Review by LauraAnne Carroll-Adler, University of Southern California

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Memes in Digital Culture

Limor Shifman
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. 216. Nonfiction.


Cover of Memes in Digital Culture

My first impression on reading Limor Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture was—this must have been fun to write. It was certainly fun to read. I suspect most readers flipped through first to find all the illustrations of memes, because memes are, well, fun. As Shifman notes within her book—borrowing a phrase from Richard A. Lanham—memes are part of an “Economy of Attention,” and the creative humor and play of memes attracts our attention. Shifman undertakes the task of showing us how memes can also be studied formally, using methodology and theory from the field of Communication. The book opens with a forward explaining the mission of the MIT Press Series: to “offer accessible, concise. . . pocket-sized books” that provide “foundational knowledge” of “specialized subject matter for nonspecialists” (vii). For the most part, it does an exceptional job of fulfilling that goal. This book could also serve as a text for undergraduate classes; it provides a vocabulary and a theoretical framework for further work and analysis.

Shifman tackles this sprawling, ever-growing, and evolving subject by setting up categories. Her first chapter introduces the concept of the meme, starting with the very accessible example of “Gangnam Style," and explains her methodology. In what may be a bridge, of sorts, between printed and digital media, Shifman brings visual rhetoric to her text, repeating one key description or concept from each chapter in a large white font on a black page. In this opening chapter, she uses the black page to reiterate that “memes diffuse from person to person, but shape and reflect general social mindset,” emphasizing the negotiation between individual and social meaning and agency that characterizes the discussion of meme creation and dissemination throughout the book.

An exploration of background—“A Telegraphic Biography of a Conceptual Troublemaker," as Shifman titles her 2nd chapter—traces the roots of the term “meme” to Richard Dawkins, and then even further to Dawkins’ derivation of the term from the Greek memeta, associating it with both genes/genetics and memory. She also notes that the negotiation of meanings and cultural context that memes traverse is made possible by the participatory nature of Web 2.0. “Internet Memes,” she concludes, “can be treated as (post)modern folklore.  . . . [S]hared norms and values are constructed through cultural artifacts such as Photoshopped images or urban legends” (pp. 14-15). Users who create new memes negotiate between novel ideas and previously familiar sets of images and approaches.

Chapter 3 moves to an explanation of another negotiation inherent to digital memes—the pull between individuality and membership in a social group. The black page quotation reiterates that “people use memes to simultaneously express both their uniqueness and their connectivity” (pp. 30-31). Returning to Dawkins’ criteria, she notes that the properties of “longevity, fecundity, and copy fidelity” are all enhanced by internet transmission.  She illustrates these properties by comparing a pre-internet meme, “Killroy was here,” to the diffusion and repackaging of the “Charlie bit my finger” and the “Planking” memes, showing how both take a common theme—a connecting factor—and remix or adapt it to individualize it. Killroy, however, was contained by its means of transmission, which required physical space and presence. Speed of interpretation and transmission were both limited. With a “hypermemetic logic,” however, any meme can be accessed, interpreted, and re-created immediately and widely, allowing for a huge pool of mimetic recreations, each introducing possibilities for personalization and dissemination without dilution.

Her definition of the internet meme is fully covered in Chapter 4. As she does throughout the book, Shifman builds to her definition by first clarifying terminology and setting up categories with which to build her case. She again dips into already established concepts—memes as complex ideas loaded on vehicles for easier transmission, and memes as behaviors, and then Susan Blackmore’s explanation of a meme as “any type of information that can be copied by imitation” (p. 39). Shifman then proposes a definition that facilitates more thorough analysis. She defines “mimetic dimensions” of context, form, and stance, noting that users can pull meaning from any or all of these three properties when creating a new meme or version of a meme. She presents her full definition: “(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” (p. 41). Shifman illustrates how this imitation and negotiation works with the example of the “Leave Britney Alone” video, which spawned thousands of imitations, most of which kept the setting and style of the original—the form—and closely copied the content—“Leave X Alone!”— but shifted to a parodic rather than serious stance.

