Memes are everywhere. On social media, decorating grade school classrooms, printed on t-shirts, and influencing dance moves. But what is a meme? The Miriam-Webster Dictionary states that a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Or “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media (“Meme”).” In practice, memes generally take the form of an image that is copied and modified to make jokes about culture.
The Intentional Fallacy, written by Wimsatt and Beardsley, discusses the importance of removing the author’s intent from their work and see if the art is effective without the added context. If the author’s intent is different than how the audience interprets the intent, then how does that change the meaning? How does this apply to memes? The majority of memes are on anonymous internet forums, so the poster’s real-life identity is usually unknown. However, if the website allows for a screen name, the post history can serve as a personality basis for the account. That being said, how is The Intentional Fallacy relevant to memes?
There are three states of memes and society: Author’s intent, reposter’s intent, and overall themes without the author. The original author is the creator of the meme: she was the one who took the screenshot or drew the picture and made the original caption to go alongside the image. The reposter is the person who takes this image and modifies it, while keeping the base image or idea the same. The modifications usually take the form of changing the text associated with the image or using image editing to change a minor part of the initial image.
Additionally, the reposter is part of the audience for the original meme, but becomes a new author when posting the modified image. The analysis used for the meme of the original author can then be applied to the reposter. Reposters will be treated as authors for the rest of the essay. As for the overall themes of a specific meme, the content of all memes in a specific type can be compiled to determine what the meme is commenting in society. This is where the Intentional Fallacy comes into play: when looking at aggregated memes of any specific type, the overall message of the memes do not change when the author’s context is removed. However, when looking at a singular meme, the author intent must be taken into consideration as the meme without this context is just a picture with a caption.
For example, the most notorious meme that reflects societal movements is Pepe the Frog. The origins of the meme came from a web comic “Boy’s Club” where Pepe is the quintessential “frat-bro” who spends time with his roommates doing typical teenage male activities: playing video games, eating pizza, and humor over extensive discussions on the character’s personal grooming habits. The image “feels good man” is a close up of Pepe’s face with a speech bubble.
This image was used as a reaction image when discussing topics on the internet that “feel good” or swapped with a modified version of the image with the caption “feels bad man” when something causes discomfort or disgust. The original author of this meme used this image to express a reaction instead of typing a comment in a thread. Other people eventually took the image and captioned it to promote anti-Semitic and anti-immigration messages in relation to the 2016 US Presidential Election (“How ‘Pepe’”, 2016).
A study about the anonymous forum 4-Chan and the continuous debate surrounding internet memes was conducted in 2015. The study looked at the role of internet memes in conversations and how they are used to create status in online forums. If the meme is well-liked, it will gain popularity and more users will share similar images. If a meme is used incorrectly, the community will ostracize the user and continue on with the “correct” usage.
“… Meme creators are required to know which aspects of a meme should be kept unchanged and where they can express originality—a balancing act between including enough group knowledge to establish a frame and expanding the meme with novel expression (Nissenbaum, 2015).”
When the Neo-Nazi Pepe memes surfaced, the community embraced the new format and message. The “feels good man” caption was replaced with hate messages, or the face of the famous frog was altered to resemble Donald Trump (“How ‘Pepe’”, 2016).
Once the meme spread beyond the 4-chan message boards, other people who agreed with the messages shared the images and created their own as well. “Furthermore, the successful dissemination of memes is reliant on their fitting within mindsets or frames of social networks (Spitzberg, 2014). Memes thus function as part of a culture, contributing to the set of ideas around which communities gather and act (Nissenbaum, 2015).”
Once the anti-immigration memes appeared on the internet, those websites became a hotbed of activity where similar-minded individuals gathered. The memes acted like a flag, indicating to other white supremacists where to go to organize rallies and share hateful messages. The Anti-defamation league had to list the Pepe the frog as a hate symbol due to the real life effects of these memes. While the author’s intent for the meme is what designates the Pepe meme as a statement about “using the bathroom after a long car ride” versus “approving a concentration camp for immigrants,” therefore reflecting the author’s idea on whatever is going on at the time, the appearance and rapid sharing of racist messages indicated a social movement towards aggressive racism.
