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Friday, March 24, 2023

Memes and the Art of Sh*tposting

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  1. Memes and their Shifting Meanings

The term “meme”, while it has contemporary connotations, was coined way before the internet was made available to the public. Introduced by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), memes were defined as a unit of culture in the form of, but not limited to, an idea, phrase, gossip, story, etc—basically anything that carries symbolic meaning or represents any phenomenon. Dawkins further likened memes with genes as they can also reproduce and mutate through communication. The term may have meant something a little bit different in the past, but the idea does not stray too far in the postmodern era.

Today, memes are increasingly permeating online spheres and becoming staple parts of modern communication, particularly among the youth. Not only are they capable of being vessels of socio-political messages, but they have also been proven effective in information dissemination.[1] In the age of fast media consumption, memes practically drive cultural evolution. As the Theory of Dual Inheritance [2] posits, collective behavior (which is, by necessity, a component of viral memes) is fundamental in determining evolution. What makes this possible is that memes, just like anything that can be sold for profit, are now easy to reproduce. 

The Oxford Dictionary defines meme as “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by internet users.” The Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary for slang words and phrases, on the other hand defines memes as “popular quotes, images, and real people, which are copied, imitated, and spread all over the internet(s)!”. While these two sources have diametrically different levels of credibility, we may begin to see a unique pattern of understanding on the simple fact that memes are reproducible not only because of their comedic effect but also their visual appeal, which makes them easy to digest. Memes are just enough to tickle online users’ minds within seconds but not too much that they can move on and consume other forms of media as soon as they scroll past. 

We also have to understand that even during this shift in the meaning of the term, memes used to be an obscure form of internet humor with surrealist and nonsensical hints , hence the term “shitpost”. These images are usually characterized with a top-bottom text in thick impact typeface. With limited content creation tools, early 21st century memes revolved in online forums and sites like 4chan, Ebaum’s World, and the like. The emergence of memes within these platforms, and others too eventually, may be attributed to the anonymity and temporality that is afforded to users. 

Photo taken from Reddit: Classic Chuck Norris Meme 

While this classic meme format was created to and for a specific niche of users, memes today have become part of most, if not all, social media/online interactions. With the creation of new social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit, etc., it became easier to upload, share, retweet, and consume memes. Many online pages and groups are now dedicated to creating and reproducing memes that appeal to the sense of the youth through ambiguity of situations, arbitrary metatextual connotations, and mythological post modern urban components. This popular Facebook page is a perfect example for this phenomenon.

From a unit of culture accessed by a few, memes evolved into internet and modern life-altering means of communication. As reach became wider, memes evolved even faster with much more complexity each time. From lolcat to wojak, memes rapidly dominated the internet and the ways we define or understand contemporary phenomena. Memes are no longer just expressions of humor, they have become tools capable of either enabling or disrupting metanarratives. Who would’ve thought shitposting could be so powerful? 

  1. The Art of Shitposting Through Internet Memes

Before we can make any serious examination of memes and their potential outside social media bubbles, we have to take a close look at the origins of memes. This will help us acknowledge that memes do not exist in a vacuum and that more often than not, their continued popularity rests with people, events, and ideas. 

When a meme is created and gains clout or popularity, it is generally reused in a different context. Take the Gossip Girl Meme for example.

Photos taken from The Tab : Repurposed Versions of the Gossip Girl Meme

As the meme continues to spread and more online users repurpose the format, it is then combined with other meme reference/s which may or may not have been previously popular. 

Photo: Drake Hotline Bling Meme + Gossip Girl Meme

After this overwhelmingly-saturated cycle of meme combinations, appearances on online platforms would start to gradually decline until the meme “dies”. After a period of time, the meme will start circulating once again in a purely ironic fashion until it reaches what is called “meme singularity.” The meme has now entered online spheres as a unique character and its value is defined depending on the context it is being used. 

 The fact that memes are a product of weird (and increasingly, self-deprecating) humor says a lot about the postmodern world and the structures in it. In a society built through strict social norms, memes enable us to regain a sense of self control. It is by shitposting through memes that reason and regulation are deliberately challenged, made fun of, and bastardized. It is through memes that we get to rebel, albeit passively, against limiting corporate structures. 

It goes without saying that powerful mediums like memes are capable of making lasting impacts on people. But how, exactly, do memes steer social, political, and cultural transformations in the age of information? Andrew Griffin responds that while shitposting does not appear to have much of a politics, it is a tool that can be used in many ways. Memes can be used by everyone, from far-right Trump supporters to left-wing groups that stand with Bernie Sanders. For the next part, we will focus on the radical right’s meme wars and what this phenomenon means for the meme culture at large. 

  1. Meme Wars

During the controversial 2016 US presidential elections, there was a considerable growth of the supremacist movement.[3] In consonance with the many sinister things peddled during this time, some far-right groups were hellbent on polluting online spaces with hate and bigotry. Trump’s aversion to political correctness started several online fringe political discussions. A Pepe the Frog meme repurposed to wear a “Make America Great Again” hat started circulating in 4chan’s second most popular sub-forum at the time, “/pol/”. [4] Following this, the internet was suddenly awash with Pepe the Frog memes in alt-right contexts. Although it did not originally have bigoted connotations, Pepe the Frog instantly became a symbol of hate—the embodiment of the supremacist movement. 

