grasping at meaning in an endless chain of signifiers

Month: January, 2013

Putting Memes in Conversation



The Semantic Web: Why I, for One, Welcome Our New Google Overlords

If you’ve Googled anything lately (hah), you’re probably familiar with Google’s new service, Knowledge Graph. You’ve probably seen the little info boxes that pop up on the right side of the page when you’re searching for a person, place, or issue. It’s a little laughable that Google produces elaborate videos to market such changes, but I guess when you own YouTube you maybe feel like everything you do has to be announced in as many forms of media as possible. It’s OK, Google. I understand the feeling. These are the stirring questions of our time: Would Facebook care more about this delicious sandwich, or Twitter?

Mawkish promotional videos about cheerleaders with disabilities aside, there’s no doubt that the way we search and research has changed, is changing, will continue to change. Digital epistemology is different. Tim Adams of The Observer rhapsodized recently on the way Google and Knowledge Graph have changed the very idea of a “search,” arguing that having a question is a qualitatively different notion today: “Search’s sense of questing purpose has already gone the way of other pre-Google concepts, such as ‘getting lost’.”

So, how does this all work? It’s called the “semantic web”: essentially, an increasingly detailed and complex series of metadata tags (which search engines use to categorize data, e.g. is this a title? is this a person? is this a date? is this the name of a movie?) help the web chart relationships among pieces of information. Notice how quickly “the web” becomes actor here—it’s because the web is, for the most part, the actor. Coders set up the tagging system, but the links between the tags and the interpretation of those links, happen, well, organically. Metadata becomes a language that computers in Google data centers can read. Doubtless, interpreting language is nothing new to computers. But suddenly computers are interpreting enormous numbers of complex articles we’ve written for human consumption (this is the key for me: they’ve been taught to read natural language) and are charting meaningful human relationships among those articles: authors, dates, children, spouses, theories.

OK, I lied earlier. Turns out I’ve got some stirring questions that don’t have anything to do with sandwiches: What is language? What is interpretation? What does it mean for a computer to “make meaning”? And then, maybe, too, what is consciousness? (Whoa, getting a little heady there, better stop with the questions.)

Georgetown Linguistics professor Ron Scollon asserts that “social action and discourse are inextricably linked,” which is hard to argue with—with every utterance we reflect and reproduce the social structures that make and construct us—but he adds, “these links are sometimes not at all direct or obvious, and therefore in need of more careful theorization” (1). Scollon proposes mediated discourse theory as a means of theorizing those links. But with the semantic web, I believe the web has already begin to develop its own theory of links between social action and discourse online—a theory grounded partly in Bourdieu but more in Lawrence Lessig’s free culture work. This is theory in the definitional sense, “a concise systematic view of a subject,” but theory without a clear author.

No longer do pages statically exist in solitary harmony, like my OED and my NAEL side-by-side on the shelf. Rather, by reading us reading the web, the semantic web begins to map links between the things we search for and the more complex discursive web behind the ways we mean. The semantic web is what Edwin Hutchins calls a “socio-technical system” (266), a place where human memory and machine memory interweave and merge to create a system that would be impossible using the affordances of just one or the other. Individuals’ search histories offer a very detailed look at that user’s online habitus (at least as Scollon defines the term), concrete real-time social actions occurring over a long period, combined into aggregated contextualized experience. And because the semantic web is created by the way we search, link, and click, it is the ultimate in emic systemic theorizing: the categories quite literally create themselves. They are ever-updating, changing as new information and pages are added, responding to click-length and other indications of user satisfaction. For example, to deliver you the page below, Google must know, when you type the phrase “how tall is barak oboma”:

Literacy problems? Never fear, Google is here—for all your "how tall is barak oboma" needs!

Literacy problems? Never fear, Google is here—for all your “how tall is barak oboma” needs!

  1. you probably meant to say “Barack Obama” (woohoo it can spell—and it continues giving the same result even for such bastardizations as “ho tal is brak obom,” “jow tal is brk obam,” and “how tell are brk obam”),
  2. Barack Obama is a person (compare, for example, searching for the phrase “barak oboma” on, which returns the David Maraniss biography titled Barack Obama—”how tall is barak oboma” returns, hilariously, only this life-sized cutout),
  3. you are looking for the height of Barack Obama (“how tall is” means “height”),
  4. it knows the height of Barack Obama (and that height is a quality of a person, and since he’s a person, heck, let’s display some other key facts we know about him),
  5. you probably want the information displayed in feet and inches because you’re searching in the US (but here it is in meters, too, just in case), and
  6. as a follow-up query, you’re more likely to be interested in knowing how tall Malia Obama is than how tall other presidents have been.

