Improspectives

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Review of Memes in Digital Culture, by Limor Shifman (MIT Press)

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In addition to my other ventures, I’m the editor and lead reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. Some of the books I cover related directly to my work as an improviser and speaker — Memes in Digital Culture is just such a work. This review originally appeared on January 5, 2014.

Title: Memes in Digital Culture

Author: Limor Shifman

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52543-5

Length: 200

Price: $13.95

Rating: 94%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

I’m a fan of the Essential Knowledge Series from MIT Press. These small-format books provide useful information on a variety of digital culture topics, including Information and the Modern Corporation and Intellectual Property Strategy, which I have also reviewed. In Memes in Digital Culture, author Limor Shifman of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem develops a framework for analyzing memes in the networked age.

Memes as Entities

An early meme familiar to Americans and other western audiences is Kilroy Was Here, attributed to James J. Kilroy, a Massachussetts shipyard inspector. More recent examples are the Pepper Spraying Cop, Scumbag Steve, and Socially Awkward Penguin. Richard Dawkins introduced memes in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. In that work, Dawkins argued that memes are small units of culture transmitted amongst a population, like genes. Dawkins’s framework posits that memes have three main characteristics: longevity, fecundity, and copy fidelity. Shifman points out that the Internet enhances all three of those aspects, allowing exact digital copies of memes to spread quickly and to stay around longer in the Facebook timelines, Twitter feeds, and hard drives of users.

Dawkins created his original theory of memes before networking technologies became commonplace. Shifman extends his work by defining an Internet meme as:

(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which (b) were created with awareness of each other, and (c) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.

Many commentators use the terms meme and viral interchangeably, but Shifman argues they’re two very different things. Her definition of memes emphasizes the transformational aspect of creation and sharing, such as adding a new caption to a common image. Korean rapper PSY’s viral video “Gangnam Style”, which was viewed more than one billion times on YouTube, was immensely popular but not, at least at first, a meme. Later take-offs on the theme, such as an homage to the wealthy former U.S. presidential candidate called “Romney Style”, marked the transition from viral video to meme.

Analyzing Memes

Shifman argues that memes can be analyzed in three ways: content, form, and stance; and interpreted through economic, social, and cultural/aesthetic lenses. Content, form, and stance capture the creative elements of a meme, including the contributor’s attitude toward the subject matter and subtext inherent in the creation. For example, the “Leave Britney Alone” video creator puts forward, through subtext, the idea that it’s OK to be a gay male wearing a wig and eyeliner. It’s also possible to break memes down into genres, including Reaction Photoshops (Photoshop-edited images are sometimes called “shoops”), Photo Fads, Flash Mobs, Recut Trailers, Misheard Lyrics, Bad Dubbing, and LOL Cats.

Chapter 8 focuses on memes in the political realm, particularly involving citizen participation. In the U.S., that trend included the Occupy Wall Street movement and the “I am the 99%” percent meme. Shifman and her colleagues also investigated memes in France, China, Israel, and Egypt. Because many regimes monitor or censor the internet in general and social media in particular, activists use code words to obscure their discussions and intentions. Memes also bring the difference between what Erving Goffman called the frontstage and backstage political venues into sharper relief. The frontstage represents the public face of a politician or campaign, while the backstage represents the venues where the real work gets done.

Final Thoughts

Like the other Essential Knowledge Series books I’ve had the pleasure to review, Dr. Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture provides a solid overview on an interesting topic. I can easily see academics adopting her text as required reading for digital media analysis courses and executives reading it to gain insights into meme culture.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.

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