I became involved with meme scholarship in 2010 when I conducted an audience study of LOLcat enthusiasts. As a result, I have been referred to as a “meme scholar,” although I don’t necessarily know if that’s quite the case. It is certainly true that I have studied memes, and I do consider “internet culture” broadly writ to be my primary research area: after all, I’ve done projects on selfies, emoji, animated GIFs, hashtag activism, and hatebloggers (among other things).
However, figuring out how to label the work I do got me thinking about the terms that we use to describe the cultural phenomena that arise from online communities and platforms. Pursuing this line of inquiry lead me to some simple questions that were surprisingly difficult to answer: What does it mean to be a “meme scholar” or “internet culture scholar”? What counts as “meme research” or “internet culture research”?
Memes as a form have become mainstream; an entire media industry of blogs, websites, and even television shows have been built upon mining the creative labors of what Tim Highfield refers to as the “irreverent internet.” Despite this, the communities and cultures that birthed the “original” memes—LOLcats, Advice Animals, Rage Faces, etc.—are deeply subcultural, and media objects and practices that are currently referred to as memes would have been ruthlessly mocked by these cultures of origin. In short, 4chan would have (and probably did have) nothing but disdain for the Ice Bucket Challenge.
This brings me to another question: what even “counts” as a meme anymore? As Ryan Milner, Lisa Silvestri, Whitney Phillips, and Tim Highfield point out elsewhere in this series, the types of media artifacts and practices that are labeled as memes have changed considerably over the past few years. Which brings me to another question: how do we tease out the boundaries between “meme culture” versus memes as a format? The Ice Bucket Challenge is clearly a meme, as are Minions—but (as Ryan Milner pointed out) neither belong to meme culture. Then again, what even is “meme culture,” especially in relation to a larger “internet culture”? Are they even separate? How? In what ways?
Even those of us deeply preoccupied with these questions don’t necessarily agree on their answers. A few months ago, I submitted a panel to a conference that focused on “histories of internet culture.” I wanted (with the help of Whitney Phillips, Ryan Milner, and other Internet Research Friends) to trace the cultural history of things that were “internetty”—memes, l33t speak, ASCII art, animated GIFs, subcultural trolling—in order to make the argument that “internet culture” is imprinted with the ideology and culture of the masculinist, rational-scientific environments of early technocultures.
However, in order to do this, the members of the panel had to define what “internet culture” was. I originally thought that this would be fairly cut and dry, because the five of us were familiar with each others’ work and generally supported each other’s points of view. In this matter however, trying to come to an agreement as to what constituted “internet culture” ended up being a herculean and contentious task that lasted several weeks across dozens of emails. Even after all our back and forth, we didn’t come to a satisfying conclusion (and will be hashing things out further in a community discussion at the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers).
The reason for this difficulty was that even though the five people involved were deeply immersed and invested in “internet culture,” they not only had different ideas of what “internet culture” was and is, but engaged in a lot of negotiation to defend their particular definitions and perspectives. (I, for example, would not back down on the idea that emoji are totally part of “internet culture,” and I will totally go toe-to-toe in the comments section with anyone who disagrees. INTERNET FIGHT!)
I come from a critical-cultural studies background, which means (among other things) that I really like using old ideas to explain new things. After debating about the boundaries of “internet culture” for several weeks, I realized that there was a theoretical framework available for talking about cultural items and moments that are best identified by that know-it-when-you-see-it type of demarcation: Raymond Williams’ concept of a structure of feeling.
Williams uses the term “structure of feeling” to characterize the culture of a particular historical moment. Structures of feeling coalesce around a common set of perceptions and values shared by a particular generation or generational sub-group, and they are often articulated most clearly in artistic forms and conventions. To quote Williams in his 1977 book Marxism and Literature:
We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. We are then defining these elements as a “structure”: as a set, with specific, internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension.Yet we are also defining a social experience which is still in process, often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which in analysis (though rarely otherwise) has its emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics, indeed its specific hierarchies.
I think that treating meme/internet culture as a structure of feeling helps both illuminate and address the definitional issues that we are having with meme/internet culture research. The experience of participating in meme culture is a social experience that is perpetually in process, and yet seems idiosyncratic to each person who participates: we are individually engaging with our own version of a shared (and amorphous) culture. And, as Whitney Phillips’ post and my story about defining “internet culture” illustrate, the investment that we have in those individualized versions can be rather significant.
Furthermore, as Whitney Phillips also points out in her post, our individual perspectives on what internet culture is—and the ways in which we personally participate in it—influence our research agendas and approaches. We are currently at the point where, per Williams, we are analyzing the emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics of meme/internet culture world and grappling with what their specific internal relations are. However, we’re doing this without the benefit or perspective of (much) historical distance or even a singular perspective of what those emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics are.
However, in speaking of we—we also need to ask ourselves who comprises the “we” that is doing this work. Who has the cultural authority to say what a meme is, or what belongs in meme culture, or internet culture, or both? Furthermore, what is at stake in this definitional, analytical project? How does it frame or change the epistemological approach to studying these sorts of phenomena, and the conclusions that are drawn from it?
The reason I’m drawn to the idea of meme and/or internet culture as structure(s) of feeling is that it allows for some fuzziness and fluidity, which, as Williams argues, is the reality of culture—categorizing cultural forms and practices and erecting firm boundaries around them forces false structure on a collection of ever-changing things. Just like meme/internet culture, structures of feeling are elusive and hard to pin down, resisting firm definition, and dependent upon positionality.
At the same time, a shared language and terminology is necessary in order to do the important work of cultural analysis: if we don’t all agree what it is we’re talking about, how can we begin to talk about it in any sort of systematic way? Looking at memes as a series of one-off case studies doesn’t allow us to examine the flows of power that are working on and through these cultural forms as a whole.
While this blog post can only start to scratch the surface of some of these issues, it’s my hope that instead of just throwing our hands up in frustration and turning in another direction, these moments of friction and confusion can be used as guides for new areas of inquiry and examination. And if we’re smart about it, some really well-executed reaction GIFs.
The above is part 2 of 8 in a collection on internet memes and viral media compiled for Culture Digitally, based on a pair of panels at the 2014 and 2015 meetings of the International Communication Association. We’ve taken to calling it “The Culture Digitally Festival of Memeology” and will release two entries a week for the next month. We hope you enjoy the show.
– Ryan M. Milner and Jean Burgess, Collection Editors