That’s a lot of meaning-making for a free service. Google has become our collective consciousness: Laurence Kirmayer, quoted in David Howes, says, “‘mind’ is located not in the brain but in the relationship of brain and body to the world” (227). The semantic web is beginning to map those relationships—between real and virtual space, between thought and person, between events and news about those events. Of course, “free service” obscures some of the issues. Google makes money by knowing stuff about you and your browsing habits, which it markets to advertisers as demographic information. But Google also knows that by giving you the best possible search service and making you happy as quickly as possible, you’re unlikely to go anywhere else for search. And it works—no one uses Bing.

All this meaning-making understandably makes some people anxious: we don’t know, really, what Google’s ideological position is, beyond their list of bold, manifesto-esque statements about putting users first and not being evil. And as Google becomes social actor and social mediator and social theory, that ideological position becomes even more important.

The Getty (famous LA art museum) is a mass of red tourist photos on the left. UCLA is the mass of blue local photos on the right.

But it’s not just Google bots making sense of this vast mass of metadata. The semantic web goes beyond search. Real live humans can do all kinds of interesting things cross-referencing data, too. Photographer Eric Fischer, for example, has mapped geotagged data on photos uploaded publicly to Flickr, to create awesome pictures of where tourists take photos and where locals take photos. He first found photos taken in Los Angeles (accomplishable through geographical metadata), then looked through submitters’ histories: if they’d submitted mostly photos from Los Angeles, going back over a month, they were probably locals. If they primarily submitted photos in some other locale, they were probably tourists. Then he mapped the dots in different colors, creating really neat webbed images of how tourists and locals experience the city differently. As a native Angeleno, I’ve gotten into an embarrassing number of arguments with people who spent a week in LA and can’t understand how I could love a city that’s so plasticky and gross. Now I’ve got visual evidence that they see a very different city from the one I know.

So, yes. I, for one, welcome our new Google overlords.

Alt Lit: The Revolution Will Be Tumblred

"love poem," by Steve Roggenbuck of

“love poem,” by Steve Roggenbuck of

Anyone who thinks the Internet has killed poetry doesn’t spend enough time on the Internet. Literary types have been arguing for years that poetry died with the last of the Beats or maybe sometime in the ’90s and for some reason Lauren Wilcox can still get published in The Washington Post insisting that “the kids” need to be inspired to turn away from their screens for a moment to write some poetry (with the help of the right after school program and some electrifying teachers, of course). Why does Wilcox—as do many others like her—assume that poetry must be separate from the web? Is Internet thought the “wrong” kind of thought? Is it impossible to meditate at a keyboard? (EDIT: The day after I posted this, yet another Washington Post reporter suggested that poetry is dead.)

“The kids” are writing poetry, and they don’t need to be cajoled into it. “The kids” have started an online poetic movement, complete with publishing presses (e.g. Muumuu HouseSorry House, Plain Wrap Press) and end-of-the-year awards. It’s a multimedia Twitter and Tumblr artists’ collective, constantly playing with new poetic forms: Flarf poetry3wordgunghopoetryflow. They call it “alt lit.” Much of it is, like the rest of the Internet, a cacophonous, haphazard sludge of Instagrammed photos of cell phone screens and quasi-intellectual random-for-the-sake-of-being-random goofiness. That’s maybe exactly the kind of poetry you’d expect from The Millennial Generation, which has grown up in a world that will give them attention and applause for quite literally posting photos of their own fecal matter (you are warned: that link is exactly what it sounds like).

Vice columnist Josh Baines declared this week that alt lit is “the worst thing to happen to literature” and “for boring, infantile narcissists.” On one level, I agree—most stuff labeled alt lit I don’t “get,” and I don’t think it’s because I’m just not deep enough. But you can’t judge any art movement by its worst artists. And at its best, alt lit is a drug- and coffee-fueled, sexually frank, self-conscious form, an occasionally profound emulsion of Bukowski and Twitter and dada and rap.

