Web Exclusive Essay

In Defense of Memes

Whitney Phillips
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Although I agree that the terms “viral” and “meme” often connote passive transmission by mindless consumers, I take issue with the claim that “meme” always precludes active engagement—or that the term has a universal, static meaning. As understood by trolls, memes are not passive and do not follow the model of biological infection. Instead, trolls see (though perhaps “experience” is more accurate) memes as microcosmic nests of evolving content. Contrary to the assumption that memes hop arbitrarily from self-contained monad to self-contained monad, memes as they operate within trolldom exist in synecdochical relationship to the culture in which they inhere. In other words, memes spread—that is, they are actively engaged and/or remixed into existence—because something about a given image or phrase or video or whatever lines up with an already-established set of linguistic and cultural norms. In recognizing this connection, a troll is able to assert his or her cultural literacy and to bolster the scaffolding on which trolling as a whole is based, framing every act of reception as an act of cultural production. Consider the following example.

Founded in the early nineties by rappers Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, the Insane Clown Posse (ICP) is a Detroit-based hip-hop group infamous for its violent lyrics, rabid followers, and, as it was recently revealed, secret evangelical Christianity. ICP, which performs in full-face clown makeup, has always been a target for trolling humor. The 2010 release of the group’s single “Miracles,” however, opened the floodgates—in the video, Violent J and Shaggy earnestly extol the virtues of giraffes, rainbows, cats, and dogs, not to mention music (“you can’t even hold it!”) and the miracles of childbirth and the cosmos. The song itself, which is regarded as the group’s evangelical “outing,” is peppered with expletives and features the line “Fuckin’ magnets—how do they work?” a question which inspired immediate and seemingly endless repurposing.

Within a few days of the video’s release, dozens of remixed images and .gifs were posted to 4chan’s infamous /b/ board, many of which merged with existing memetic content. A well-known image of a cross-eyed, bespectacled man captioned with the phrase “are you a wizard,” for example, inspired a series of related macros, including one featuring a close-up shot of Violent J in full makeup. “are you a magnet,” the caption reads, referring not just to the cluster of memes related to the “Miracles” video but also to all the permutations of the “are you a wizard” family of macros.

In short, trolls pounced on the phrase “fuckin’ magnets” not just because it was memorable and amusing on its own (although that played a large part in its popularity, as did the thrill of a gratuitous f-bomb) but because it was easily integrated into an existing meme set. Once the protomeme had been integrated, its resulting permutations—“are you a magnet” being a prime example—became memes unto themselves, establishing further scaffolding onto which new content could be overlaid. By choosing to repost “are you a magnet” on 4chan or off-site, the contributing troll was able to assert his own cultural fluency and, in the process, ensure the proverbial (and, in some ways, the literal) survival of his species. In this sense, the creation and transmission of memes can be likened to the process of human reproduction—specifically the decision to have a child in order to protect one’s legacy. The sexual act is decidedly active, but the resulting zygote is a passive (that is to say, unwitting) vessel for genetic information.

Initially, then, it might seem that “meme” as used by trolls is synonymous with Jenkins, Ford, and Green’s conception of “spreadable media”; both imply participatory behavior, and both seek to describe cultural exchange between like-minded individuals. These apparent parallels are mitigated, however, by several critical differences. Most significantly, memes in the trolling world emerge organically, with absolutely no consideration for or loyalty to the supply side of the equation. Capital, in other words, rarely enters the picture. Trolls don’t benefit from the largess of media producers, and media producers—who, for understandable reasons, are reluctant to claim the often X-rated nature of trolling humor—don’t benefit financially from the engagement of trolls. Trolls may appropriate media content, but there is no interest in either camp for symbiosis, preempting any possibility for moral/economic relations between trolls and media producers.

In addition to resisting social and/or economic capital from without, trolldom eschews traditional forms of exchange within its own borders. For example, although anons on 4chan (almost all posts on 4chan are made anonymously; individual posters are referred to as “anon”) make a conscious decision to pass along relevant files and, in that sense, can be said to “gift” packets of cultural DNA, the creator/sharer of content doesn’t garner any individuated or quantifiable social capital by posting a particular image. If conditions are favorable, the anon’s image may create or latch onto an existing meme, which in turn may inspire further mutation(s). But this “gift” doesn’t fortify channels of reciprocity between individual users, as would be expected of a traditional gift economy. Anons on 4chan’s /b/ board, after all, are members of a faceless collective, meaning that “favors” between anons are comparable to scratching your arm because your arm itches. Although the basic criterion has been met (one anon asks for or posts something, and another anon responds by commenting, reconfiguring, or reposting the file), the interpersonal criterion (the giver and receiver enter into a consensual and mutually beneficial relationship) is not—because it can’t be. On 4chan, individuals are subsumed by the collective. There are no individuals, so there is no system of reciprocal exchange—undermining, among other things, knee-jerk assumptions about trolls’ motives but also suggesting that trolls operate under an entirely different economic and social paradigm.

In short, trolls flip the accepted account of Web 2.0 on its head. This strikes me as very important—that trolls have found a crack (or series of cracks) to slip through suggests that there are indeed further cracks to explore.

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