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Limor Shifman: may the Motivational-Wolf-Manatee be with you.

Shifman’s account on memes in digital culture seeks to contribute to the nature of the discussion in scholarly communications studies from the perspectives of the meme and what the presence of the meme in human cultures may suggest for said scholars of communication. The discourse on the nature of memes, especially in the digital environments of internet messageboards, forums and content comments, is disparate. The academic side and the popular side, as Shifman puts it, argue similar topics from two totally different perspectives but don’t communicate with one another. As a result of creating this piece, Shifman hopes to bridge the gap and stimulating the discourse.

The initial idea presented by Shifman is that the meme, as defined by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, is not the same as the meme that Shifman himself defines. The original definition of meme is along the lines of an idea, behavior or style that transmits itself from person to person within a specific culture. Shifman’s definition develops on the one Dawkins made within the context of the subject at hand- internet memes.

Within chapter 4, Shifman sets out to come up with his own definition that runs parallel to Dawkins’. Shifman seems to drop the biological allusions and connotations Dawkins held when she established the term. In addition to being an idea or phenomena that spreads from person to person, the idea of a meme must be assessed by it’s “memetic dimensions”, which consist of the aspects of the meme that facilitate imitation and transmission. In addition, the meme itself is not just one unit, but several units of content that share common characteristic, which comprise the meme itself. Shifman uses this system of definition for two main reasons. Firstly, his idea of a meme is framed specifically in the context of the digital meme, such as Korean rapper’s popular song “Gangham Style”, which Shifman argues is memetic not just because it’s popular, humorous and unique, but because it invites imitation, creativity and derivation, all of which would make up the meme as a whole. Secondly, it allows the audience to begin to differentiate what a digital meme is from that of viral content.


The video above illustrates “viral content” as would be described by Shifman. Shifman dedicates a great deal of time in chapters 5 and 6 differentiating from memetic content and viral content. The purposes of the discussion that’ll take place shortly, these differences will be generalized. The general difference is that viral content, much like the Dawkins’ definition, is “one unit”. In our example, the single unit is the video itself. In comparison to memetic content such as gangham style’s proliferation among many physical and digital cultures, the latter-case has multiple units that were derived directly from the initiating event (Shifman specifically classifies these as “Founder-Based Memes”, which differ from both viral content and “Egalitarian Memes” that were meant to imitated.)

An important thing to understand is that memetic content is intended to co-opted, imitated, modified and developed. A viral video doesn’t have to or need to invite replication (which, in the case of the first example, is likely a benefit to the continued reproductive fitness of the species). A viral video gains its popularity due to the invocation of a strong emotion, such as humour or joy. However, both viral and memetic content exist on a gradient, as a viral video could easily become memetic. Memetic content needs to be engaging and entertaining enough to make people want to emulate them, on top of simply liking the initial concept. It must be simple enough to replicate with ease, but complex enough to have room for development. The nature of the “Harlem Shake” meme is a perfect example.

In Shifman’s 7th chapter, he goes about categorizing different memes by genre, and noting the specific qualities of each genre. These genres are fairly simplistic and are not at all all-encompassing, but provide an adequate scope for identify and understanding the phenomena of the internet meme. Shifman’s categories include: Reaction photoshops, flash mobs, photo fads, “LOLcats”, Lipsyncs, misheard lyrics, recut trailers, stock character macros and “Rage Comics”. All of these meme genres are fairly prolific and easily identifiable within the annals of the internet.

In an effort to further Shifman’s cause and stimulate the discourse on the nature of the digital meme, I pose two videos that provide interesting perspectives on the system. The first video provides a satiric take on what we understand about memes and internet culture, which can be framed from Shifman’s for a different outlook:


Conversely, here is a companion video to the original viral video mentioned earlier. The difference between viral content and memetic content is important not only because of how they’re different, but also how they influence the cultures the that they’re present within. What happens when you can engineer the spontaneity and uniqueness that causes viral videos to come and fade away? Something Shifman doesn’t mention specifically in the chapters mentioned in the text is how the nature of memes imply that they’re semi-random occurrences that happen to become big, influential and popular due to random efforts. Yes, if a celebrity creates viral content, it’ll likely become popular due to their fanbase, but the sheer, lasting impact a meme, such as the reliable Trollface, can have can not be attributed to one person, or even a group of people, but the community as a whole. This gets as the heart of two important questions: Why are viral videos appealing?  And in that same vein, why are memes such a major part of digital culture?