grasping at meaning in an endless chain of signifiers

Category: Uncategorized

Tribes, Ghettos, Revolt.

Change in Internet demographics, 1990-2011 (click for big)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways the Internet both resists and reproduces existing cultural divisions and ideologies. As cyberculture becomes increasingly inseparable from mainstream culture, questions about whether Internet spaces offer any potential for real social change loom large. It’s not even clear that Arab Spring, the most widely cited case of the Internet giving the proles the tools to revolt, was really at all made possible by Twitter.

The Web is, no doubt, becoming an increasingly global phenomenon, as the graph above demonstrates. I’m intrigued by the recent entry of the Philippines  Nigeria, and Egypt on the global stage, and I’m not at all surprised to see China’s steady growth. But I was not expecting the rapid expansion of the grey box at the top, “Countries with <1% of all users,” which has just in the last few years become the largest band of all. I’m surprised because my experience of the Internet is so overwhelmingly homogeneous: my interactions with other Internet users, even in relatively anonymous spaces, are all in English, often with self-identified Americans, referencing American pop culture. Where are all these people from the countries that don’t even have their own bar?

The Finns, I know, have their own thriving meme culture on Ylilauta. I know Russians still hang out on FidoNet. But I know these things only because bits of meme culture from each have filtered onto my radar: the Finnish Dolan, Russia’s Predved Medved. I’ve heard of the Chinese QQ and weibos, but I know very little about what goes on there.

Perhaps that is because the Internet, like Real Life™, is a land of infinite self-ghettoization. Online, I tend to go the places my real-life friends go, just as I tend to watch the shows my friends watch, read the books my friends read, see movies my friends recommend. The few places I hang out online that aren’t directly related to my shared interests with friends are places I’ve sought out based on my own interests, which have in turn been shaped by social forces: rabbit owner forums, poetry communities, sheet music archives.

Even within larger sites, we segregate ourselves. One recent analysis of tweets discovered that people on Twitter within particular affinity spaces actually began to develop shared habits of word usage, syntax, and spelling. The article offers this visualization of these “Twitter tribes”:

Some of these connections are not terribly surprising: obviously people talking about SXSW are more likely than the overall population to use the word “presentation.” But other findings of the study are more surprising. If you’re a Justin Bieber fan on Twitter, for example, you’re far more likely to end words with “ee,” as in “pleasee,” than the overall population. As people seek out groups of people who think like them on the Internet, they may become even more like one another.

The Internet is social, and the Internet is global. But those two things no longer interact in quite the way Web visionaries once imagined they might. The revolutionary potential of the Internet is limited by the fact that we don’t come into contact with diverse opinions nearly as often as the increasing demographic diversity would suggest.

Meaning of Life

Freedo(tco)m Fighters: The Electronic Frontier Foundation Is the Internet’s Vigilante Justice League

Can't Hear You Over All This Freedom

I’m discovering that it’s really hard to talk about freedom without wrapping yourself in sententious cliches or mocking the people who do. And in the era of “free speech zones,” I can’t help but roll my eyes at anyone who uses the term “free speech” non-ironically. Free speech, especially free speech in the digital age, requires serious interrogation: what does it mean for the Internet to be “open”? Open to whom? For what purposes? Who gets access to what and why? Who regulates that access? Who regulates the regulators? Who is “press”? Who is “public”? What protections ought the government provide—and what protections do we have against the government?

Most governments have struggled to answer these questions. Today, for example, the UK debated press regulation—the Leveson Inquiry is a direct result of “Hackgate,” a scandal in which a bunch of UK tabloids were accused of phone hacking and police bribery. Nasty stuff, of course, and absolutely deserving of government inquiry. Yet some bloggers fear that the inquiry is being used to justify ramped-up government surveillance and control of the Internet. One proposed report begins by trying to define “press” and “publisher” and “news-related material,” but that turns out to be a rather sticky wicket. The vagueness of the law ends up labeling any Twitter user posting celebrity gossip part of the press, and thus subject to regulation. BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow summarizes:

In a nutshell, then: if you press a button labelled “publish” or “submit” or “tweet” while in the UK, these rules as written will treat you as a newspaper proprietor, and make you vulnerable to an arbitration procedure where the complainer pays nothing, but you have to pay to defend yourself, and that will potentially have the power to fine you, force you to censor your posts, and force you to print “corrections” and “apologies” in a manner that the regulator will get to specify.

What happens when everyone’s a news producer, and news regulation affects everyone? The answer, some imagine, is a terrifying Orwellian future of surveillance and thought control. Double-plus ungood.

But of course, thoughtcrime is not yet crime, and many people are very serious about keeping the Internet free and open. (I am having to fight the urge so hard to put scare quotes around “free” every time I use it in this post. Like, seriously.) The best-known—and perhaps the most-effective—free Internet organization is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a group of attorneys, web developers, writers, and activists whose tagline is “Defending Your Rights in the Digital World.”  They’re the vigilante justice cowboys and -girls of the digital plains, defending the public against government and corporate regulation.

