“In Defense of Memes”: My Essay From Spreadable Media

December 3, 2012 § 8 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.


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§ 8 Responses to “In Defense of Memes”: My Essay From Spreadable Media

  • Such are the perils, indeed. We have been working on the “Spreadable Media” project since 2008…and, via the direct collaboration of more than 30 people, the book project and all these related essays will finally be out in February 2013…five years later. On the one hand, it has been extremely helpful to see the ideas go through the process of peer review at multiple levels along the way, and the investment the press has given us for proofreading, developing a website, and the like has been very nice amidst an era where that’s not always offered…But, to your point, we write about phenomena that change greatly. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the first comment we’ve gotten on the website is why one of the online pieces didn’t cover a more recent development…But, of course, those online pieces were peer reviewed as well, and so on…I think it speaks to the importance in particular for academics working on issues surrounding online communications and culture to be collaborating and sharing their work online throughout the process…But also that the relevance of these works even when a “case study” becomes “dated” speaks to the importance within published academic work of finding underlying themes and patterns that speaker to longer-term thinking and not just an analysis of a momentary situation. That’s where I think academic publishing in conjunction with more real-time, public sharing of research in motion plays a big role. (And it’s also one of the reasons we’ve spent the past several years openly sharing ideas from this project, both because we didn’t want some of the immediacy of the work to get lost but also because we believed and hoped it would only further drive the debate.) We had a discussion on this very subject at the Fiske Matters conference in Madison last year, and part of what we discussed is that a university press book almost becomes a capturing or archiving of a conversation at a moment in time…a distillation of some of the research and thinking that has taken place so far, and a launching pad or centralized place to point to to provoke more discussion to come. The moment it becomes “writing the book on something,” the more we would be pushing academic publishing into irrelevancy. But I still do think there’s a place in the world for peer review, and rich debate and discussion into revising a centralized “tome” or collection…

    • First of all, hi Sam! Thanks for reading & commenting. And yeah, very much agreed — it’s like, we want to work FAST, because things online happen FAST, but on the other hand, we need to do good, careful work, allowing plenty of time for collaboration and feedback and revision and re-revision and re-re-revision, and boy oh boy does that take time. In my particular case, the very definition of the thing I study has changed, and changed in ways that doesn’t undermine my basic argument (as I explain in my dissertation/book, these changes actually strengthen my case for the cultural digestiveness of trolling), but does certainly complicate earlier statements I’ve made about trolling (and incidentally opens me up to any number of accuracy-trolls who would likely relish the opportunity to tell me I don’t know anything about the subject because this particular example is two years old). I do think the differences between the troll space of 2010 and the troll space of 2012 are very interesting, and in fact are critical to understanding the overall story of trolling — but it’s tricky when all the reader sees is the PRODUCT (i.e. this or that particular case study) and not the PROCESS (including all subsequent research and/or theoretical re-imaginings). Ultimately, it’s the process that gives meaning to the product, but process much more difficult to package. For one thing, process is messy and mostly unreadable — at least my process is. That’s why I think Spreadable Media is such a cool book — you guys have done a really great job archiving many of those intermediary steps (through blog posts, conference presentations and popular press stuff), which is rare and cool and gives us something worth studying unto itself…

  • […] By 2010, I found myself using the past tense more and more frequently (for an example, see my contribution to Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green’s Spreadable Media). By mid-2011, past tense had […]

  • Raj says:

    sometimes i think these people wodunlt know sense if it came up and but them on the ass (arse for the uks’) well even some of us.. shall we say people who disagree passionatly against each other, we would work together, for you are sign of sanity in this increasing insane world.you say it how it is. i will try not to feed the trolls. hell you can always send them to me.. and my blog..

  • Karen says:

    Hey there! Have been clicking around from your article on your research methods (which is really fascinating, and I’m looking forward to the rest), and I have a question for you on your Spreadable Media article.
    Towards the end, you discuss the effects of deindividuation within anonymous culture and how they change the game in terms of meme transmission – without individual identities, the motives for gifting memes become less clear. In the two years since you first wrote the paper, has your assessment of trolls being “subsumed by the collective” evolved along with the other aspects of your work – does it still apply? (I’m vaguely recalling a discussion of specific members of Anonymous become less anonymous, for example.) And does your assessment that trolls “operate under an entirely different social and economic paradigm” continue to hold true, or has this also altered along with the other changes in troll culture that you mention?
    Also, LOL re: the Insance Clown Posse and magnets… that one had passed me by!

  • […] Boy oh boy does this space change. See this post, about trolls’ engagement with Insane Clown Possee’s Miracles video, as well as […]

  • […] By 2010, I found myself using the past tense more and more frequently (for an example, see my contribution to Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green’s Spreadable Media). By mid-2011, past tense had […]

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