What are memes? And why is it important to study them? Ondřej Procházka is a PhD researcher affiliated with Charles University (Department of Linguistics) and Tilburg University (Department of Culture Studies). His research focuses on communities organized around Internet memes on social media and their sociolinguistic aspects.
Firstly, what are memes in general, and what are “countryballs” in particular?
The concept of memes has a long history going back to the late 1970s, when it was coined as a cultural analogy to biological genes in order to explain the evolution of culture. A meme was thought of as a unit of culture or cultural transmission, such as a melodies or tunes that we can’t get out of our heads, poem that we read over and over, jokes that we tell to each other, or a particular fashion that we wear. The idea behind the spread of memes was based on Darwinian natural selection – only the most transmitted or copied memes survive and form what we know as culture.
However, with the arrival of the Internet the term has slightly changed. Today we usually talk about Internet memes as combinations of texts, videos, sounds and other modes of communication that are somewhat recognizable or relatable. People often share them in countless iterations on social media to the extent that they become viral. But it is important to realize that Internet memes are not limited to the online world. I’m sure we all still remember the dance from the 2012 music video Gangnam Style, which was followed by an avalanche of people putting their own spin on it on social media. Or you've seen the motivational “keep calm” posters, first introduced in second world war Britain,which was recently revived in endless variations inscribed on computer wallpapers, mugs, and t-shirts.
In my research I focus specifically Countryball memes, which take the form of very easy-to-draw comics featuring ball-shaped creatures that represent various countries. Their interaction is a satirical reinterpretation of international drama, which draws on national and cultural stereotypes. More specifically, I focus on what kind of sense people make of a seemingly trivial format, which nevertheless attracts nearly a half a million people on Facebook in the original and biggest Countryball community.
Can you explain why countryballs are such a useful case?
There are a number of reasons why I believe memes like countryballs are worth studying. First is that the Countryball memes have been steadily gaining traction, rather than having the usual spike of popularity with intensive circulation for a month, and then fading quickly from use as fast as they came.
The second reason is that despite the trivial looks resembling a child’s drawings, they can spark intensive uptake in terms of not only likes and sharing, but also comments and heated debates on the politics that they reinvent and reinterpret.
The role of memes in online groups and community-making is a rich and largely unexplored vein of research.
But probably the main reason is that Countryball memes have managed to keep a specific format. Depending on the social media platform where they are circulated, people can be very strict about what counts as Countryball meme. With the vast majority of Internet memes we see mutations, remixes and other modifications as they spread from one context to another, by which their meaning may change completely. But no matter the variation or local flavor, Countryball memes and their publishers usually strive for universal recognizability, which means there is a strong normative aspect to it.
This of course brings another set of questions, such as how do half a million people of different, linguistic, cultural, social and political backgrounds get to know, negotiate and maintain this perceived sense of normativity? And what does it say about contemporary groups and communities on social media?
Would you say that memes can play a significant role in the formation of online groups?
Yes, the role of memes in online groups and community-making is a rich and largely unexplored vein of research. In a more general sense, memes usually capture highly relatable moments of everyday life that make you realize that you might be not the only one who identifies with what the meme in question portrays, or the only one who simply finds it interesting or funny.
It is therefore not surprising that, for example on Facebook we now have diverse meme pages, as well as groups and communities counting thousands or even millions of people who produce, circulate, discuss or simply enjoy specific formats or genres of memes. These are dedicated to various interests, lifestyles, worldviews, or causes to which people subscribe to.
This also brings analytical problems because we find ourselves in an environment where we can’t be sure about who these people engaging with memes really are in terms of their identity or demographic and sociological diacritics such as age, nationality or place of residence. But what we actually have is action, or more precisely effects of communicative action. We can follow the likes, reactions, sharing, comments and other ‘micro’ actions of meaning-making that give us sense of how people relate to memes and to each other. Which in turn offers valuable insights for a more accurate understanding of the ‘macro’ level of their organization.
In this sense memes and reactions to them give ‘real-time’ evidence of how people respond to particular topics, events and other matters of public interest. Also how such responses line up, amplify, or compete with one another in the new kinds of sociality and togetherness on social media.
Can you tell us something about the way in which communities decide how a meme should be created in the correct manner?
With Countryball memes, we can see a strong imperative to stay true to their origins, which makes them a strange case. Because the vast majority of memes simply come and go, and there is rarely any serious gatekeeping when it comes to a format. For example, if you want to make Countryball comics, you have to bear in mind there a long tradition of conventions or norms, such as that Countryball characters appear without legs or hands. English-speaking Countryballs do not use broken English, and Countryballs are strictly drawn by hand rather than with the help of a circle tool. If you start making innovations beyond these norms, your comics will likely receive negative or educational reactions, and on some platforms it might not be published at all.
we are now increasingly witnessing forms of self-censorship to accommodate the memes and the imagined normativity imposed by Facebook.
