It doesn’t take much time online to learn that memes have become highly popular – as popular as Socially Awesome Penguin – in recent years. In many cases, they offer a forum for users to employ symbols in inventive ways, often demonstrating their own specialized knowledge of popular culture in the process. This follows the new media trend of rapid spread of ideas from separate, widely dispersed individuals. Likewise, the origin of meme graphics reflects the bottom-up trends of new new media. Some images develop as user-generated content and take off across the Internet through viral marketing appeal, while others were originally used by corporate creators (e.g., Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Muppets) but are put to new purposes. Without a fairly broad consensus of the symbols’ meaning, however, memes would have little effect. Thus, memes rely on a shared understanding among both senders and receivers within the culture.Although memes combine visual and linguistic elements, their meaning actually transcends both individual portions. This fact becomes clearer when one considers the interaction among the denotative, connotative, and linguistic characteristics of a message. In most cases, the heart of a meme’s meaning – its “punch” – comes from the connotative meaning, which links to a broader, culturally-defined concept or construct. In some cases, the primary connotations may come from the verbal parts of the message, while in other memes, the visual elements provide the main ideas. For instance, the Bad Luck Brian meme is grounded in the image; once Bad Luck Brian appears, something bad is bound to happen, and the words tell the story. In other cases, a word or phrase (like “Nope“) carries the central meaning, which can then be applied to an array of different images.
Consider the image at the beginning of this post. If you know your Latin (and maybe even if you don’t), you know that “magna cum laude” is translated as “with great praise.” It’s customarily an honor granted at graduation to students receiving bachelor’s degrees with a specified high grade point average. But if you’re going to use this honor, you have to get it right. In a past college catalog, FSCJ didn’t. Take a look: http://floridastatecollegecatalog.fscj.edu/content.php?catoid=18&navoid=2273.The humor of this mistake comes from the contrast between the sophisticated academic language (magna cum laude) used to denote high praise and the less-than-praiseworthy spelling (manga cum laude) actually used in the college catalog. That leads to the visual element. With magna (great) replaced by manga (an art style traditionally associated with Japanese comics), the denotative meaning of the phrase essentially changes as well. Accordingly, we see in the introduction a manga-style pair of graduates (original image from LadyEstelle18) with their diplomas and the bold text MANGA CUM LAUDE in the Impact font, which is typically used for memes. If “manga cum laude” had a meaning in the real world, this is what it would look like – just another lesson in the ever-changing world of converged communications.