It might not be the most classic topic in the wild and wacky world of converged communications, but here it comes – time for memes. It’s a fact: Memes are widespread across today’s Internet. A typical meme consists of an image (often a well-known, widely-used one) along with a caption, which may run across the spectrum from serious to satirical, from contemplative to laugh-out-loud funny. Although memes aren’t strictly limited to the Internet – they fill a 21st-century niche as cultural symbols, whose precursors predate the birth of the Web by decades if not centuries – the acceleration of today’s social media has enabled memes to spread like wildfire. Just within the past week, the Winter Olympics have brought the emergence of new memes, like the displeased reaction of American figure skater Ashley Wagner (check a previous blog post for more information).
Memes may not seem to be significant to academics at first glance, but think again. Because memes can spread within hours across the entire Internet, crossing national and linguistic boundaries, they illustrate ways that the speed of modern communication can connect an idea with an enormous audience in a small amount of time. In this sense, memes represent dromology in action. Plus, memes illustrate ways that an image (much as discussed by John Berger in his Ways of Seeing lecture) can be put to use for purposes not originally imagined by its creator. When experimenting with memes and the ways of meshing verbal and visual language, while also managing the connotative and denotative aspects of text and images, converged communicators can discover methods of bringing these often-disparate elements into harmony. Thus, words and pictures are harnessed to serve the creator’s ends, while also using existing cultural symbols to lead the audience to view ideas in a new light.