But what is more important is that these small and inconspicuous normative ingredients add up to a larger pervading sense of whimsicality or silliness which renders Countryballs as a form of geopolitical satire that is not to be taken seriously. Ironically enough, the Countryball community can be very serious about breaching the non-seriousness of the comics, for example when someone complains about being offended in the comment section.
And here, I think, lies an immense and largely untapped research potential. Focusing on how people negotiate such implicit forms of normativity and sociality pertaining to memes can help us understand the dynamics of not only general sentiments, attitudes, or trends, but also the underlying biases, prejudices and other enmities that surface in our increasingly polarized public sphere, and more generally in the contemporary forms of xenophobia, racism, sexism and other enmities.
So memes are not just 'funny', but might have serious impact on our society or individuals within our society?
My research is limited only to a few particular social niches dedicated to Internet memes, so I can’t make any claims about the ‘impact’ of memes on society in general. Nevertheless, to give you some answer, I have been focusing on comments in which people reflect on or talk about their understanding or attitude towards particular memes or other people engaging with such memes.
I believe that the ethnographic contexts in which these statements and judgements are made gives us a more precise understanding of how people relate to serious topics, such as the migrant crisis and its political repercussions, and this is because such comments often reveal an incredible granularity of views, opinions and narratives that intersect, collide and compete.
So, by following the uptake of memes, of how people make sense of them, we can get a much clearer picture that complements more quantitative approaches which reduce social groups and communities to nodes in networks, graphs and diagrams sorted into neat categories, such as either pro- or anti-migration camps. Memes and reactions to them speak of much more diverse and messy categories that are out there in the wild, and following their (non-)ludic trajectories might illuminate those categories.
Memes are also used for political discourse. Can you say something about that political use of memes?
Memes originally emerged as a sort of open-source jokes that could be easily modified and recontextualized to fit any kind of environment, and to participate in creating, appropriating and interacting with memes could be seen as a ludic experience – a play if you wish. It is a play in which participants creatively draw on the multimodal affordances of digital discourse to achieve a humorous and/or convivial effect. But more importantly, it is a play in the sense of that is done just for fun, it is something that is not necessarily rational or useful, and something that is a goal in itself.
However, more recently the literature on Internet memes provides evidence for this ludic element withering away, and in some cases it is no longer present. This is perhaps most notable in memes circulating in political discourses where they serve as vehicles or instruments of political participation with a clear and sometimes aggressive aim to change political realities. Again, the ways in which the Migrant crisis resonates in memes and memetic discourses marks an illustrative example.
Now memes are generally getting into censorship troubles because they are seen as illicit content.
Going back to Countryball memes and discourses, we can see a fuzzy line in this ludic and non-ludic distinction. On one hand, their history and norms simply prescribe a ludic form and uptake (remember the format looks like it's straight from a kindergarten and not to be taken seriously, you are not supposed to get offended), while on the other hand not every group or community dedicated or inspired by Countryball memes subscribes to their historical roots and norms to the full extent.
In other words, the recognizability and popularity of a particular format might be ‘hijacked’ to spread and foster extremist political propaganda rather than just cultivate ludic conviviality. This is why we often talk about meme or culture wars in which participants dispersed within and across different groups and communities wage battles over meaning of not only particular memes, but also over the corridors of influence by which and through memes convey (political) realities.
How is the creation and distribution of memes being influenced by the algorithms and other mechanisms that lie behind the platforms on which they are published?
This is a very good question. Each social media platform has its code of conduct that it promotes as well as delimits certain kinds of communicative behaviors, by which they also define and co-create normativity.
More specifically on Facebook, we have the so called Community Standards that prohibit hate speech against protected characteristics such as nationality, ethnicity, religious affiliation, etc. Now we know that the techno-social infrastructure of Facebook is set within the parameters or normativity outlined by the Community Standards.
We also know that Facebook is hiring more and more human content moderators that operate in conjunction with more and more sophisticated machine-learning algorithmic mechanisms, and together enforce the Community Standards by detecting, evaluating, suspending or deleting potentially illicit content.
Now memes are generally getting into censorship troubles because they are seen as illicit content. Countryball memes are again a good example because their satire makes fun of national and cultural stereotypes, which makes them a likely candidate for hate speech even though its fans consider them harmless form of satire. For that reason we are now increasingly witnessing forms of self-censorship to accommodate the memes and the imagined normativity imposed by Facebook. For example, the swastika on Naziball, representing Nazi Germany, is no longer used in Countryballs. Instead now we have a have a letter F, which among other things, in a satirical manner signifies a connection between Nazi suppressive ideology and the ideology behind Facebook’s content curating mechanisms.
This also opens up new research venues with a great interdisciplinary potential, because what we see here is a dynamic interplay between human and non-human algorithmic agency in which the social media platform itself becomes perceived as active participant in communication rather than just a mere intermediary.