Stereotypes in Internet Memes. A Linguistic Analysis

Examination Thesis, 2016

37 Pages, Grade: 2,0

I. Magel (Author)



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical framework
2.1 Definition of the term meme

3. Internet Memes
3.1. Genres
3.1.1 Photoshop memes
3.1.2 Photo Fads
3.1.3. Flash Mob
3.1.4 Lipsynch
3.1.5 Misheard Lyrics
3.1.6 Recut Trailers
3.1.7 LOL Cats
3.1.8 Rage Comics
3.1.9 Stock Character Macros
3.2 Key features
3.2.1 Fidelity
3.2.2 Fecundity
3.2.3 Longevity
3.2.4 Humor

4. Internet Memes and Humor

5. Internet Memes and Stereotypes

6. Procedure

7. Analysis
7.1 Successful Black Man
7.2 Successful White Man
7.3 Ordinary Muslim Man
7.4 High Expectations Asian Father
7.5 Mashups

8. Results and Discussion

9. Consideration for further research

10. Conclusion

11. References

12. Images

1. Introduction

The Internet and various electronic devices with Internet access are an extremely important and necessary part of adolescents' lives these days. Using them continuously makes younger and older people more computer savvy. But why exactly do people enjoy spending time on the Internet? One simple answer is Internet memes.

A meme is a cultural phenomenon that spreads rapidly through the Internet and carries cultural information. It is not clear who coined the term meme first. But beyond controversy this term was made popular by Richard Dawkins in 1976. When he used the term meme for the first time, Dawkins meant the act of copying or imitating of ideas that spread from person to person. It describes small units of culture that can be transmitted from one member of society to another. This cultural phenomenon is represented in our digital world, too, which is why it is also important to look at Internet memes from a communication-oriented view.

One reason why Internet memes are so popular is unambiguous humor. Internet memes with funny or amusing quality gained rapidly popularity on the Internet because, for instance, irony breaks stereotypical thinking. Irony, which is a sub-item of humor, is defined in the traditional way as “saying the opposite from what is meant ...” (Brône 2010: 97). This thesis will try to reveal this phenomenon in all examples chosen for my analysis.

In addition, this thesis will focus on Internet memes, especially image memes, which will be analyze from a linguistic point of view. The first, rather theoretical section of this paper will provide a theoretical framework for the analysis. It includes the etymology of the term meme as well as a classification of various genres of Internet memes and their key features. Having this theoretical background in mind, a selection of image memes will be used as empirical examples and an analysis will be conducted focusing on linguistic features. These features will be examined with particular emphasis on stereotypes and humor.

All the examples I have used in my analysis are taken from the Know Your Meme: Internet Meme Database [1] . This website was chosen as the sole source of memes because the number of memes hosted on this site is far greater than other meme sites. In addition, it is impossible to analyze every single meme available on the Internet qualitatively. I basically follow Dawkins in my use of terminology.

2. Theoretical framework

The following section will give an overview of the most important literature concerning the term meme and it's development in time. Starting with the term's origin in biology, the focus will be on Dawkins' definition on memes. This will be followed by Blackmore's third replicator theory, which she explains elaborately in her book The Meme Machine. Next up will be, Shifman's critical approach about the previous definitions of the term meme in her book Memes in Digital Culture, which gives a different view on memes than the preceding definitions. Finally, the focus will be on Wiggins & Bowers' suggestion about looking at memes as a genre of online communication. But first let us take a closer look at the roots of the term meme.

2.1 Definition of the termmeme

The term meme derives from the Greek word μίμημα (mīmēma) and it means 'something that can be imitated'. It might be also related to the French word même, which means 'same' or 'alike', and to the English word 'memory'. However, the word meme is a shortening modeled on gene (Dawkins 2006: 192) .

Ewald Hering, who is an Austrian sociologist, coined the term die Mneme in 1870 for the very first time. Richard Semon, a German biologist, adopted this term for using it in the title for his book Die Mneme als erhaltendes Prinzip im Wechsel des organischen Geschehens, published in 1904, which was translated into English in 1921- under the title The Mneme (Hull 2000: 50). His focus lies on acquired features, which are transmitted, and their implementation in social evolution. Despite the fact that The Mneme was translated into English, which shows the international appeal of this topic, this research area found its great recognition only one century later. In the late 90's, more scientists were interested in this topic. The research field of Memetics was born.

