A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Polyvocal Digital Discourse: A Review of Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture

Review of Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman 2014; The MIT Press

Jennifer Roth Miller, University of Central Florida

(Published: February 4, 2016) 

The term Internet meme conjures images of strangers and friends “planking,” remaking “Gangnam Style,” and participating in Occupy Wall Street’s “We are the 99 Percent.” Many debate whether these seemingly trivial digital memes are deserving of serious academic attention. Memes in Digital Culture, written by Limor Shifman and published as part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series in 2014, examines this up-to-date topic that may not have received as much thoughtful attention as it should. Similar to “researchers such as Michele Knobel, Colin Lankshear, Lance Bennett, Ryan Milner, and Jean Burgess” Shifman advocates for practical studies of memes (6). With the recent publication of a special issue of the Journal of Visual Culture on Internet Memes in December 2014, this topic is clearly gaining validity in academic discourses and Shifman is a serious contributor to research on communicative dimensions of Internet memes (Nooney and Portwood-Stacer 251).

Overall, Memes in Digital Culture is a current examination of the communicative roles memes serve in digital culture. Chapter one introduces readers to the author’s main arguments. Shifman attempts to “bridge the gap between academic and popular discourse about memes” (4). She argues Internet memes are worthy of research because they embody the many embedded aspects of Web 2.0 participatory culture. Much about digital culture can be made explicit by studying these seemingly insignificant bits of popular culture. The author successfully demonstrates how memes embody digital culture and carry out social and political beliefs, usually by ordinary people through humor. Iterations of memes represent a variety of views and opinions shared through polyvocal memetic discourse.

The author bases her points on academically accepted information and concepts. The literature review in chapters two and three is comprehensive and grounds her arguments and research questions well. Many of the authors and books referred to are well-recognized, widely accepted, and respected in academia. Academics interested in memes will appreciate the notes section at the end of the book. This section outlines references by chapter and indicates specific page numbers of referenced works to consult for more information.

 Chapter three traces the evolution of the meme from offline to online spaces. Most of the memes examined in the book were live in recent years. However, the book also discusses a historical meme, “Kilroy Was Here.” This offline meme, launched during World War II, demonstrates how the meme concept is not new. This gives her arguments validity. Including more examples of offline historical memes may have been an opportunity to further prove the power of memes, their role in history, and their worthiness of serious research.

 In chapter three, Shifman also discusses the role networked individualism plays in the success of memetic content. Memes offer people an opportunity to be noticed and have their opinions valued in a culture where individuality is minimized in the grand scheme of the never-ending network and its content. Shifman describes it as “common social logic: in an era marked by ‘networked individualism,’ people use memes to simultaneously express both their uniqueness and connectivity” (30).

 Chapter four is dedicated to defining memes while chapter five contrasts memes from virals. Shifman is very comprehensive and specific in her definitions. While the author acknowledges virals, she focuses her efforts on memes, recognizing their significance in how participatory culture not only shares, but personalizes memetic content to implicitly communicate beliefs in a few words, an image, or video. In fact, many memes are born as virals, simply popular content. Virals become memes when ordinary Internet users alter the original content for their own communicative purposes. This slight difference is where the power in memetic content lies. When ordinary people interject their perspective into their version of the meme, social discourse begins to take place.

 In chapter six, Shifman shares results of both qualitative and quantitative research she has completed on memes. Studies involved identifying highly successful memetic videos and photos for a time period. She defines success as content that “generate[s] a high volume of derivatives” (73). Publicly accessible popularity measures and users’ playlist information on YouTube were utilized to identify a group of 30 highly replicated memetic videos. In looking for memetic photos to analyze, Shifman searched the “Know Your Meme” database to identify 50 successful memetic photos.

 After identifying a substantial group of successful memes, she then categorized them based on common features to ultimately identify features that contribute to memetic success. The main conclusion uncovered is that in both memetic videos and photos, the more incongruous the video or photo is with what we expect, the more likely it is ordinary people will not only spread, but alter the meme, creating a personalized meaning and sparking discourse.

 Additionally, in chapter seven, the author identifies nine meme genres, which each require different levels of digital literacy to participate in. Throughout the book, Shifman repeatedly refers to “netizens’” levels and dimensions of digital literacy. Shifman asserts, “sharing, imitating, remixing, and using popularity measures have become highly valued pillars of participatory culture, part and parcel of what is expected from a ‘digitally literate’ netizen” (23). Indeed, memes are a way that ordinary people demonstrate or even show off their digital literacy skills, proving their worthiness to participate in digital culture. For example, Photoshop skills are necessary to alter memetic photos. Video production and editing abilities are required to participate in memetic videos. Further, knowledge of posting, sharing, and replying in social network environments is a prerequisite for participation. Shifman successfully demonstrates that some genres even require specific languages in her example of “LOL Cats” (110-2).

 Later in chapter eight, Shifman moves on to a qualitative analysis of more serious uses of memes. She shares interesting accounts of memes utilized for political change and discourse. The author successfully demonstrates, “political memes are about making a point-participating in a normative debate about how the world should look and the best way to get there” (120). The “We are the 99 Percent” meme was depicted as the main example of a political meme in a democratic society, while the Chinese “River Crab” and “Mud Horse” memes are discussed as memes in a non-democratic society. These are very interesting accounts of the many functions of memes. Chapter nine is devoted to global functions of memes and translations across cultures. Finally in chapter 10, Shifman outlines areas of potential future research on memes.

 Shifman’s ultimate stance is that memes represent a legitimate and effective avenue for social and political discourse. She builds upon similar conversations in the field about the validity of memes as capable of producing real-world social or political change. Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear in their article “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production” view “memes as recognizable, bounded phenomena that have material effects in the world” (201). Additionally, Stephanie Vie, the author of “In Defense of ‘Slacktivism’: The Human Rights Campaign Facebook Logo as Digital Activism,” similarly demonstrates while some dismiss participation in activism-related memes “as ‘slacktivism’, [she] argue[s] instead that the spread of memes is an opportunity for digital activism, or instances of social and political change made possible through networks” (3).

 Shifman’s book contains many photos of memes and references to Web sites to view particular examples. This is very helpful in illustrating the points she tries to make. The author is transparent about where her information was collected from, even suggesting readers visit sites and sources themselves. Readers will appreciate referrals to other sources on the topic for additional information and to obtain data for future research projects.

 The book includes a short glossary summarizing terms covered in the book along with a short list of meme hubs. Perhaps this could be expanded to include lists organizing the wealth of information in the book, such as meme genres and attributes contributing to memetic success in uptake. Highlighting the author’s many categorizations and findings in this last section of the book would be a wonderful addition and could help readers remember and differentiate the important information uncovered in the author’s studies.

 In conclusion, Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture provides support for the validity of research of memetic content. While memes may appear to be trivial pieces of popular culture, Shifman demonstrates they are worthy of further attention because they provide a democratic avenue for polyvocal digital discourse. In social networks where characters are limited and attention is scattered, memetic photos and videos provide a unique and effective opportunity for “netizens” to communicate.

Works Cited

Knobel, Michele, and Colin Lankshear. “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production.” A New Literacies Sampler. Ed. Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 199-225. Print. 

Nooney, Laine, and Laura Portwood-Stacer. “One Does Not Simply: An Introduction to the Special Issue on Internet Memes.” Journal of Visual Culture 13.3 (2014): 248-252. Web. 14 January 2015.

Vie, Stephanie. "In Defense of ‘Slacktivism’: The Human Rights Campaign Facebook Logo as Digital Activism." First Monday: Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet 19.7 (2014): 3. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts. Web. 3 December 2014.