Even Baines admits that alt lit founder Tao Lin, at least, is an interesting writer. For a sense of just what is alternative about alt lit, check out Lin’s recent poem, “I Livetweeted Getting Robbed & Watching The Hobbit Alone At 9:45PM In Manhattan On Christmas Eve.” He plays with hypermedia in a way I’ve never seen before: he meditates on life and money in a half-dozen modes. The livetweeting gives it immediacy, the blurry photo through his 3D glasses gives it authenticity, and much of his movie commentary suggests that he can’t keep Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter straight. During the mugging, one guy asks him for his phone “convictionlessly,” and Lin says, “I gave you my money”—the muggers accept that answer and walk away, as if aware that taking his phone would be a much more personal and life-disrupting insult than taking his money. Five minutes later, Lin posts a picture from inside the theater. Then he says, “I could’ve livetweeted my own stabbing and death.” (As an aside, I do find myself wondering just how conscious Lin is of the class issues here: he’s got his MacBook, his phone, his drugs, and the capital to pay for a movie ticket even after getting mugged.)

Like any pomo/metatextual art form worth its salt, alt lit often gestures at the theoretical. Patchy-mustached, twenty-something alt lit icon Steve Roggenbuck described his theory of literature in a mid-2011 freeform YouTube rant:

Everything is literature. If I’m Tweeting, it’s literature, you know? And if you don’t like that, just go take a bath, you know? You can wake up in 15 years and you won’t know what the goddang f happened, you know? If you don’t like my image macros, then go take a bath in the shower. Talking to your friend is literature. You know why? Because literature is memeplex to me. Art is the making of belief systems. Belief systems. Memeplex. Brands. Discourse. Culture. How can you have a belief system if all you have is 80-page black-on-white, twelve-point font, serifs, God help me. Maybe I’ll write a book that’s 400 pages. You know? Maybe I’ll write a book that is 1000 pages long, you know? But when it comes down to it, you know, pages, you know, book, you know. What is this, what am I, you know? Who the f am I? You know? What is this, fucking 2007? What is this, fucking 1991? What is this, fucking 1855? You know? Leaves of f-ing Grass? Gonna self-publish this f-ing print book? Gonna put my f-ing pdf online of my book? What is this, fucking October 2010? Do you think that I read pdfs all day? No, I read blogs.

Memeplex—that is, the idea that there are groups of cultural memes, “evolving” in a social sense from other groups of thought in the past—seems like a particularly apt way to describe the relationship between traditional print literature and alt lit. Roggenbuck references Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. He doesn’t live in a separate world from them. Literature has changed, but it’s still literature.

He thus echoes Paul Prior, who argues that online multimodal hypermedia is not an entirely new semiotic animal, suddenly concerned with images, where before text was pure and unadorned. The history of multimodality is not, Prior says, “a one-way sequence of unique semiotic objects,” first print, then web, each enabling a completely different kind of meaning-making (26). “I know of no evidence,” he explains, “that those who work with images rather than words find the media and tools they work with so pliant, that they never need struggle with the recalcitrance of materials to their representational intents and desires” (28). That’s part of what’s fun about alt lit, the way recalcitrant materials are combined to bolster each other’s weak points: a message like Lin’s “I Livetweeted…” can be communicated in a blog post copy of a Twitter feed, with timestamps and embedded photos. Roggenbuck can make a video that’s equal parts image macros and vlog confessional and music and quotes from John Cage. It is what Prior terms “the delicate ordering of text, talk, gesture, and image in situated practice” (28).

Roggenbuck says, “Why is it bad that more people consider what they’re doing poetry?”

Why Are So Many Memes about College?

Meme professors tend to be sneering, self-important, and out-of-touch. Image via quickmeme.

Meme professors are generally sneering, self-important, and out-of-touch. Image via quickmeme.

The idea of treating Internet memes seriously and academically is funny in part because so many memes poke fun at the project of school. Even within one tiny part of meme culture, image macros (that is, photos with superimposed white Impact text with a black outline), teachers come off rather poorly: “Unhelpful High School Teacher” makes cringe-worthy blunders from her place by the blackboard. “Engineering Professor” is woefully unconcerned about students’ pocketbooks, difficulties, and limited time. And “Humanities Professor” is as condescending as his sneer suggests. Not that students fare better, of course—from the ingenuous, gung-ho “College Freshman”, to the selfish and impossibly uninformed “Stupid Grad Student”, to the “Over-Educated Problems” man, who stares mournfully out the window of his broken dreams and student loan debt.