Although the concept of memes was discussed by earlier scientists, it was made popular for the first time by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. Unintentionally, he used an expression ( meme ) that was similar to existing terminology ( die Mneme ), which shows a successful imitation in itself.

In The Selfish Gene he states the following:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain. (Dawkins 2006:192)

Dawkins tried to emphasize the similarities of the two concepts - genes and memes – with respect to evolution in this book. As a biologist his focus fell on genes and cultural transmission, but at the same time he made the term meme popular , which is also referred to as the second replicator . According to Dawkins, evolution occurrs not only on the physical level, but also on the mental level. This means that not only genes spread from organism to organism, but also ideas from one brain to another. He gave the example of scientists who read about an idea and talk about it with their colleagues (2006: 192). This is an example of propagation of an idea by itself. Other examples of memes given in his book include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” (Dawkins 2006: 192). Thus, memes seem to be the cultural counterpart to the biological concept of genes.

Memetics has been defined as “the theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes.” (Heylighen & Chielens 2009: 2). This field began to be organized and became more specific in the 1990s. It attracted scientists from many fields, such as Psychology, Philosophy, Cultural Anthropology, and Linguistics. Important contributions were made in this area, for example, by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, the Journal of Memetics and various books including the topic of memes. One of the most influential books is Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine from 1999.

Susan Blackmore has expanded the theory of Memetics by doing more research in this field. In 1999, she wrote her book The Meme Machine where she tried to constitute the controversial theory of Memetics as a science. There she asserts:

Just as the design of our bodies can be understood only in terms of natural selection, so the design of our minds can be understood only in terms of memetic selection. (Blackmore 1999: 171)

What she meant by this is, when the ability to imitate occurred for the first time, a second kind of natural selection began in addition to the first one which refers to the concept of evolutionary genetics. For example, learning and using a language happens through selection and imitation. Which accent is preferred, either a British or an American, depends on one's own choice. Which language people will pass on to their children - German or English - depends on their own choice, too. This is why Blackmore said at the TED conference: “We are the meme machines.” (Blackmore 2008a: 8:41). Memes spread through our minds. Moreover, she said memes “are using you and me as their propagating, copying machinery ...” (Blackmore 2008a: 8:41). According to her, people are just vectors for memes. But some works within the field of memetics reject this statement.

Rosaria Conte, for example, suggests in her article Memes through (social) Minds that people should be seen as actors instead of vectors. For her, the usage of the term vectors is for people with an “inadequate understanding of the role of agents ...” (2000: 87). She prefers to call them actors behind cultural transmission, which is why Blackmore's statement about people as “the meme machines ...” (2008a: 8.41) is not quite correct. Following Conte, memes are created by people and their active participation is needed to keep the process of propagation running.

Furthermore, at the TED conference, Blackmore talked about the so called third replicator , which she is also referring to as teme. According to her, further differentiation was necessary between memes, which we copy, and technological phenomena, which started with the Internet. When the Internet became popular, information started spreading from one computer to another. This process needed a new expression, which is why she called it “techno-memes or temes” (Blackmore 2008a: 12:23). Meanwhile it turned out as a challenge for some people to spell temes understandably. As a consequence, Blackmore decided to use the term tremes from 2014 onwards.

Another well-known researcher in the field of Memetics, called Limor Shifman, has her own and different point of view on Internet memes than her predecessors. In her book Memes in Digital Culture , she writes that Internet memes were “utterly ignored in the field of communication ...” (2014: 6) and that “communication researchers felt comfortable overlooking memes ...” (2014: 6) because they were absolutely “irrelevant for understanding mass-mediated content” (2014: 6-7). But they should be seen as “socially constructed public discourses ...” (2014: 8). Therefore, she encourages researchers to look at memes from a communication-oriented perspective, too. For her, Internet memes are “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated, and transformed by Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience ...” (2013: 367).

Moreover, Shifman suggests defining an Internet meme as

“(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form/and /or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; (c) were circulated, imitated and/ or transformed via the Internet by many users.” (2014: 7-8).

