Memes in Frame-Semantic Perspective

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

60 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The Term Meme
2.1. Origin and Meaning in the Context of Internet-Based Communication
2.2. Examples for Memes on the Internet

3. Image Macros as Language-Image-Texts

4. Communication Forms of Memes

5. Humour in Memes

6. Frame Semantics – Theory and Keywords

7. Analysing Image Macros with Frame Semantics
7.1. The Image Macro Form Frame
7.2. The Good Guy Greg Content Frame
7.3. The Humorous Attitude Frame

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

10. Appendix

1. Introduction

One cannot escape them, because they are everywhere. There is scarcely a day without one coming across them. They are a humorous picture, a witty message or a funny video you find on the internet. They are in our newsfeed, on our message boards or in personal messages from our friends. These sources of entertainment seem to be by now an important element of today’s web society and there is a huge number of image boards like,, or, which have no other purpose than satisfying our needs for these sources of entertainment. Even a growing number of newspapers have started to include this type of content in their online platforms. A term that is often used to describe this accumulation of different visual entities is the term “memes”, but this term is vague and ambiguous, and it does not specifically say what kind of phenomena are included in it.

This bachelor thesis is an attempt to establish these phenomena labelled as memes as valuable objects for linguistic studies. It will glance at several linguistic theories and check their relevance for analysing image macros as representatives for memes in general. Finally, it will analyse image macros by using the frame semantic framework, thus integrating the former accomplished insights in one theoretic framework with only a few central terms. This will support the thesis that frame semantics is capable of describing the patterns of encyclopaedic knowledge needed in order to understand complex bimodal entities. Now following is a list of this paper’s chapters with brief summaries of their content.

Chapter 2 introduces the reader to the object of study: Memes. It starts with discussing the origins of the term meme, describes its usage in the context of internet-based communication and gives a first view at the variety of phenomena that can be labelled as memes. It summarises insights from different authors on the matter of memes potentially useful for a linguistic analysis. The works of Limor Shifman proved to be especially useful.

In Chapter 3 Hartmut Stöckl’s theories about language-image-links are used to get a first access on a linguistic level to image macros as one group of memes. It justifies the treatment of image macros as texts that can be analysed by linguistic means. Subsequently, one example of a series of image macros is analysed according to Stöckl’s categories of the positioning of image and text, their semantic linkage and their logic connection.

The next chapter focuses on the formal aspects of memes and image macros in particular. It argues in favour of a communication-orientated perspective and takes a look at the communicative framework of image macros. For this purpose, it uses Christa Dürscheid’s properties of communication forms and questions whether it is reasonable to summarise different memetic communication forms in families. Further to analysing image macros by Dürscheid’s means, this chapter gives an example for the tendencies of memes to remediate into other communication forms.

Memes have not been a popular object of linguistic studies yet, so it is necessary for this paper to rely firstly on theories that may also include memes. This is also the reason why the analysis only focuses on image macro, because image macros share many features of advertisement boards, which is a well-used example in Stöckl’s linguistic studies (cf. Stöckl 2004, 2009). In order to be able to distinguish between the many different phenomena aggregate under the term meme, I decided to include Dürrscheid’s categories for communication forms as well.

Chapter 5 establishes the humour used in image macros as a result of incongruity. It describes the key elements domains, expectation and incongruity of Alexander Brock’s model for describing humour and demonstrates them using the example of the Good Guy Greg image macro series.

In Chapter 6, the central concepts and terms of frame semantics are explained. It focuses thereby on the aspects of frame semantics relevant for the latter analysis of image macros and limits the terminology to the four keywords: Frame, slot, filler and default value.

The final analysis starts in chapter 7 and tries to blend the theoretical framework discussed in this paper into one diversified analysis of image macros. It relies on the insight of the former chapters and rewrites them in frame semantic means in order to have consistent terminology for all theoretical aspects. One aim of this chapter is to identify frames that are relevant for understanding image macros and their slots.

One Problem that occurred more than once in the process of writing this bachelor thesis, was how to name the recipient of an image macro. Due to its bimodal background, the recipient is neither a reader, nor a viewer, because both term would neglect the other. For this reasons, this paper is going to address the recipient often as a user, which is the common term for people that navigate on the internet.

