What’s a Meme Anyway?

Milhouse is not a meme. But “Milhouse is not a meme” is a meme.

This classic internet debate may seem like nothing more than 4chan absurdity, but there are merits to considering what counts (and what doesn’t) as a meme.

Since the mid-200s, 4chan logic has dictated that Simpson character Milhouse Van Houten, despite his best efforts and desires, will never be a meme. Of course, by constantly forcing discussion of what constitutes a meme and what’s just an image posted online—and the inevitable canned responses of “Milhouse is not a meme,” the meme itself does somewhat become forced. And by another facet of 4chan logic, perhaps Milhouse actually is a meme:

Of course 4chan is hardly the reigning authority on what does or doesn’t make the cut as a meme. And despite the existence of website such as KnowYourMeme.com, there isn’t a single set of standards that define what is or isn’t actually a meme. And that’s probably a good thing; it fits the unpredictable and seemingly lawless nature of the Internet. Instead, the standards of what “counts” as a meme seem to arise organically, shifting and changing over time.

It seems that these days the word “meme” gets tossed around casually to refer to any image or video that happens to appear in an online setting. YouTube compilation of humorous Vines/TikToks? Yep those are memes. Looking at the Instagram discover page? Yep those are memes. Screenshot of something from Twitter? Yep, it’s a meme.

I don’t necessarily agree with these definitions, but given the organic nature of defining what is or isn’t a meme, it seems that the term has emerged as an acceptable description in many of these settings. Granted, this isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon either. Even in the earlier years of so-called “meme culture” there wasn’t really a clear definition either.

The mid-2000s were dominated by memes in like the “I can has cheezburger” cat-speak and demotivational poster styles.

Any image that had text in the Impact font could reasonably be called a meme. Similarly any picture that was placed within a black border made the cut. It didn’t really matter what the specific text said, or if the caption was particularly witty; these individual images would be called “memes” in day-to-day conversations. And since the 2000s this has increasingly become the case, where “hey look at this meme” is really just shorthand for “look at this image that I happened to see on the Internet.”

And while this is fine for casual day-to-day conversations, I think that this tendency to call anything that originates from an online setting a “meme” may actually overlook some of the cultural practices that are really going on. In my view, a meme is a meme because of the fact that it is a collection of images/videos/texts/jokes that are all somehow interconnected. And it’s by pinpointing that interconnection that we can see broader cultural values and practices.

Rather than defining a meme as an individual textual object–that is one image, or one video–I use Limor Shifman’s definition of an internet meme “as a group of digital items that: share common characteristics…; are created with awareness of each other; and are circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users.” Furthermore, I use the term meme instance to refer to a single iteration of a particular meme, such as one specific image, or one specific video that is shared online. Individual meme instances do not exist entirely independently. Once there is a large enough quantity of individual meme instances being created, modified, and shared they can be understood in a larger sense as a single meme. Bradley E Wiggins and G Bret Bowers describe a progression from emergent meme into a meme, made possible by the affordances of spreadable media technologies. The overall meaning of a meme contains the specific ideas expressed within each individual meme instance, but simultaneously the overall meaning of the meme influences the meaning of each individual meme instance. The meme feeds back into itself, leading toward the reading of a single meme instance building upon every other instance of that same meme that has been read previously. Through this cyclical process, the meaning of an individual meme instance is larger than just that single instance itself. Figure 2 presents a graphic representation of this cyclical relation between a meme and its individual meme instances.

Memes can be defined by their individual meme instances, but also contribute to the reading of each individual instance.

However, this cyclical process does not necessarily apply equally to all memes. Rather than considering all memes as a single group that all behave similarly, this cycle of meme and meme instances can serve as one way to map out the differences in how types of memes function. For instance, some memes may have a relatively strong connection between individual meme instances and the meme as a whole. In those cases, the overall meaning can be changed through just a few individual meme instances. Meme exploitability is one possible way to describe the differences in how this cycle applies to different memes, and therefore is a useful way to categorize memes and define meme genres. Taken in combination with other forms of meme categorization that have already been used, meme exploitability offers yet another characteristic to define meme genres and further reiterates the fact that memes are not a single homogenous group, but instead can be understood as smaller sub-groups.

The term “meme” is incredibly slippery and has a very squishy definition. Pinpointing specific criteria for what counts and what doesn’t count as a meme is difficult, and perhaps even impossible. And no, I’m not suggesting that the everyday use of the word for any online image needs to be wholly eliminated. However, for the work and writing that I do, I think it’s important to be as precise as possible. This is why I’ve always tried to be careful about when I use the word “meme” or “meme instance.” If anything, this nebulous and ever-shifting definition is just part of the fun of trying to make meaning out of the seemingly inexplainable parts of internet culture!

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