I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a meme scholar outright; rather, the memes within my research have emerged from studying everyday practices and cultures of social media, within political and topical discussions, as well as popular culture and fandom contexts. This piece is an extension of ideas that have come out of my recent work around the “irreverent internet” (in the first and last of the blatant plugs, see this [sorry, paywall] and this). I’ve used this term as a descriptor for how play and silliness are popular strategies for the coverage and presentation of the topical and the mundane online. Here, I am especially focusing on playful and irreverent engagement with issues, events, and breaking news, where irony, sarcasm, parody, satire, snark, and more, are important framing devices on social media. While my work (and this post) generally falls on the side of “nice” irreverence, these approaches are also applicable for meaner, vindictive, hateful, offensive, and vitriolic comments. These include meme communities dealing in racist attitudes and content or various hashtags and related comments which promote racist, far-right views and/or denote contexts rife with abuse and harassment — and not just the Gamergate example. This is not positioning trolling as a single practice or intent, either— see Whitney Phillips’ work.
In particular, because much of my research in recent years has involved Twitter, I have been interested in the use of language, of jokes and wordplay, within topical commentary—during the live-tweeting of breaking news or television broadcasts, for instance. The visual, as we know, is a key part of memes and meme cultures—from image macros to memetic video content—offering great creative scope, and extending current meme forms and encouraging new ones, as further realisations of vernacular creativity. But what about the memetic potential of text, of individual words and phrases, and of associated practices?
Words, of course, are important for the visual, the image-based memes; text can offer set-up and/or punch line within an image macro, for example. There are the various text-oriented visual aesthetics (Impact, covered two ways), vernaculars, and dialects of meme culture, from LOLspeak (as Kate Miltner has studied) to doge. There are clear logics of memes, in text and image (and mixed) formats. Limor Shifman’s research covers this extensively–including conceptualising memes as “operative sign”–but what about text standing alone (or inspiring new content)? In a text-centric space like Twitter, are there memetic practices and potential using the primary currency of the format and the particular affordances and tropes of the platform itself (the “platform vernacular”)?
Here are two particular practices—which are related, but not the same—that demonstrate social media rituals and memetic potential through words and wordplay. The first is hashtaggery, irreverent and ritualised applications of the hashtag. The second is portmanteaugraphy, the creation of portmanteaux for denoting, summarizing, and offering another layer of commentary for themes, events, and issues.
The character limit on Twitter invites and rewards linguistic dexterity: the challenge of effectively and efficiently packing multiple levels of meaning and commentary, and humour and/or insight, into 140 characters (see related practices like signifyin’, also discussed here). The discursive flexibility of hashtags, using the same structure (#word/#phrase) for variously topical, emotive, and banal markers (and subversion, resistance, irony, and more), encourages a diversity of practices and applications of the hashtag. These extend across platforms, too. Being flippant and concise through hashtags is part of a social media culture that values the craft of the one-liner, of being topical and irreverent in the same breath.
This includes the ritual of the hashtag, where conventions and tropes arise around common markers and which can get employed despite being completely irrelevant to the surrounding content or used ironically—#nofilter as punch line. Social media conventions become adopted and appropriated, inverting existing hashtags or using the structure of previous ones to offer new, playful markers which also demonstrate users’ awareness of the tropes of social media on top of topical and political contexts. For example, when a talking head on Fox News erroneously described Birmingham in the UK as a Muslim-only city in early 2015 (shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris), #FoxNewsFacts ensued. This hashtag denoted content combining the denigration of Fox, pointed commentary, and satire and juxtaposition via snarky textual and visual responses. However, to then use #FoxNewsFacts in combination with #illridewithyou offers a further twist. Not only did combining disparate hashtags bring together different stories and their social media responses, but it also provided a succinct and successful humorous take on the topic (see also Ryan Milner’s work on novelty and fixity, of the “memetic tapestry” of intertexts and references, callbacks and updates, in examining memes as media lingua franca).
Hashtaggery also jumps contexts, from the non-political memorial hashtag #putoutyourbats (in tribute to the deceased cricketer Phillip Hughes) to, months later, the hubris of #putoutyouronions in “tribute” to Tony Abbott losing his position as Australian Prime Minister in an internal party vote (the onions are explained here). These examples illustrate the prevalence of ritualised hashtag structures–again, crossing contexts–which might be irreverent, sincere, or something else; for instance #JeSuis[x], following #JeSuisCharlie and #JeSuisAhmed in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings.