For this introduction, nothing more is left but to quote New York Times Magazine’s journalist Bob Walker’s characterisation of memes as “the most ephemeral, silly and frankly unimportant-seeming manifestations of pop entertainment in the early 21st century: absurdly captioned pictures of cats, goof-off remixes of YouTube videos, unlikely Web celebrities, quick-hit visual jokes with unprintable punch lines and sporadic references to Rick Astley.” (Walker 2010).

2. The Term Meme

One of the first impulses of 21th century people when confronted with an unknown word is to google it. Additionally to giving the user the first line of a Wikipedia article, google gives a first glance on the context in which a word is used. If one googles the word “meme” all the top results have a similar context, which is propagating entertaining visual content.

The following, are a selection of noteworthy examples take from the top results of such a search. The website ‘’ is one of the top results and a free online tool to create and propagate combinations of image and text. The website is also one of the top results and defines itself on the cover page as “a website dedicated to documenting Internet phenomena: viral videos, image macros, catchphrases, web celebs and more.” ( 2016). Google’s search algorithm is not alone in its connotation of the word meme. One of the largest German newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, uses the blending “Phänomeme” (German, from Phänomen ‘phenomenon’ + Meme ‘meme’) as a title for a blog about digital trends (Phänomeme 2016). All these platforms use the term “meme” in a way, which only loosely bears relation to the original meaning of the term, originally coined by Richard Dawkins. This said, it is obvious that these platforms use the term “meme” as a hypernym for a collection of different visuals joke and not in Dawkin’s original sense, which is going to be discussed in the next paragraph. It seems that a new meaning in a sense of an “Internet-Meme” (Moskopp & Heller 2013: 14) emerged more or less independently from its original meaning and is in fact already the more common meaning of the two. Therefore, it is possible to draw similarities between the two, the term meme has just to be viewed from a more “communicative-oriented perspective” (Shifman 2014: 13), in which it describes the propagation of entities like jokes, rumours, videos and websites via the internet (Shifman 2014: 10). It seems likely, that the millions of users generating meme based content are unaware of the theoretical background originally posited by Dawkins.

In a first step in this approach to describe these phenomena, this chapter is going to discuss the origin of the term, its usage in the context of internet-based communication, the different kinds of phenomena associated with it and their popularity in internet subculture. Different visual entities that can be labelled as memes will be introduced in the course of this chapter. Among them will be examples such as the Picard Facepalm, Happy Cat, Sad Dawson, the Ice-Bucket Challenge and a collection of printed pictures at a German university.

2.1. Origin and Meaning in the Context of Internet-Based Communication

The term “meme” is a coinage of the English ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins invented the term meme in “an attempt at drawing tenuous analogical relationships between cultural and biological phenomena” (Rossolatos 2015: 132). While in biology information is inherited via genes, the counterpart in culture, according to Dawkins, is a meme, which he describes as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” (Dawkins 2006: 192). There are two relevant points made in this quote. Firstly, the existence of units of cultural transmission, which Dawkins calls “memes”. Secondly, that these memes are also units of imitation in a way that they “propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (Dawkins 2006: 192). Albeit it is arguable to interpret an analogy between biological heredity and cultural one, the term meme as a cultural unit of heredity is a rather “useful heuristic for interpreting how cultural phenomena merge, propagate, and perish” (Rossolatos 2015: 132), particularly when discussing internet-based communication.

The internet offers many examples where “messages propagate virally” (Rossolatos 2015: 132) and by imitation, these are two central aspects of Dawkin’s concept of memes. Thus, it is not surprising that in the mid-seventies developed this terminology experienced a renaissance in the context of internet-based communication. “The internet and its various applications provide an ideal environment for large-scale meme distribution, as digital memes can propagate both quickly and accurately.” (Heylighen in Shifman 2011: 3). Nevertheless, the meaning of the word “meme” is far away from Dawkin’s analogy for cultural heredity. In fact, the term is rather ambiguous and does not have an exact meaning (Shifman 2014: 14). Only a few studies tackle this phenomenon of internet-based communication and researchers of different disciplines have just started to consider it an object of their studies. It is notable that the Oxford Dictionary has by now added the additional meaning of the word meme which it describes as “an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations” ( 2016). This inclusion of the new meaning is a first step in understanding the phenomena that accumulate under the umbrella term meme, but it neglects some of the fundamental elements of memes. These will be discussed throughout this paper.