“However, because so many Pepe the Frog memes are not bigoted in nature, it is important to examine use of the meme only in context. The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist. However, if the meme itself is racist or anti-Semitic in nature, or if it appears in a context containing bigoted or offensive language or symbols, then it may have been used for hateful purposes. (“Pepe”)”
This is an example of the Intentional Fallacy in action, as the author’s intent does not necessarily change the grand scale messages of the meme, but rather how the message of the meme is used to see social patterns.
Another recent phenomenon in the meme world is memes about depression. Posts will usually contain quotes about not having energy and sleeping all day, not having friends, or casual statements about wanting to die, all made in various contexts.
As with the Pepe meme, certain websites are the main hubs of activity. However, unlike the Pepe memes, depression memes are usually posted on social media where users have an established online identity and the post history is easy to find. The Intentional Fallacy applies to this type of meme as well: the ideas over a genre of memes indicate increasing mental health issues, but on the individual scale the author’s intent changes the meaning of the meme.
The main age range for memes is teenagers and adults 13-40, also known as Millennials and Generation Z. As this generation is facing anxieties of many sorts as stated in a 2012 survey of college students (Krusselbring, 2012) diagnoses of mental health issues have increased. What if the increased awareness of mental health through memes contributes to the increased diagnoses, as the affected individuals begin to recognize the signs of depression and seek help earlier?
As with the Pepe meme, individual context is important. Is the poster creating the original meme or recirculating an existing one? Is the forum topic talking about a topic unrelated to depression and a depression meme was thrown in, or was it contributing to the conversation? In this case, the author’s intent challenges The Intentional Fallacy again, where the intent changes the meaning of the memes from casual joking or a cry for help. When a pattern is noticed on a social media, other users do step in and intervene.
Reddit moderators noticed these trends on the Depression Memes forum, and created the Suicide Watch forum was created to act as a digital helpline, as many of the active posters showed signs of contemplating suicide and struggling with depression. Often, they would be averse to finding help through traditional means such as calling a helpline or finding a professional therapist, but were comfortable in the anonymous online forum (Hess, 2015).
The difference between sarcasm over normal feelings and needing help can be indicated by the overall context within a user’s history and messages, and The Intentional Fallacy is again challenged with this type of meme when on the personal scale. Nonetheless, with the large scale analysis of depression memes, the individual author’s intent does not matter as the goal is to find the overarching ideas within the memes.
One final type of meme to be discussed is Surreal Memes. These type of memes are nonsensical images with whimsical characters and even if the reader knows the references, it does not affect the actual meaning, as the goal is to create an image without meaning. If the audience is confused or disturbed, the meme is successful. Common features in these memes are uncanny representations of people, odd misspellings of common words, and some foreboding comments about the unknown or the possibility of higher powers existing.
The imagery in these memes can be linked together to create a meta plot type of story, with recurring characters, if the reader tried hard enough. Ultimately, however, the whole narrative is nonsensical. Why are these memes selected for analysis within the context of The Intentional Fallacy? This is an example of a meme that if the author intent is known, it proves the Intentional Fallacy true: knowing the author’s intent does not change the meaning of the meme. Removing the original creator from the context of the meme does not necessarily indicate any change in meaning in context for theses memes, and the people sharing the image probably also find the concept just plain funny. The joke with this type is that there is no meaning, and a few examples purposely make fun of readers trying to find meaning.
When reviewing the overall context of the surreal memes, it can be noted that there is a distinct lack of the political, as in the case of the Pepe meme, or the social, as in the case of depression memes. This is another aspect of the reflection of memes on society, as the distinct lack of cultural topics indicate feelings of wanting to escape from these social issues. An interview with professors who study memes and the founders of the SurrealMemes community on Reddit attempts to explain the apolitical appeal to these memes. Ryan Milner is one of the professors interviewed this this article:
“Posting surreal memes is a way to be strange and weird without referencing current events. In an internet climate where so much of what is being shared on social media is either incredibly partisan or really safe, ‘this is a way to push those expectations in a way that’s not too political, edgy or problematic,’ Milner said. (Matsaskis, 2017).”
Memes without meaning attract those who are tired of the usual politics and dramatic discourse around current events. The authors of surreal memes post without meaning and fit with within the arguments made with the Intentional Fallacy. If the meme is not made with a specific message in mind, it cannot be analyzed within the context of the author’s intent. As with the Pepe and depression memes, the large scale analysis of surreal memes fits within the intentional fallacy, as removing each author from the meaning of the memes still allows the memes to function as a reflection of social trends.