In her definition she took account of the digitalization in this world. She added to the primary meaning of the term an additional feature, namely, the Internet and its users. It is not just that cultural units propagate from brain to brain as Dawkins put it. These cultural items also spread rapidly from computer to computer as well as through the whole digital world. Therefore, it is important to look at Internet memes from an additional perspective.

Bradley E. Wiggins & G. Bret Bowers, for example, view Internet memes as a discrete genre of online communication. In their article they state that Internet memes are “remixed and iterated messages which are rapidly spread by members of participatory digital culture.” (2014: 18). In other words, Internet memes are small messages which are used for continuing a conversation within a digital culture.

In addition, Wiggins and Bowers (2014) mention the expression image macro in their article. An image macro is the technical term for an image meme. It involves, for example, a photograph and a text addition. Image macros are one of the various categories of Internet memes on the Internet. The next section will demonstrate a brief overview of Internet memes and their key features.

3. Internet Memes

Internet memes are still a controversial topic in the academic field. There are many different opinions about this topic. But this controversial concept has been picked up by Internet users with very strong excitement. The term meme is used by Internet users for the “rapid uptake and spread of a particular idea presented as a written text, image, language 'move,' or some other unit of cultural 'stuff.'“ (Lankshear & Knobel 2007: 202). According to Google Trends, the interest on this subject has increased since 2011 and even today it is still on a high level of interest.

This section will give a brief overview about different Internet meme genres based on Shifman's list of genres in her book Memes in Digital Culture. In addition, key features of Internet memes are presented and explained in the following section.

3.1. Genres

Genres, defined by Wanda J. Orlikowski and JoAnne Yates as “socially recognized types of communicative action ...” (1994: 542), have common aspects as to their form. Not only stylistic features are shared, but also different topics and contents are similar. This is also true for Internet memes. Different kinds of Internet memes share the same structure. Some features are typical for some memes and they are clearly recognizable. In what follows, I will give a brief overview about various types of Internet memes.

3.1.1 Photoshop memes

Photoshop memes have been popular since the early 2000s. An example for a photoshop meme is the Tourist Guy meme. This photograph shows a young man with sunglasses and a backpack standing on the World Trade Center observation deck. In the background, a plane is heading toward him. The photo has the same date as the World Trade Center attack of September 11th, 2001. This hoax triggered a series of photoshopped images showing the tourist in other famous historical tragedies. For instance, the sinking of the Titanic or the John F. Kennedy assassination. This works with any picture. Other examples are the Disaster Girl meme or the Mari Balotelli's Goal Celebration meme.

3.1.2 Photo Fads

Photo Fads are photographs which show people in particular positions and various settings. These photographs are often staged. They have the purpose of sharing the picture with others on the Internet just for fun. Notable examples are Planking[2] or Owling[3] as well as Playing Dead[4] and Batmanning[5]. Another purpose of such a funny idea is of course amusement. People share their pictures on the Internet seeking for the confirmation to have the best picture at a special place. In most cases it is just for fun and to make other people laugh.

3.1.3. Flash Mob

A Flash Mob, emerging as an Internet phenomenon in 2003, is an online-coordinated event. A group of people, mostly strangers, comes together at a central location and performs an act suddenly and simultaneously. After that they disappear very fast as if nothing has happened. Flash Mobs include several subtypes. One of these is a Flash Mob with the intention to send a political or commercial message. But still, Flash Mobs are organized predominantly for amusement.

3.1.4 Lipsynch

Lipsynch, also called lipdub, describes the phenomenon in which people match their lip movement to a popular song or a film clip. Recorded and uploaded on social networks, this phenomenon gained great popularity. There exist two subgenres, namely, bedroom lipdubs [6] and collective lipdubs [7]. Both versions are widespread.

3.1.5 Misheard Lyrics

Misheard Lyrics is a genre about phonetic translation videos, which involve amusing mistranslations of spoken sounds to written words. It works by transcribing what the word sounds like and ignoring the true meaning. This phenomenon has no special use and is just for fun.