Hashtaggery can use various forms to sum up, respond to, and denote themes and topics. One such form involves the creation of portmanteaux. In Through The Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty uses the portmanteau—a form of dual-sectioned suitcase—as a simile intended for lexical benefit: “You see it [slithy]’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” The practice is apparent in various common terms (e.g. smog), and in cultural practices originating elsewhere (e.g. couples much-discussed in celebrity gossip such as Bennifer and Brangelina). Portmanteaux have obvious applications for a strict character limit. Do you need a way to provide context for a series of tweets or ongoing coverage of a current event or issue? Do you need to mix several themes succinctly, provide some indication of tone or perspective, and convey your comedic abilities? Have you considered a portmanteau?
While not social media artifacts in themselves, portmanteaux take on new levels of importance online; their memetic potential can be seen as much in the practice of portmanteaugraphy than in any one recurring term. Having an original or humorous keyword to note an unfolding event can—with the right supporting elements of timing, visibility, support, and so on—make this term get traction and become a popular means of denoting the topic at hand. As this occurs again and again, the ritualistic aspect of portmanteaugraphy becomes apparent: the inevitable portmanteau(x), to go with the inevitable parody account(s), the inevitable mimicry and mockery, the expected behaviours of the social media audience at large. These acts demonstrate the social media rituals and cultures, the logics that can be seen within ad hoc and informal groups of individuals who are regularly reading, if not always actively contributing to, these discussions.
Such practices are seen within different contexts; they are not specific to the political, but my research has noted in part how they can be applied to the political (and the tangentially political, and so on). For instance:
#ruddmentum (c. 2012-2013): denoting the apparent momentum for Kevin Rudd’s rumoured attempts to regain leadership of the Australian Labor Party (and become Australian Prime Minister for a second time)—see also #kevenge (Kevin’s revenge) and #spillard (denoting Julia Gillard as the other candidate in various Labor leadership spills). #ruddmentum was later employed as a de facto punch line for anything involving Rudd, regardless of any relevance to leadership claims—further underlining the hashtaggery at hand through the repurposing of the hashtag and its irreverent ritualisation
#doprah (2013): disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong confesses to doping throughout his career in televised interviews with Oprah Winfrey. See also: #livewrong and #liestrong (playing on Armstrong’s Livestrong charity and his deception).
#edstone (2015): punning—playing on “headstone,” funereal imagery later appropriate given the election result—for irreverent responses to UK Labour leader Ed Miliband’s last minute election gambit of inscribing his election promises on an 8ft stone tablet.
#hillvetica (2015): describing the typeface inspired by Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign material, launched in April 2015—although the portmanteau plays on the Helvetica font, the subsequent, unofficial typeface (featured in headings here) was named “Hillary Bold.”
#hameron (2015): following claims that British Prime Minister David Cameron had, as part of an initiation while at university, put “a private part of his anatomy into a dead pig’s mouth,” porcine references abound, playing on pork, ham, and more. The social media response also made use of #piggate—reflecting a long-running, ritualised portmanteau structure within media coverage of [x]-gate (covering diverse scandals (or ‘scandals’), few of which involve gates—Gamergate, Nipplegate, Utegate, Donglegate, Choppergate, Deflategate…).
#edstone and #hillvetica, especially, highlight how the textual and visual can be combined for irreverent, topical, and tangential political commentary under the umbrella of a portmanteau; they are not enabled by the portmanteau, of course, but the hashtaggery at hand is a further memetic device shaping and directing the social media response. This is seen in the Photoshopping of new promises on Miliband’s election tablet and the actual typeface of Hillary Bold resulting from the #hillvetica discussion. Examples like the mocked-up #edstone also fit in to the long timeline of politically irreverent visual media and Photoshop memes, seen through the likes of Texts from Hillary and Je Suis Nico. The #hameron example, too, provides a further illustration of how these practices recur in response to new stories and events — social media users make extensive use of any potentially humorous framing, whether for politics (especially weird, hubristic, or scandalous politics) or other topics.
Of course, these markers apply beyond the textual: additional (irreverent) commentary through visual means and emergent memetic forms can be collated using the same portmanteau, the same hashtag. There are often multiple forms of memetic and irreverent responses to breaking news and unfolding events that collectively provide different layers of topical humour and social media content, creating new forms, co-opting other media, and appropriating old templates. These evolve in response to what platforms do and do not allow—what if Twitter did not have the 140-character limit?—and as content and coverage cross platforms, communities, and contexts. In doing so, their popular, everyday, and topical use alike connects them to the diverse elements and applications of memes, meme culture, and meme research covered in the other pieces in this series.
The above is part 4 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