If memes are indicators of social trends, how does that work? Questions such as “What are a group of memes saying? Where are these memes popular? What are the poster’s demographics?” can indicate who is most likely to participate in these movements. For example, 4-Chan and Reddit is mostly populated by 18-34 years old men from the United States (“Advertise”, and “the Demographics”, 2018), while Tumblr, another anonymous social media popular with meme sharing has a 50% gender distribution within the same age brackets “Tumblr User Statistics”, 2016).
As Pepe memes are mostly concentrated within 4-chan, it can indicate what ideas are popular with the young white male demographic, while memes on Tumblr show what a wider range of demographics are interested in. Other demographics breakdowns can include location, sexual orientation, education, political views, and religion. The trends among both broad and extremely specific categories of people can then be studied through meme analysis.
Memes as indicators of societal movements is an overall new approach. Monitoring those movements can also be accomplished though newspapers, movies, petitions, and protests. The invention of the internet and the anonymity brought alongside it has allowed greater numbers of people to participate in the sharing of ideas with less risk of repercussions. If a person has a public, known, internet presence and a second account not tied to their everyday identity, the ideas hiding under the surface can be brought out. In the case of Pepe and depression memes, the anonymous forums bring out the controversial and potentially embarrassing topics with less risk of revealing to close friends and family about what the poster is dealing with in their lives.
Memes provide a real-time social critique, while offering opportunities for individual and population analysis: the digital format that allows for the rapid sharing of ideas also allows for the automatic compilation and analysis of these images. Trending topics are already a feature of most social media websites, and researchers can pull this data at any time. The Intentional Fallacy can be applied to memes within certain contexts. If the meaning of the meme changes context of in and out of the conversation, The Intentional Fallacy is not upheld on the individual scale. It can still be proven true though when looking at a compilation of memes to find trends in the population. Removing the context of the individual author and finding the popular topics within memes allows the study of social commentary even in the case of an unknown author.
- “Advertise.” 4chan, 4chan, www.4chan.org/advertise.
- Hess, Amanda. “How Reddit Is Changing Suicide Intervention.” Slate Magazine, He Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company., 3 Mar. 2015, https://slate.com/technology/2015/03/reddit-and-suicide-intervention-how-social-media-is-changing-the-cry-for-help-and-the-answer.html
- “How ‘Pepe the Frog’ Went from Harmless to Hate Symbol.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 11 Oct. 2016, www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-pepe-the-frog-hate-symbol-20161011-snap-htmlstory.html.
- Kruisselbrink Flatt, Alicia. “A Suffering Generation: Six Factors Contributing to the Mental Health Crisis in North American Higher Education.” College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology. 1750 Finch Avenue East, Toronto, Ontario M2J 2X5, Canada. Tel: 416-491-5050; Fax: 905-479-4561; Web Site: Http://Www.collegequarterly.ca, 30 Nov. 2012, eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1016492.
- Matsakis, Louise. “Surreal Memes Are the Last Escape the Internet Has.” Motherboard, VICE, 1 July 2017, motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/xwz833/surreal-memes-are-the-last-escape-the-internet-has.
- “Meme.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meme.
- Nissenbaum, Asaf, and Limor Shifman. “Internet Memes as Contested Cultural Capital: The Case of 4chan’s /b/ Board.” New Media & Society, vol. 19, no. 4, Sept. 2015, pp. 483–501., doi:10.1177/1461444815609313.
- “Pepe the Frog.” Anti-Defamation League, Anti-Defamation League, www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/pepe-the-frog?referrer=https:/www.google.co.uk/.
- “The Demographics of Reddit: Who Uses the Site?” Tech Junkie, Box 20 LLC, 26 Oct. 2018, www.techjunkie.com/demographics-reddit/.
- “Tumblr Users Statistics 2016 Infographics | GMI.” Global Media Insight, GLOBAL MEDIA INSIGHT – DUBAI DIGITAL INTERACTIVE AGENCY, 17 Dec. 2016, www.globalmediainsight.com/blog/tumblr-users-statistics/.
- Wimsatt, W K, and Monroe C Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, Third ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2007, pp. 810–818.