3.1.6 Recut Trailers

Recut Trailers, also known as trailer mashups, are trailers made by Internet users. Pieces of a film from one or several movies are collected and edited to create a new trailer for a film that does not exist. In most cases the original film genre is replaced by an utterly different one. That means, for example, that a comedy may change into a psychological thriller. Sharing it on social networks, the purpose is the same as the other memes have, namely, amusement.

3.1.7 LOL Cats

The name for this genre is a mixture of the Internet acronym 'LOL' and the word 'cat'. LOL Cats are humorous images showing one or more cats. The image's text is grammatically incorrect. This form of broken English is also known as lolspeak.

3.1.8 Rage Comics

A Rage Comic is an amateur-looking comic. It uses cartoon faces or rage faces which express emotions. Famous characters are Forever Alone [8], Me Gusta [9], Troll Face [10] and Poker Face [11]. This genre emerged for the first time in 2008 on 4chan [12].

3.1.9 Stock Character Macros

A Stock Character Marco is an image representing a character who shows stereotypical behavior. A little text is centered at the top and bottom of the image. Frequently, they are used for parody and to criticize cliches. Notable examples, which I will also use in my analysis, are Successful Black Man, Successful White Man, Ordinary Muslim Man and High Expectations Asian Father.

But before heading toward my analysis, I will name some key features, which successful Internet memes involve, in the next section. Besides the three main key features I will present an additional features which provides a basis for the other ones. This additional feature is humor.

3.2 Key features

Richard Dawkins names in his book T he Selfish Gene (2006) three main features of successful memes, namely, fidelity, fecundity and longevity. There he focuses on human interaction from a biological perspective. But his ideas can also be transferred onto Internet memes. A fourth and more important key feature is humor, which can be seen as the basis for the other three features.

3.2.1 Fidelity

According to Merriam-Webster (2016), fidelity is defined as “the degree to which something matches or copies something else.”. Memes are copiable. They are passed from mind to mind with slight differences. But the gist is always the same. The same goes for Internet memes and their variations. Some small details are different, but it does not change the message. For instance, the Tourist Guy meme always shows the tourist guy. The small difference in this Internet meme is that this guy is located in different historical tragedies. But the aspect of humor is the same. People who are not familiar with the tourist would not understand the humor of the vast number of variations.

3.2.2 Fecundity

Fecundity is defined as “capable of producing.” (Merriam Webster 2016). As mentioned above, Internet memes have different variations. The frequency at which an idea is copied is one of the main features of memes, called fecundity. In other words, Internet memes must have many copies in order to be called successful.

3.2.3 Longevity

Merriam-Webster (2016) defines the term longevity as “the length of time that something or someone lasts or continues.”. Some memes, for example myths or legends, last longer and others again last shorter. Internet memes show the same feature. Copies of Internet memes must last a long time, because the longer they last the more they can be copied and shared. Longevity is the third key feature of successful memes and can be checked on Google Trend. Everyone can look up the durability of Internet memes at any time, including the starting point when specific Internet memes popped up as well as their popularity over time. Most Internet memes are durable.

3.2.4 Humor

According to Knobel and Lankshear (2007) as well as Shifman (2011), humor is a further important key feature and a central component of Internet memes. The researchers found in their analysis that humor is the foundation for memetic success. Internet users expect that Internet memes are humorous in some way. If they are not funny, they will neither be copied and shared nor exist for a long time. This means lucidly that humor has a higher priority while talking about key features of Internet memes than the other three, namely, fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. Without humor the other key features have hardly any chance of being fulfilled.

4. Internet Memes and Humor

Internet memes are humorous and communicate meaning through different genres of humor. Humor, defined as “the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement.” (Singh, Tripathi & Kohli 2011: 232), has been examined from many perspectives. Some researchers see humor and laughter as companions, which embody a sense of pleasure (Raskin 1985). Others see it as a negative phenomenon and connect it to fear (Ruch & Proyer 2008). Incompatible opinions exist about the concept of humor, but all researchers are in agreement in one point, namely, incongruity as the basis for humor.

There are many theories of humor which attempt to explain what humor is. The Incongruity Theory is one of the theories of humor which appear repeatedly in contemporary academic literature. The other two influential theories are called the Superiority Theory [13] and the Relief Theory [14]. The Incongruity Theory is the only one which will be relevant for my analysis, which is why this section will discuss only the Incongruity Theory in detail.

