Memeology Festival 05. Memes as Ritual, Virals as Transmission? In Praise of Blurry Boundaries

Something good is happening to meme research. If just a few years ago the term itself was highly contested, associated with deterministic or biology-oriented approaches, today it is used in a growing number of studies to explore various aspects of Internet culture (Thanks to Kate Miltner, I can now leave this term unexplained). The study of virality is flourishing as well; a stream of recent works aims to unpack the forces and mechanisms underpinning the spread and reach of digital content. Whereas the two concepts of memes and virality are often used interchangeably, I have previously suggested disentangling them (here and also here). I define viral content as a single content unit that spreads well (for something more nuanced than “well” see Karine Nahon and Jeff’s Hemsely’s work) and a meme as a group of digital units sharing common characteristics.

While this analytic distinction is often problematized in real life (as viral content quickly turns memetic), academic literature on these concepts have taken two distinct paths. “Back” in 2013 (so true, Whitney Phillips), I associated these strands with James Carey’s “transmission” versus “ritual” models of communication. The first perception depicts communication as imparting information in space (emphasizing spread, control, and effect), whereas the second looks at it as the construction and representation of shared beliefs (stressing notions of meaning, identity, and belonging). I claimed that works on virality—that often explore questions of diffusion and influence—tend to echo notions of transmission, whereas research into memes follows the ritual model by focusing on memes’ roles in construing shared cultures. In other words, if virality studies ask how viral content spread, which factors enhance its propagation and effectiveness, and which power structures underpin these processes, meme-oriented studies address queries such as what is the role of memes in creating communities (and boundaries between them) or what drives people to engage in memetic activities.

Given the quick expansion rate of both meme and virality studies, I wished to examine whether these boundaries have blurred in the last two years. I started with a simple word frequency count. Using “Publish or Perish,” I extracted 2,000 references of articles/books published from 2014–2015 mentioning “internet” and “memes” or “internet” and “viral” (for this last search, I excluded entries including words that are nearly exclusively associated with biological rather than social studies, such as “patients” or “proteins”). I then conducted a word frequency analysis of the titles of these two sets of articles (excluding non-English ones). This short exercise revealed that although the groups share some keywords such as “social,” “media,” and “digital,” they differ in other pivotal terms. Articles mentioning memes also reference “culture,” “communication,” and “language” in their titles; articles about virality, in contrast, relate to “marketing,” “advertising,” and “influence.” The former set of words is easily associated with ritualistic approaches to communication; the latter is much more transmission oriented.

A closer examination of the works published in these last two years that contain the words “meme” or “viral” in their titles have further corroborated this observation. The meme concept is often used to relay the story of communities and communal construction of meanings, in expanding geopolitical and thematic contexts (spanning religion, sports, gender, race, and sexuality—along with various combinations thereof). Studies into virality continue to be governed by the transmission model, constantly striving to understand patterns of spread, motivation, and success.

However, interesting examples of “ritualized” virality studies and “transmission-alized” meme studies do exist. Michele Coscia, for example, focused on measuring “memetic success.” He found it strongly associated with uniqueness: content that is easily distinguishable in the memetic ocean is much more popular than is content that looks similar to other memes. And on the diagonal path, Jenna Brager examined one viral selfie from Lebanon through a ritualistic-driven approach, probing the meanings ascribed to it in Western English language media. Additional interesting intersections between “ritual” and “transmission” approaches can be found in the many studies that look into memes in terms of social power and/or activism, examining the social structures facilitating and underpinning memetic bottom-up (and sometimes even top-down) processes. These works allow us to gain knowledge not only about memes workings in democracies such as the US, the UK and Australia (see also Tim Highfield’s account here), but also of their role in China, Vietnam, Russia and Azerbaijan (as well as in other places, as documented in Katy Pearce’s piece). Although most of these works do not directly address the EF word (“effects,” if you wondered), they seem to collectively suggest that memes constitute central political actors worldwide.

This all looks promising. Whereas the distinction between memes and virality (as well as their separate modes of investigation) has been functional in the formative stages of these fields, at this phase blurring the lines may move both arenas forward (and perhaps even result in their merger). The study of internet memes would greatly benefit from addressing questions related to patterns of diffusion and influence, while research into viral content would be enriched by delving into the social and cultural meanings that such texts invoke. Thus, for example, deciphering how memes—large, complex, sizzling clouds of textual units—gradually form as “memes” and spread across the globe (what routes they take? who pushes or hinders them in their journeys?) is still pretty much left unaddressed; and, taking the opposite track, we are still far from understanding the cultural resonance of cross-national viral hits such as “Gangnam Style.” The conceptual and empirical playground stretched between memes, virality, ritual, and transmission is vast. Anyone up for a ride?

The above is part 5 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

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