This is an article by Limor Shifman taken from the Journal of Visual Culture:
The article looks at the cultural meaning of contemporary meme genres in terms of :
- Reaction Photoshops
- Stock Character Macros
- Photo Fads
Photo based memes function as:
- Modes of hypersignification – The code becomes the focus of attention
- Prospective photography – Photographs are the raw materials for future photographs
- Operative signs – Invitations for creative action
Meme genres may serve as valuable keys for understanding broader dimensions of visual culture.
An internet meme is a group of digital items that (a) share common characteristics (b) are created with an awareness of each other and (c) are circulated , imitated and transformed via the internet via multiple users.
Shifman deviates from Dawkins belief that a meme is a single cultural unit. He believes that memes are groups of content units because in the digital age it is possible to access many versions of the same thing. In the past a single version would be more likely, ref. birdsong, a joke or whatever.
Memes are therefore enormous groups of texts and images. If memes are collections of texts, meme genres are collections of collections.
Photos: Playing with photos has been an important part of digital culture since the early 2000s.
Reaction Photoshops Collections of edited images created in response to a small set of prominent photographs (memetic photos). eg the situation room.
Stock Character Macros are image macros (images superimposed with text) that refer to a set of stock characters representing stereotypical behaviours. eg sheltering suburban mom.
Photo Fads are staged photos of people who imitate specific positions in various settings. eg planking, heads in freezers.
The genres range from political and social issues to whimsical themes associated with self performance.
Their form can be photosopped juxtapositions, photos with captions or unedited photos.
These genres invite a number of user behaviours:
- edit and combine existing images
- adding text (captions)
- performance in the theatre of digital culture
Beyond this divergence these genres share three basic qualities, hypersignification, prospective orientation and operability.
“The code itself is no longer concealed but turned into a sign.” Hypersignification can be found in the three genres as follows:
The tourist guy is an example of a reaction photoshop demonstrating hypersignification. The photo was framed at first as a rare capture of a tragic moment 9/11, circulated over the internet and then suddenly discovered to be a hoax. It was not until this moment that many people copied the idea and put him into similar death threatening situations. It is a good example of understanding the differences between memetic photographs and truthfulness:
Other examples are disaster girl and cigar guy.
Photos that invite memetic responses are often political, eg the situation room which was set up to advertise the fact that Bin Laden is dead without showing a picture of his body. one interpretation of this was the transformation of the figures into fictional characters or including fictional characters in the group.
Iconic photos are similar to memes in some ways but instead of being manipulated they freeze concrete historical moments and it is unlikely that they would be used for satire. They are too powerful.
Stock Character macros
In stock character macros, hypersignification is located in the construction of stereotypes. It often associates a certain (negative) feature with a specific social category, eg “annoying facebook girl”.
Another good example is the high expectation Asian father.
Stock Photography is all about the mystification of stereotypes. Basic information which can be used in many contexts. In the case of memes, the meme always has a theme.
In Photo Fads hypersignification may be associated with the pose. Posing in an exaggerated way is quite common especially with the growth of social media.
Repetitive exaggeration leads to photofads. eg Head in the freezer. http://www.knowyourmeme.com. This argument builds on Olga Goriunova’s conceptualisation of idiocy as a core characteristic of contemporary participatory culture.
These three meme genres have been described in the present but they are also oriented towards the future (not the past) as they are designed to elicit further versions.
Photo based meme genres deepen these temporal transitions from the past to the present.
Hypersignification and prospective orientation have been defined so far as distinct. However there is a link between them They perform an autonomous function related to techniques of symbolic manipulation, dissemination and storage.
Meme genres work in a similar way. Just like a pointing hand icon waiting to be clicked they are operative signs, designed as invitations for creatve action.