Lodovica Guarnieri, Lorenzo Gerbi

Memedom Of Expression

‘Memedom of Expression’ explores the potential of Internet memes as digital folklore. It speculates about memes as the new arena of bottom-up expression, and suggests that they are an element that is already building a European social memory. Therefore, memes are important culture to be archived.

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Socially Awkward Penguin. 1 Meme is a term that is not just referring to internet memes, but it deals with whatever image, idea, cultural cluster or artifact that composes a basic knowledge of human culture and which passes through different generations. It refers to the elements composing human cultural memory.


Grumpy Cat. 2 So, can we say that a meme is like a gene in genetics? I mean something that we can consider in an evolutionary aspect?


SAP. Yes, that’s why I think it’s interesting to apply this term to something which is created, shared and modified in the digital realm. It’s like treating internet as a body evolving in its architectures and memories.
How would you see internet memes as a digital language? Would you say that they have a specific feature which makes you identify them as such?


GC. Actually internet memes are complex cultural artifacts. They group in themselves different languages and layers, such as text, images or videos but also the invisible ironic element: by doing so they can be considered a new language.
I would define an internet meme as an image, a tweet, a video, an article, an hashtag, something that propagates through internet following a viral behavior. A meme can be shared as it is, but most of the time it’s remixed, so the idea at the base remains the same but it’s visualized, quoted or manipulated in a different way.


SAP. So an internet meme needs to be simple, recognizable and easy to be shared. Would you say that memes are inclusive or exclusive because of the pop culture they refer to, but also because of the means through which they propagate?


1  Lodovica Guarnieri
2  Lorenzo Gerbi 

GP. I think memes are most of the time inclusive, as that they refer to a culture that is widely shared, the pop culture indeed. For example, Star Wars broadly belongs to collective consciousness and therefore is one of the most used basis for memes. Obviously memes could also be exclusive since their meaning could be intelligible to specific generational or cultural sub-groups 3.


On the other side, if you are referring to inclusiveness or exclusiveness in the context of their production, I would say that they are one of the most inclusive, bottom-up and non-authoritarian means of expression, and this is one of the reason why we are analyzing them.


SAP. Then why are memes created? What is their function?


GC. I think one of their main purposes is to mock. Who? Politicians, vips, show-biz people, particular situations, even tragic events; because through irony you initiate a cathartic process. Mocking is controlling, it means reacting and establishing a position of superiority or equality to the subject of the meme itself.


SAP. Through irony you get in control of something by making it accessible and understandable. By using simple and shared images, the event is re-elaborated from a bottom-up perspective, creating a kind of history from below. It unveils the narrative given by authorities and shares the emotion of people.


GP. Yes, exactly. That’s why I think memes in their production and their use well fit a strategy of irony as a counteract.
Do you think memes help to express an opinion without revealing the author? I mean are there famous memes authors? What is their role, if there is one?


SAP. The particular feature of memes is that they compose an anonymous voice, where authorship is not considered necessary anymore. Due to this, they are able to build the social memory of a group, they can be hacked, appropriated and reinterpreted by everyone.
We can look at them as the modern version of oral culture and stories. It was only with the invention of books that the concept of authorship was introduced for the first time.
Another important aspect is that structurally memes are able to camouflage their meaning to convey their message. They become an encrypted language and this is a very essential feature in order to communicate in more and more controlled and militarized networks.


GP. You mentioned social memory. Since memes are reacting to urgent and current topics (news, facts and events), do you think in the future we’ll be able to read the history of these years through memes? Will we find them in history books?


SAP. Memes are strongly dependent on the events they talk about and their continuity on time depends on their ability of adaptation. Spongebob can become an environmental activist representing a specific human feature while reacting to particular events.
For us Spongebob is still a cartoon transformed in an environmental activist, but for our grandsons it could be just the latter. It depends on how much its image is fixed in our cultural references.


GP. It depends on the frequency and the time span of its use. If we keep on using it with this specific meaning for longer than the cartoon’s existence, it can have an independent cultural life from its reference. And this is already happening in some memes, for example the troll face, nobody wonders anymore where it comes from, we just take it for granted.


SAP. Will it be possible to understand nowadays events in the future through memes?


GP. Yes, but it could be difficult. Memes need to be archived. Need to be translated, decrypted in a way we can read them without the link to their original context and cultural reference. For example, look at what Know-Your-Meme is doing.


SAP. Can we use them to tell the story of a specific nation / state / group? Do you think it would be relevant to tell the counter-history created through memes, in situation where history, events and opinions are dictated from above?


GC. Memes could be considered as the first digital visual history ever done by the crowd. They tell us about the stories of people, and not the history of facts, by collecting the trivial aspects of daily life: the most successful tv show, the most followed twitter account, the most popular music, and so on.
The creation of a crowd participated history is important especially when it differs from the top-down one. This is happening in China  for example where memes are becoming a tool of democratic subversion 4.

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SAP. Considering nowadays situation in Europe and the lack of political but also cultural representation, would you see memes as a tool to create a European collective memory?


GC. Yes. In a universe of fragmented cultures, the challenge would be to identify an European culture. Maybe reacting to political decisions through memes is already a form of European collective memory, as it refers to specific events, situations and reactions we face in our daily life.


SAP. For example, the Greek Crisis of 2015  started an explosion of hashtags, facebook groups and memes commenting it all over Europeans, both in an ironic and serious way. OXI (“NO” in Greek) became a symbol of the voice of the people against the authority of the state. I would not be surprised if we will see it used during similar events, not just referred to Greece.
We can only deduct that these memes created a unity of opinions in Europe, even if we can’t detect where the most shared memes were created and who shared them.
This is not the most fundamental thing, we need to show memes and the opinions they express as a high cultural production, not just as pop or confined in its digital consequences 5.


Following this consideration, what Neorealism did in Italy in 1945–50’s was something similar, to represent how people reacted to specific events that were happening or happened during the war. It was a kind of an archive of the present and because of this it was successful. Which kind of medium do you think could be used for a memes archive? And which events should the archive gather? 6


GC. There are already initiatives that try to gather memes in archives, but most of them do it out of the social media sphere. I think it’s important to archive memes in the same context in which they are shared and created, so the archive itself could become memetic.


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6 Roberto Rossellini, Roma Città Aperta, 1945 

With Memedom of Expression we want to create a political archive 7 of memes in the form of a facebook page, collecting memes on current issues or events in Europe. The aim is to unveil the political and activist meaning embedded in the memes we share daily. Normally an archive is something which preserves the past, with MoE we want to collect what will be our past, our memory, our “present history”: a digital neorealism. We would still collect some relevant past memes that we think are milestones of the memedom. For example now, in Italy, one of the current topic in social media is a referendum about oil extraction from the sea, and we collect all the memes about it. To group them together is already meaningful, because it becomes evident how same recurring elements are remixed, quoted and reused in different memes. This is just the first step, a collection 8.


7 Memedom of Expression facebook page
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Lodovica Guarnieri is a researcher and multidisciplinary designer based in Eindhoven (NL). Her design practice and personal research works in the intersection between design, anthropology and politics aiming at questioning the nature of public space in its physical as well as digital architectures. Design is considered both a cultural condenser and an instrument through which different groups can act, document and reclaim their space in the public realm.


Lorenzo Gerbi is a freelance designer, art director and cultural producer based in Eindhoven (NL). Since April 2015, he manages the internal design studio of Baltan Laboratories, a collaborative platform for future thinking that looks at society through the lenses of art, science, design and technology.