, Kay. I’ve been having a meme-challenge with a couple of young adults from our youth group – but it has been limited to finding memes. I think I will now take it up a notch and move into creating them (fingers crossed). I will be sharing your post with same YA as they are teachers-in-training.
    Check out this meme librarian at Tumblr!!!

    1. That sounds fantastic, I hope they come up with some awesome memes! I love that Tumblr – thanks for sharing!!

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