24/01/2017 06:54 GMT | Updated 25/01/2018 05:12 GMT

Have Memes Become The Moral Police Of The Internet?

Memes have become a secondary language online. Increasingly, we use visual modes to communicate, and memes are an evolution of that symbolical language. They hugely influence modern idiom and serve as cultural points of reference. It's a language that makes sense to those in the know and seems nonsensical to those who are not.



plural: memes

an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.

an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

The concept of the meme--credited to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as a term describing the spread of cultural ideas, symbols or practice--has now come to mean any unit of content that begs to be shared online. The memes we recognise on the internet are perhaps best defined as "self-replicating units of culture" spread through communities online.

Most memes invoke popular TV and film media. The recogniseable 'One does not simply...' design derives from a memorable quote from the Lord of the Rings franchise. Variants usually feature the character of Boromir, with text relaying some sort of mundane realisation. Some exist in the form of hashtags--the #aintnobodygottimeforthat hashtag that appeared frequently across sites like Instagram and Twitter emerged following a news interview with a member of the US public. 'Success Kid' is another notable example. The image of young Sammy Griner was so popular that Virgin Media purchased rights to use it in a UK marketing campaign.

Others make a humorous nod to contemporary culture: one popular format depicts an 18th Century dandy alongside rap lyrics translated into Swiftian prose. "Thy bosom--put it at peace," reads one. A raft of internet celebrities, such as Josh "The Fat Jew" Ostrovsky, have built careers on finding and sharing the best.

Ultimately, memes are a form of satire, and they're becoming ever more political. Just look to the recent slew of Joe Biden memes for evidence of that. But when examined more closely actually a great number of these funny memes are humorous at the expense of some position of behaviour of which they disapprove. Ever more frequently, sociologists and anthropologists have come to consider the internet meme as some sort of moral police, creating and highlighting the normative discourse. To explain this we need to understand the mechanisms that keep people in line.

Memes: the internet's moral police?

The notion of moral policing amounts to more than simply the declaration of values. It is also about establishing which values are, and are not, acceptable for online posts. This might range from the support of gay rights, to accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women, or even asserting freedom of religion.

Often these 'policing' memes report a piece of rhetoric highlighting an individual's hypocrisy with a follow-up evidence to the contrary. Condescending memes featuring Gene Wilder in character as Willy Wonka are frequently used to challenge stereotypical behaviours, while anti feminism memes are common among those that seek to highlight double standards in society groups. The rapidity with which online users spread information enhances what is referred to as contagion: when a meme goes viral.

A 2013 study indicates that persons reporting strong, effective responses to a meme showed greater intent to spread it. Anger producing memes were more likely to be spread but only when its source was an out-of-group member. They also favour extreme perspectives: a recent study from Texas University found that individuals who are socially isolated and more likely to be characterised as "on the fringe" have a greater chance at creating a successful meme.

Alternatively, memes can be a way of allowing licence for behaviour of which sharers do approve of, but might not otherwise be accepted. In the instance of "body shaming" memes that make light of stereotypes, caricatures often harbour an undercurrent that makes anyone who identifies with that characterisation the but of the joke. "Tag a mate" memes are a common form. This is as much about creating a platform for sharing unconventional values as for suppressing unacceptable ones.

So there are memes that are just as criminal as the cultures others seek to reprimand. One recent case is a meme featuring an image of motivational speaker Lizzie Velasquez, who was born with a rare condition in which her body is unable to store body fat. Anti-bullying activists have denounced the meme as cyberbullying, and Lizzie herself has spoken out.

And political memes have always existed, though in various forms, from Barack Obama's Yes We Can to the Tories' "We can't go on like this" poster, spoofed as 'Airbrushed for Change'. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband became an unfortunate meme after he was snapped eating a bacon sandwich. Most are humorous, but there are also growing concerns that meme culture has become a dangerous form of political propaganda, narrowing the field for intelligent political debate.

Policing memes themselves

Mostly, meme culture, like most user-generated content on the internet, is one that is self-policing. But, on occasion, the policing of memes is more than a social concern.

Socially Awkward Penguin is arguably one of the most recognisable memes on the Internet. The blue-backgrounded image of an off-balance penguin, superimposed with text describing socially-awkward scenarios has been plastered across every social network going.

It's also the intellectual property of National Geographic, who have claimed copyright infringement against those who have used their photo. In the past year, the company's licensing agency has "pursued and settled" multiple infringement cases involving the meme, it was confirmed by the Washington Post.

It's not, incidentally, the first time that the copyright card has been played against a well-known meme: The viral catalogue Know Your Meme keeps a public log of its copyright takedown requests, which included everything from 'Good Girl Gina' to 'Haters Gonna Hate'.

"The ensuing outrage has sparked a wide-ranging debate about what Internet creativity, ownership and culture should look like", the Post article concluded. Another warning poses if memes are to survive "we need to find a way to allow ideas, jokes and pictures to evolve and spread, without users risking a retrospective bill thanks to copyright controls."

In the past few years, several agencies have sprung up to license viral videos. The creator of one hit, Duck Army, sold exclusive rights to the video to Viral Hog. The agency then brokered deals with websites and social media accounts with big followings, while unauthorised users were issued with takedown requests.

Memes have become a secondary language online. Increasingly, we use visual modes to communicate, and memes are an evolution of that symbolical language. They hugely influence modern idiom and serve as cultural points of reference. It's a language that makes sense to those in the know and seems nonsensical to those who are not.