The Incongruity Theory dates back to the eighteenth century and Immanuel Kant. He had an explanation of laughter at jokes that involves incongruity. He claimed “Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” (1951: 177). This definition is the most famous version of the Incongruity Theory.

Another, more philosophical, view on the Incongruity Theory is that of Arthur Schopenhauer (1907). He claims that individual things have many properties and people group different things under one abstract concept or one word. Humor happens when people realize the incongruity between an expectation and the real concept.

Soren Kierkegaard (1941) also argues that humor is based on incongruity. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript he discusses humor and its close relative, irony. According to the definition of irony given by Fowler, irony occurs when “the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.” (1906: 15). Three main types of irony have been classified, namely, v erbal irony, dramatic irony and situational irony.

Verbal irony is defined as “a sharp opposition between what is said or written and what is meant.” (Elleström 2002: 50). Vocabulary is used in a way which is different than it seems to be. The meaning of words is other than what it looks like at first appearance. An example of verbal irony will be shown later in the analysis ( Section 7 ).

According to Gibbs and Colston, d ramatic irony is described as “events wherein an observer (audience, reader, overhearer, etc.) knows what a victim has yet to find out.” (Gibbs and Colston 2007: 473). This type of irony is not used in my analysis, which is why I do not go into detail here.

Situational irony is a more modern use of the term irony . Elleström writes, “Situational irony [ … ] is most broadly defined as a situation, where the outcome is incongruous with what was expected ...” (2002: 51). In other words, situational irony describes the contrast between reality and expectations. There is no agreement with what might be expected or what would seem appropriate and what actually occurs. Examples of this type will also be shown in my analysis ( Section 7).

The concept of irony operates with the help of frames and scripts. People fit events to already existing frames based on self-made experiences. Some of these frames represent “an alternative theory about how events may unfold ironically.” (Gibbs and Colston 2007: 533). Due to pre-existing frames and scripts, people expect one thing, but another happens. This is similar to Shopenhauer's definition of the Incongruity Theory .

Incongruity is one of the common categories of humor, which is used in meme communication. Shifman has identified and written down three categories in her book Memes In Digital Culture :

Playfulness is described as humor that is enjoyed for its own sake. Some memes are created to be just humorous and invite to take part in a game (Morreal 2005).

Incongruity is, according to the incongruity theory of humor, “an unexpected cognitive encounter between two incongruent elements” (Shifman 2014: 79). Humor is created due to incongruity between the audio and visual components of texts. An example Shifman gives for incongruity is the juxtaposition of texts and images that do not make sense together.

Superiority stands for humor that accrues at the expense of others. Internet users feel superior to the others (Billig 2005).


[1] Know Your Meme: Internet Meme Database is a website dedicated to documenting Internet phenomena.

[2] Planking means lying face down with arms to the side wherever you are.

[3] Owling means sitting and looking into one direction to imitate an owl.

[4] Playing D ead means posing as a corpse.

[5] Batmanning means hanging vertically from objects by feet.

[6] B edroom lipdub is linked to private households and happens usually by an individual in front of the webcam.

[7] Collective lipdub is linked to more participants and happen, for example, at universities or army bases.

[8] Forever Alone is a character with no friends which is why this character shows the emotion of sadness.

[9] Me Gusta is a character who expresses enjoyment.

[10] Troll Face is a character who enjoys annoying and harming other people.

[11] Poker Face is a character who tries to hide real emotions like embarrassment.

[12] 4chan is a website, also called imageboard, where images are uploaded and discussed by Internet users.

[13] Mulder and Nijholt describe the Superiority Theory as the phenomenon when people „laugh about misfortunes of others;“ (2002: 3). This was the first theory in history which explains humor.

[14] The Relief Theory is described by M.P. Mulder and Anton Nijholt as „laugher by which psychological tension is reduced.“ (2002: 4). This theory put an end to the Incongruity Theory.

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Stereotypes in Internet Memes. A Linguistic Analysis
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stereotypes, internet, memes, linguistic, analysis, Successful Black Man, Ordinary Muslim Man, High Expectations Asion Father, Successful White Man, replicators
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