“In Defense of Memes”: My Essay From Spreadable Media
December 3, 2012 § 7 Comments
In late 2010, Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green invited me to contribute to their forthcoming book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. I decided to discuss the ways in which trolls use the term “meme,” focusing specifically on trollish engagement with the ICP’s art video “Miracles” (above). The book comes out in January, and today my essay went live. As I explain in the first paragraph:
Contrary to the assumption that memes hop arbitrarily from self-contained monad to self-contained monad, memes as they operate within trolldom exist in synecdochical relationship to the culture in which they inhere. In other words, memes spread—that is, they are actively engaged and/or remixed into existence—because something about a given image or phrase or video or whatever lines up with an already-established set of linguistic and cultural norms. In recognizing this connection, a troll is able to assert his or her cultural literacy and to bolster the scaffolding on which trolling as a whole is based, framing every act of reception as an act of cultural production.
Two years on, I still stand by this description. What I don’t stand by, however, or what I stand by with some basic qualifications, is my –from a 2012 perspective– blithe, oversimplified use of the term “troll.” I may have been able to throw that term around in 2010 without much ado, but that’s no longer the case. A lot has changed since I wrote this piece, most notably WHO and WHAT the term “troll” subsumes, and what the implications of this distinction might be. This is something I have talked about on this blog quite frequently. Because moving targets, they are tricky!
So in addition to providing a riveting account of the miracle of magnets (HOW DO THEY HOW), this essay serves as a reminder that on the internet (especially this corner of the internet), emergent online behavior –to say nothing of the words we use to describe emergent online behavior– often evolve faster than we can publish things about them. As a researcher, this can be deeply frustrating. Then again, stagnation would be much worse, and furthermore would result in me not having a job. I happen to like having a job, so…thumbs up to the inexorable march of verbs, on account of they give us no choice.