In order to get aware of the popularity of the term meme, one can compare the amount of google results with the results of other theoretical terms. This shows that there is a huge difference in the frequency of this theoretical term compared to others. Googling “memes” delivers more than 155 million results. This is astonishing high, when consider the results that google provides for other comparable terms. There are less than 44 million results for the term “morphology”, which is even a polysemous term and is used in a linguistic context as well as in a biological one. The basic literary term “metaphor” has even less results with a number of about 35 million. These numbers suggest that the term “meme” is more likely to describe a more accessible concept, rather than a theoretical one. Common terms like “essay” (ca. 139.000.000) or riding (ca. 188.000.000) have a similar amount of results. Again, using Google to count its amount of results is of course no reliable resource to determine any thesis about a word’s semantic change, this would need a corpus linguistic analysis of the term “meme”, but at least this numbers show that memes are a popular phenomenon on the internet. Just as a footnote, the popularity of the word meme on the internet is not in line with the author’s personal experience in daily life communication. Most of the people do not know what the term “meme” is referring to (this observation is based on the author’s experiences when talking about his bachelor thesis during the process of writing it). One possible explanation for this dilemma might be that this excessively amount of results may be a result of the term “meme” describing a primarily internet-based phenomenon which is therefore primarily known by members of internet subculture and excessively present on one of its major platforms, google, but this statement is still in need of proof and is not to be discussed any further in this paper.

2.2. Examples for Memes on the Internet

After discussing the origin of the term “meme” and the context in which it is used in internet based communication, it is now time to take a closer look at the phenomena themselves. There is a diversified variety of phenomena that are labelled as memes which can be distinguished on several different levels. Shifman defines memes as a group of digital entities with mutual properties in content, form and attitude (Shifman 2014: 54). She points out that potential for imitation is one crucial element for a meme and that this imitation can realized in different ways, including parodies, remixes and mash ups (Shifman 2014: 10). Shifman labels the three categories as a meme’s dimension: content, form and attitude as a meme’s dimensions (Shifman 2014: 42). These dimensions are useful tools to understand how memes are classified and why for example memes with different technical set ups can still be part of the same group of memes. Different perspectives, be it in favour of form, content or attitude, lead to different classifications of memes (Shifman 2014: 55). Due to the different dimensions of a meme, it can share similarities with other memes on each of these three levels. The examples for memes in the following paragraph will be structured by their form in a data-technological hierarchy from the simplest media, namely pictures, to the most complex medium video. This is to provide e a diversified selection of examples. While there is no chance of representing all possible variations of meme, this essay will focus on memes with different formal requirements to give a brief overview. After all, variations on the level of form are rare, because the meme’s formulaic structure facilitates the memetic mutation (Moskopp & Heller 2013: 82) and changes within that structure would interfere with the memes spread. According to Burgess, two elements that all memes have in common are “textual hooks or key signifiers” (Burgess, cited in Shifman 2011).

The first example for a meme is the Picard Facepalm (see example Figure 1). This meme is basically just a picture of the English actor Sir Patrick Stewart in his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. The picture is taken from the episode Déjà Q (third seasons, episode thirteen) and shows Captain Picard covering his face with his left hand in a gesture of frustration “reacting to a stressful situation” ( 2016. ‘Facepalm’).

This meme can be categorized as a Reaction Image and is as such used to “portray a specific emotion in response to something that has been said. They are commonly used in discussions threads in a similar fashion to emoticons.” ( 2016. ‘Reaction Images’). One reason why images such as Figure 1 can be used in this new contexts as emoticon-like signs is that pictures do not explain their own meaning, unlike words. They stay “inherently multifunctional and variable adjustable (Stöckl 2004: 99). Photos are not intentionally taken to be part of a meme later on. Meme production is a natural process in which a user experiments with design and occasionally makes a notable contribution to the internet subculture. It is notable that there are also variations of Picard Facepalm that include captions in the fashion of our next example, LOLcats.