But it’s also funny in a less ironic, more problematic way. Even though the Internet has long been touted as a bastion of free speech, open access to literacy and education, and democracy in action, the Digital Divide is shrinking less slowly than we all hoped. And a recent Pew Research Internet demographics survey tells a troubling story about education: 53% of American adults without a high school diploma are not online, along with 32% of American adults who make less than $30,000 per year, 27% of Hispanic American adults, and 26% of African-American adults. Meanwhile, nearly 100% of graduate and undergraduate American students are online. Given that the web gained traction primarily through universities (we are still in the Eternal September, after all), this is not terribly surprising. With this understanding, the enormous percentage of memes that are  college-related makes some sense.

Confession Bear has read some race and gender theory

Confession Bear has read some race and gender theory. Text my own; image via quickmeme.

Yet the sites that tend to start memes are even more homogeneous than the web as a whole: over 70% of Reddit users are male, as are approximately 65% of 4chan users. Knowing this leads me to wonder how Internet culture may be implicated in reproducing its own race, class, and gender dynamics. And then I have other questions: What is it about these sites that spawn image macros that makes them so uniform? Why are the dynamics so different on Twitter, which is 25% black and 19% Hispanic, or on Pinterest, which is mostly women? I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions, of course—but I do think that by looking at the demographic data, we can get some insight into the workings of the meme culture symbol system.

So, What Is the Pew Internet and American Life Project (PIALP)?

Funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, a non-profit established in 1948 by the children of Sun Oil (now Sunoco) founder Joseph Pew, the PIALP is a self-proclaimed “fact tank” tasked with researching the way people use the Internet. PIALP strives to be balanced and apolitical, presenting research for the benefit of academics, media, and the interested public. They conduct frequent online and phone surveys as well as more in-depth qualitative research. These surveys offer insight into who is online, how they’re online, and what they do when they’re there. The latest survey, for example, examined how US adults use the Internet for health information (evidently college-educated women are more likely to be online diagnosers, which means that my symptom-Googling habits make me a cliché, aw shucks).

Strange, isn't it, that a Socially Awkward Penguin meme succeeds only by understanding the meme's functional grammar and playing the social context of the Internet just right?

Strange, isn’t it, that a Socially Awkward Penguin meme succeeds only by understanding the meme’s functional grammar and playing the social context of the Internet just right? Not very socially awkward at all, really. This picture, for example, is a timely, relevant contribution to an ongoing conversation—about not being able to make a timely contribution. Image via quickmeme.

The Social(ly Awkward Penguin) Semiotic

So, the PIALP reveals a much less varied and dynamic socioeconomic picture of the active Internet population than I originally expected, but it explains some things about meme grammar. The complex symbol system of image macros works in part because of that homogeneity—the vast majority of content creators have a shared context of race, class, and, importantly, educational status. This helps create a community where “Senior” clearly means “someone in the last year of a four-year university education”; where “Professor” means “someone that teaches at a college or university”; where a blackboard, a whiteboard, a bookcase, a university sweatshirt all signify quickly and relatively unanimously a depicted person’s role in the educational system. Thus, a shared educational status affords the vast number of educationally themed memes—it allows symbols of education to be used with what Gunther Kress calls “discernable regularity, consistency, and shared assumptions about their meaning-potentials” (59). That is, in an image macro, “freshman” never means “high school freshman,” and if you see a whiteboard, you know the meme won’t be commenting on office culture.

And so, I’m arguing, images of education function as a mode in meme culture, according to Kress’s definition of mode: They have an ideational function, representing the state of the educational system. They have an interpersonal function, often depicting the dynamics of the teacher-student or student-student relationship, sometimes speaking back to the power of the instructor in a backstage, socially acceptable fashion. And they have a textual function—the way the classroom is illustrated is coherent within a given image macro and relatively consistent among image macros.

In a personally disturbing sense, I’m beginning to recognize just how much my academic interest in memes is reflective of my own social location (I’m white, middle-class, college-educated, blah blah blah). But that’s also probably why some of them hit so close to home.