EFF was founded by a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, in response to a similar kind of hacking-panic government crackdown. In 1990, Steve Jackson Games (the folks behind the ridiculous dungeon-plundering card game Munchkin) was suspected of being behind the distribution of an electronic document describing how the 911 system worked. The Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games, seized all the computers in the facility, read and deleted all their email and bulletin board postings, determined that the document didn’t have anything to do with Steve Jackson after all, and returned the computers. In the meantime, Jackson missed a deadline and had to lay off half his employees. A few of Jackson’s friends at the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link were outraged and decided to defend him in court. The court case was pivotal in the history of Internet privacy: it ultimately established that email communications ought to have the same legal protections as phone communications.

EFF has remained engaged in conversations about Internet freedom and continues to defend people whose rights are infringed upon. They support people such as Creative Commons founder Aaron Swartz, who, as you’ve likely heard, recently committed suicide perhaps in part as a result of a “hacking” trial (he downloaded and distributed a couple of million supposedly public record legal documents from JSTOR). In a recent case, EFF successfully argued that so-called National Security Letters (government letters sent to “telecommunications companies demanding information about their customers”) are unconstitutional.

And in the UK, free-internet activists today achieved a (questionable, slight, uncertain) victory: eight hours ago, the proposed laws defining any Twitter user as “press” were rejected, in favor of a new press-governing body. David Cameron was quoted saying:

I believe it would be wrong to run even the slightest risk of infringing free speech or a free press in this way.

Some worry that the new governing body will be just as problematic. But no doubt, the EFF will be working to keep it in check.

Freedom isn’t free. ‘Murrica.

Becoming Wikipedian: If They Build it, They Will Come

Number of citations of Wikipedia in Project Muse and JSTOR articles. Image from Digital Humanities scholar Lisa Spiro’s post, “Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?” Click the image for a link.

The most interesting thing I’ve read lately on collaborative participation and social meaning-making online actually comes out of the Georgia Tech College of Computing, from Susan Bryant, Andrea Forte, and Amy Bruckman: “Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of Participation in a Collaborative Online Encyclopedia” was originally delivered as a talk at an Association for Computing Machinery conference on group work, but it draws on the same psychological tradition as writing studies theorists such as Gunther Kress and Paul Prior.

In “Becoming Wikipedian,” Bryant et al. examine Wikipedia participation from an activity theory perspective. They ask: why and how has Wikipedia become so huge, diverse, and generally accurate? In part, they suggest, it’s because the system is designed to promote surveillance. Watch lists of new edits help experienced and dedicated editors find and fix vandalism, “talk” pages offer space to ask questions and suggest changes without affecting the content of the page, and the site’s purportedly neutral point-of-view gives users a shared tonal goal (2).

I’m skeptical of the idea that any writing can be neutral tonally; Wikipedia absolutely betrays the biases of the primarily Western, young, techy, computery, nerdy, geeky, male crowd that originally made the site. But it does seem like the bigger the site gets, the more challenges there will be to that bias. And there are certainly more challenges to editorial biases on Wikipedia than there are in even a very well-reviewed encyclopedia. Because Wikipedia gets linked so often and has such an enormous amount of unique content, it ranks extremely well in search engines—that is, it is a heavy-hitter in the link economy. This gives it fantastic exposure, which helps recruit experts. We tend to Google our areas of expertise, and Wikipedia articles often come up in those searches. I have some expertise in the area of extended producer responsibility and laws regarding electronics manufacturers taking back products at the end of life, for example. When I Googled the issue last June, I was appalled by the misinformation, poor writing, and broken links on the Wikipedia page. So I added what I knew, and the page today retains most of my edits. It was satisfying to read the page, think, “Ugh, that’s not right at all!” and an hour later have made the Internet a little bit better.

That’s how Wikipedia turns readers into Wikipedians, according to Bryant et al. The site, they say, offers users a low-stakes way to be “peripheral” participants, making small edits and changes as they get to know the site—this is equivalent, the authors say, to Lave and Wenger’s theory of legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice (3). It also keeps users in a kind of Vygotskian zone of proximal development (6): the easiest things to do on the site are also the least consequential. As users get more familiar with the tools, they naturally gain access to creating articles and so on.

In 2005, Bryant et al. interviewed nine Wikipedians, all of whom were active, frequent writers and editors. Most started out making small edits to pages about topics that particularly interested them, then began to take on the goals of the community as they got more involved—the impetus goes from “I’m interested in this thing, let me make this article better” to “let me make Wikipedia better, because I think Wikipedia is important to society.” To novices, they say, Wikipedia looks like a collection of unrelated articles; to experts, it’s a community. Active Wikipedians often fill out their user pages with biographical information, participate on each other’s talk pages, and encourage each other’s work. The tools and site don’t change in the transition from novice to expert, just the user’s familiarity and comfort with those tools. Though the creators imagined Wikipedia as coming out of a traditional encyclopedic publishing model, its success is due largely to the community that has grown up around the site—and a very different model of the expert/novice relationship.

Hence, vast groups of anonymous writers can be corralled into making serious, well-researched, and tonally consistent content, without having to be forced through tiered participation hierarchies. The key, it seems, is giving them small ways to participate meaningfully early on. Seems to me this might be a better model of learning in general. Why do students work so hard for so long on stuff that doesn’t matter to anyone but the one teacher reading?


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.