What’s in a meme?
The great masters used a palette and a set of brushes to create art. Nowadays, digital artists use specialised software to modify, copy, mash-up or remix these masterpieces under their own signature. But is this a valid artistic diet? And is technology inspiring or stifling creativity, asks Christine Spiteri.
“Footballer: Y U no use foot?” Indeed. That is the sound of memes, spreading like bushfire through my Facebook newsfeed. As if the Euro 2012 wasn’t time-consuming enough. Now there’s a meme featuring nearly every player, every goal, and documenting every other minute of every match.
In this context, memes are graphics with large text in front of a related illustration, created for free, using templates from meme-generator websites.
Memes are becoming a central part of our everyday landscape of communication, almost replacing the traditional textual status update.
Their content – generally referring to cultural symbols – entertains and consequently questions aspects of society through their captions. Memes are in fact shared instantly via social networks (namely Facebook, Tumblr and Youtube),and can take the form of hyperlinks, videos or pictures. For the purpose of brevity, I will only refer to graphical memes.
Memes are simply becoming a new way of passing on humour: jokes were once passed on by word of mouth and are today being spread virally as visual genres of expression. In the past, we may have laughed at one-liner jokes. Today we are giving these jokes a face.
Memes show how internet users are developing a particular creative intelligence which couldn’t have existed elsewhere. Meme enthusiasts develop a knack for observing and picking up humoristic cues in photos, film quotes, and pop references, combining them together and immortalising them into a meme related to a certain theme.
Almost every university worldwide, including ours, has its own meme community page, where students create and share a meme to purge their frustration over exams or student life in general.
Locally, the Paceville Malta Meme Page is the largest Facebook community, hosting over 3,000 users who share, like and comment on memes posted by other members.
My relationship with memes is like a double-edged sword. I find them equally comical and pointless – on one hand, they are trivial, ridiculous collages of different media types, yet on the other they are incredibly witty.
Ray Bradbury, the late science-fiction author, was right when he said that ours is a culture and a time that is immensely “rich in trash, as much as it is in treasures.”
Thanks to the copy-and-paste technique, artists and creative professionals now have the luxury of modifying or commenting on each other’s work. Audiences are no longer passive consumers but also creators and innovators of content, which is increasing the amount of online competition.
With everyone fighting to be heard above the cyberspace noise, the service of passing on a message that is equally interesting and meaningful is becoming more and more challenging.
American journalist Matt Labash criticises this idea of what he calls ‘copycatting’, stating that when we are not recycling our own memes, we are still dependent on, “Non-internet-generated material from old-school media dinosaurs”.
But then again, doesn’t the whole world borrow ideas?
“Substantially all ideas are second-hand,” Mark Twain observed, “consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Lawrence Lessig, American academic and author of The Future of Ideas, believes that copyright laws can be a threat to innovation: “Since the future always builds upon the past.” According to Lessig, all members are producers who continually consume, remix and produce material. British blogger Andrew Sullivan contends that the remix culture “teaches that making derivative work can be a form of real originality, and not that all derivative works are original.”
So there, copycatting may not necessarily be a threat to creativity.
The culture of remixing allows and encourages the public to add, combine and modify existing material to produce a new product or meme. On the upper hand, the remix and participatory culture reaps significant social benefits. It is cultivated by the philosophy that ‘sharing is caring’, further enhancing the sense of community within a global village. By accepting input from all the participants, culture will become richer in diversity and more inclusive.
In this respect, the internet is so powerful that we can create something and share it directly with our audience. It provides us with a digital platform to share our work and receive immediate feedback. This is something Leonardo da Vinci, Monet and Beethoven didn’t have – an inherent relationship with their audience.
In an economic-crisis where the majority of youth are unemployed, generating memes is an ideal way to be creative. Memes are created at no cost and generate immediate feedback. The fact that the internet allows for so much freedom encourages people to keep trying to create something.