Picture taken from Pinterest

Photo taken from Pinterest

The same phenomenon happened with the proliferation (or more aptly, reappropriation) of NPC (Non-Player Character) memes. NPCs, as the name itself suggests, are devoid of feelings and incapable of critical thinking. Alt-right users of online forums used NPC in 2018 [5] in an attempt to dehumanize liberals, moderates, progressives, and basically anyone outside right-wing spaces. 

Photo taken from Medium

NPC memes dismiss anti-Trump arguments by parodying them in a deliberatively distasteful and insulting manner. As shown in the example below, the NPC appears to express a headline that reads “ORANGE MAN IS BAD.” This goes to show that the goal of these inflammatory memes is not to answer critiques but to provoke outrage and instill aggravation—or as in modern internet slang, “own the left”. 

Photo taken from ResearchGate

The meme wars of the radical right tells us a lot about the possible future of political campaigning. In fact, a precedent has been set—no matter how ludicrous or evidently misinformed, the combined online footprints of thousands of chronically online extremists is more powerful and concerning than we think. This phenomenon, if allowed to flourish, will only embolden extremists to yank politics by bringing back reactionary, xenophobic, supremacist, and racist tenets online and eventually reinforcing the same in real life. 

What makes this even more dangerous is that these types of memes are capable of conquering even those who are apolitical or indifferent to politics and discussions of collective importance. [6] They can instill a shared stimulus and incite different minds to effortlessly produce social trends and movements that encourage hate to any social group. Used to further bigoted propaganda, memes may just be one of the most lethal weapons of mass destruction. 

While extremists in the far-right use memes to openly spread hate and disinformation, some progressives turn to memes to affirm their beliefs without having to exert the effort in actually putting them into action. Rob Flaherty, White House director for digital strategy, lauded that passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) by tweeting an image of Joe Biden graphically modified to give him glowing red laser eyes, later called the “Dark Brandon” meme. The same meme was used in a tweet [7] by Andrew Bates, Deputy Press Speaker, to echo Biden’s commitment to end “malarkey.” 

Photo taken from Vox 

The Dark Brandon meme, as a tool of pseudo progressives, provides a protective layer of irony to passively express support for something which they would struggle to actually support outside the internet. Moreover, considering the roots of this meme in chan culture [8], it can easily be mistaken as virtue-signaling or even mockery of real-life struggles. To be fair, these types of memes have so much radical potential and they can be so close, but somehow often miss the point.

The challenge of distinguishing far-right shitposting from pseudo-left shitposting tells us all we need to know—that the murky waters of the internet blurs our view of the supposed narrowest target: disinformation. This brings us to the next part of this article which tackles the radical potential of memes to empower even the most inaccessible segments of society. 

  1. Memes as Protest Art

Some scholars consider meme culture as the modern successors of the dadaist movement.[9] Dadaism or dada art  was an early 20th century movement which started as a reaction to World War I.[10] It preached itself as “anti-art”  in its attempt to overturn reactionary bourgeois notions of art. Like dadaists, meme creators do not identify themselves as traditional artists. As much as possible, they try to detach themselves from art forms that enforce and glorify the status quo. In fact, a number of young meme creators use memes to express either frustration or dissatisfaction to the state of affairs.  

Photo taken from Meme Generator

Perhaps, today’s generation sees itself in a state of turmoil similar to post World War I—minority groups are disenfranchised, inequality is strife, human rights are easily trampled upon, and others. In creating and sharing internet memes, we cultivate a sense of absurd humor to cope with our struggles. Dadaists and meme creators therefore share similar ends: to express the pervading disillusionment of their own generations in ways that subvert ordinary expectations.  

The irony of most forms of protest art is that while they are intended to disrupt harmful systems, they have repeatedly been commodified. This almost instantly renders their radical impulses null in driving powerful social movements. Memes, on the other hand, might just be the perfect medium of challenging the status quo at present and in the future. The meme culture incorporates hyper specific cultural signifiers and changes so quickly that attempts to monetize it generally fails. Take the silent crash of the Non-Fungible Token (NFT) Industry which previously offered promises of “owning” a digital asset (including memes). The beauty of memes, aside from all that has been stated, is that the ruling class can never own them. 

Photo taken from NFT Now

Earlier, we have discussed that while memes can easily spread like wildfire, they will inevitably fall stale after a period of time. This stems from the meme culture’s seeming aversion to mainstreaming which is also somewhat a form of anti-cultural appropriation or a step towards deterritorialization. It is almost as if the backlash against “normies” is the digital counterpart of the same critique marginalized groups give to hegemonic structures appropriating their cultural assets. 