“LOLcats are images of cats with funny captions in non-Standard English, often referred to simply as ‘LOLcats’” (Gawne & Vaughan 2012). The captions are usually loosely connected to the depicted motive (Shifman 2014: 105). Figure 2 is an example for a LOLcat called Happy Cat. “Happy Cat is the subject of a series of image macros and exploitable images, and among the most well-known of LOLcats” ( 2015. ‘Happy Cat’). It is iconic in a way that it “spawned both the LOLcats meme and the website ‘I Can Has Cheezburger’” (ibid.), which is “the cornerstone of a multimillion-dollar business, producing several books and a slew of similar sites” (Walker 2010). The name Happy Cat goes back to the pictures origin, being advertisement for a Russian cat food brand named “Happy Cat” (Moskopp & Heller 2013: 76). The meme shows “a chubby feline with a plaintive expression” (Walker 2010) together with the caption “I can has cheezburger?” (see Figure 2). It is notably that the concept combining pictures of cats with text is no invention of the twenty-first century. In 1870 the British photographer Harry Pointer produced greeting cards with cats and captions on it (Moskopp & Heller 2013: 75) and in the seventies a poster depicting a cat with the caption “Hang In There, Baby!” already acquired popularity (Moskopp & Heller 2013: 76). American internet researcher Kate Miltner enquired for the success of LOLcats and came to the result that people enjoy LOLcats either because they love cats, love internet memes, or love to distract themselves from work (Shifman 2014: 106). Furthermore, people can define themselves by using LOLspeak correctly and thus being an insider of a group (ibid.). LOLcats can also function as a vehicle for interpersonal contact and a way of sharing emotions in a creative and funny way (ibid.), in a similar way like Reaction Images.

The structure of combining images with text is called Image Macro and it is not limited to LOLcats only, despite Gawne’s and Vaughan’s statement that LOLcats are “at other times referred to as ‘image macros’” (Gawne & Vaughan 2012). There are many subgenres besides LOLcats that are image macros, Demotivationals and Advice Animals to name only two of them (Moskopp & Heller 2013: 73). The term Image Macro is rather “used to describe captioned images that typically consists of a picture and a witty message or a catchphrase” ( 2015. ‘Image Macros’) and does not have to be used mandatorily with LOLspeak. The image mostly experiences new contextualisation in the process of becoming an Image Macros (Moskopp & Heller 2013: 73). Image Macros are “one of the most prevalent form of internet memes” ( 2015. ’Image Macros’) and it may be due to this fact that people who are not familiar with the term Image Macro often use it as a synonym for memes in general (Moskopp & Heller 2013: 73). An image macro always consists of two elements: an image that, mostly but not exclusively unalterable, and its various text, which gives the original picture an additional meaning, reinterprets and re-contextualises it (ibid.). It is a common game in computer-mediated communication to find ever new contexts for an image by changing the captions or contribute ever new image macros suiting a certain topic.

There are many conventions for making well-formed image macros, and the majority are unspoken. The text usually uses a white sanserif font with black margin in caps lock (ibid.). These widely accepted convention become clear when looking at example Figure 3, taken from a German satirical Facebook page, in which several design conventions of image macros are broken (not to mention the violations of German grammar, punctuation and orthography). Firstly, the position of the text is rather unusual. Image macros tend to have their captions in the top or bottom of the image. If the text consists of two sentences, one will occupy the top as an introduction, the other, the bottom, as a punchline.

The second issue is that the memes contain too much text. As previously mentioned, the text functions as a modifier re-contextualising the image, in this example the text clearly dominates the image macro. Thirdly, the font has no margin and is neither written in caps lock nor white. This gives the text an insufficient level of contrast from the picture in the background, subsequently making it difficult for the user to read it. This would make for a poor combination in every visual form of presentation, not just in image macros. One aspect of this image makes it arguable whether it is a meme at all. It is the fact that it is not inviting the user to imitate it, which is like before mentioned a crucial element of memes. Nevertheless, I would state that this image macro, or more actually the Facebook page as a whole is a meme. It invites the user to imitate and reinterpret the violations of conventions in language and design (Nachdenkliche Sprüche mit Bilder 2015). Every image posted by this page is full with comment of users deliberately violating linguistic conventions.

The next examples are different from the prior, because they do not use static images but moving pictures. The first living picture meme is a GIF (graphic interchange format), which means it uses “a lossless format for image files that supports both animated and static images” ( 2016). Due to its small size (because it only covers 8-bit graphic with 256 colours) and diversified range of application (it can be animated and interlaced), it one of the most popular formats of the internet (Shannon 2012). I would argue that it small size makes it a popular target format the transformation of videos. This is going to be discussed in the later chapter Communication Forms of Memes.


Excerpt out of 60 pages


Memes in Frame-Semantic Perspective
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Department of Anglophone Studies)
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ISBN (Book)
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Memes, Frame Semantics, Langugage-Image-Texts, Online Humour, Communication Forms
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Niels Brause (Author), 2016, Memes in Frame-Semantic Perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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