A brief Chapter 5 distinguishes “memes” from virals, and includes a chart to map out properties of virals and memes. In general, virals remain unchanged in repetition and memes are characterized by user-driven adaptations. Chapter 6 has much more quantitative and theoretical work to do; here, Shifman looks at why and how memes and virals successfully propagate. The most important and relevant of these traits seem to be humor or positivity, emotional appeal, and a message made accessibly simple. The “Kony 2012” campaign illustrates how a meme can simplify a story, provide a very emotional pitch, and an opportunity for a hopeful, positive response. She describes the properties most commonly found in successful memes: use of ordinary people, a display of “flawed masculinity,” humor, simplicity, repetition, and “whimsical content.” Interestingly, these elements echo many characteristics of folklore, mentioned in Chapter 2 as a modern analog to meme creation and propagation. The final, perhaps most important property of a successful meme is its sense of incompletion that “serves as a textual hook for further dialog” (p. 86). The best memes—like the best conversationalists—never try to have the last word.

In Chapter 7, Schifman further categorizes memes by genre, noting how literacy in the different genres establishes cohesion within defined groups. Her list of genres includes “Reaction Photoshops,” “Photo Fads,” the flash mob, lip sync videos, misheard lyrics, recut trailers, LOLcats, stock characters, and Rage Comics. The categories here seem slightly arbitrary. Genre is a complex, slippery concept to pin down even in a more formal medium with traditional gatekeeping influences; with memes, which operate without such gatekeepers and which open the creative process to an infinite number of users working in an environment that rewards clever re-invention, it becomes close to impossible. Any set of genres risks becoming dated quickly (Where is Grumpy Cat? Or is he a sub-genre of LOLCats?). Perhaps work in this area could explore issues of perpetually redefined and regenerated genres, or of new ways to define categorization of creative products in a digital medium.

Chapter 8 shifts from the meme as a form of personal expression and display to meme as political speech. The Pepper Spraying Cop figures prominently in her examination of the form and function of political memes, as does the  “We are the 99%” meme featuring images of handwritten signs carrying stories of economic struggles.  Schifman doesn’t address the Slacktivism debate, instead focusing on memes as “pivotal links between the personal and the political” (p. 129). The user input characteristic of digital memes could perhaps be seen as an active, rhetorical undertaking, differing from the passivity of “liking” or forwarding.

Chapter 9, on Global Internet memes, is perhaps the section most affected by the introductory-level format of the book. The visualized quotation for this chapter notes that memes have “become powerful—yet often invisible—agents of globalization,” but the topic of globalization proves too far reaching to be rendered by a discussion of a few internet jokes and memes, and it’s not clear how these items are agents rather than side-effects of globalization. One discussion follows the re-purposing of the “Successful Black Man” meme, which exploits stereotypes of African-American men, then turns the reader’s assumptions around. This concept was re-envisioned with the Israeli “Avika, the Humanist Ultra-Orthodox Man,” which presents an atypical Orthodox character. As Shifman notes, the re-configuration represents a different presentation of content and stance. It’s not apparent how this example perpetuates globalization. An extended academic study of memes, in fact, might well start with the questions left opened in this chapter.

As Shifman’s final chapter, “Future Directions for Internet Meme Research,” suggests, the material in Memes in Digital Culture is meant to initiate continuing work on digital culture. She proposes four areas for future research, which roughly correspond to fields of politics and social activism, linguistics, rhetorical analysis, and what could perhaps be described as practical or commercial considerations, which would continue the work on determining and replicating the properties behind successful memes. This short chapter is the only one without a visualization page—instead, it concludes with the “Challenge Accepted!” meme. Yes, indeed.


LauraAnne Carroll-Adler teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California. In addition to an interest in digital media and humanities, she is interested in rhetorical studies of apology, atonement, and forgiveness.  Her most recent work was a conference presentation on Disney princesses and morality plays.

© 2015 LauraAnne Carroll-Adler, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 5 (2015)