While it is easy to view memes as nothing but products of absurd humor, they are very much capable of shaping the political environment and amplifying social calls. This form of protest art allows us to affirm one another and sheds light on issues of social injustice unlike any other. During a time when public dissent is silenced and censorship is stronger than ever, memes can be useful in communicating our grievances and holding some people accountable. Sure enough, memes will not (or at least, not easily) delegitimize repressive structures as they require concrete and concerted effort to be toppled. It is obviously essential, more than anything, to learn from historical steps toward social justice, freedom, and equality. However, we cannot simply ignore the fact that it is about time we use evidently powerful tools, like memes, for social change to our advantage.

  1. Semiotics of Memes and Soiled Philippine Politics

Introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure, semiotics is the study of signs, symbols, and their interpretations. This study is therefore useful in examining the nature of memes as they contain both visual and linguistic signs. Davison (2012) argues that there are three components of internet memes: (1) the existence of a physical observable asset, (2) the creation and performance of the meme, and (3) the conveyance of concept or ideas.[11] These components allow memes to break presumably any and all social norms, eventually giving them a humorous effect. The incongruity theory, as defined by Berger (1993), posits that “all humor involves some kind of a difference between what one expects and what one gets”. Memes appeal because they deviate from the norm and contradict ordinary circumstances. From a semiotic perspective, we use memes to violate codes and expose the distorted portrait of the society. This proves that humor is not all there is in memes.

The Philippine political arena is a dynamic stage for meme wars. Memes were systematically used as part of election propaganda as early as the 2010 election in the Philippines. Who would forget the Villaroyo and Dagat ng Basura memes who went viral weeks and months before the May 2010 election which contributed to the eventual loss of Manny Villar?

Memes appeal to Filipinos’ social psyche of finding humor in everything, including the countless numbers of questionable political practices—from celebrities turned senators, vulgar chief executives, up to family dynasties. Humor became a close ally, and before we know it, we have started using memes to ridicule representatives of power and political elites. 

Photo taken from Philippine Insider TV [Youtube]

During a time when people are not feel too empowered to join or lead concrete social movements, they use humor to elicit an attack, no matter how incongruous this may seem. Memes have been fundamentally helpful in unmasking ideologies and bringing awareness to the many ills within the Philippine political arena. Apart from being an expression of fun, Filipino humor can actually serve to criticize political ineptitude. As Lynch (2002) similalry argues, online users use humor, particulaly memes, to cope with political adversities and organize a culture of dissent. 

Thus far, we have shown how memes acquired the ability to break boundaries and steer cultural revolution. But memes can also be used to serve the interests of dominant and repressive ideologies. Memes were used to attack progressive candidates in the last Philippine election. Its viral appeal becomes an important fixture in the disinformation ecosystem in the cyberspace.

Thus, we must still remain vigilant and critical in throwing all our hopes on the revolutionary potential of memes. Memes, like anything under the Information Age, are still actively co-opted by the capitalist structures that give premium to engagement and reach that serve the interests of advertisers.

Thornier questions will inevitably arise as memes continue to evolve alongside the cyberspace that produces it.


[1] Sagun, Karryl Kim. (2013). Internet Memes as an Information Dissemination Tool for Libraries: The Ateneo De Manila University Experience. Retrieved at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042813038160?ref=pdf_download&fr=RR-2&rr=750d889bb952bc58 

[2] Newson, L. and Richerson P. (2022). Dual Inheritance Theory. Retrieved at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1881#:~:text=Dual%20inheritance%20theory%20is%20a,the%20product%20of%20their%20culture

[3] Schreckinger, B. (2015) Politiko. White Supremacist Groups See Trump Bump. Retrieved at https://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/donald-trump-white-supremacists-216620

[4] The Conversation. (2017). How an ancient Egyptian god spurred the rise of Trump. Retrieved at https://theconversation.com/how-an-ancient-egyptian-god-spurred-the-rise-of-trump-72598

[5] The New York Times. (n.d.). What is NPC, the Pro-Trump Internet’s New Favorite Insult. Retrieved at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/16/us/politics/npc-twitter-ban.html

[6] Liyanage, C. Vox Pol. How the Radical Right Weaponises Memes. Retrieved at https://www.voxpol.eu/how-the-radical-right-weaponises-memes/?fbclid=IwAR3272Jlj_zE6BWOoap9JHU66_WVGMGmu3qGdzTKqqxfFgEZRQuIKjpEgX8

[7] [Twitter] Dark Brandon Meme. Retrieved at https://twitter.com/AndrewJBates46/status/1556423712060149762.

[8] [Archive.Org] Dark Brandon Meme. Retrieved at https://archive.vn/6qpwE

[9] Skittides, V. (2022). Res Republica. Memes as a Form of Protest Art: A Neo Neo-Dadaist Movement. Retrieved from https://respublicapolitics.com/articles/memes-as-a-form-of-protest-art-a-neo-neo-dadaist-movement#:~:text=Both%20Dadaists%20and%20meme%20creators,show%20disillusionment%20through%20absurd%20humour

[10] [Wikipedia]. Dada. Retrieved at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dada

[11] Davison, P. (2012). The Language of Internet Memes. Retrieved from https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.18574/nyu/9780814763025.003.0013/html 

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