On October 18th, 2018, I presented a talk as part of “(Re)Active Public History,” a Twitter Mini-Con put on by the National Council on Public History. Here’s the abstract I submitted for the conference (which you can also find here):
A cartoon dog sits with a cup of coffee in a room that is engulfed in flames. “This is fine,” he says to no one in particular. These images, which originally appeared in K.C. Green’s webcomic Gunshow in 2013, have become a kind of shorthand for the mood in America after the 2016 election, an example of the ways that memes are increasingly relied upon by social media users to document their experiences in uncertain times. Social media encourages and profits from our impulses to document our present moods with image macros, reaction GIFs, screenshots, and other multimodal forms of expression. Memes have been remediated as protest signs at various marches, and it is increasingly common to see memes in political campaigns and in the Tweets of sitting senators. In July 2017, President Trump infamously circulated a meme in which he attacks a professional wrestler whose head has been digitally replaced by the CNN logo, an act of online speech that was interpreted by many as an endorsement of violent reprisals against journalists.
Memes, in other words, are an undeniable part of contemporary American culture. This presentation will consider the roles memes have played in defining and subverting American political discourse in The Age of Trump. More generally, it considers where, how, and why public historians might read, historicize, preserve, and make memes about the American experience.
You can find my full remarks on Twitter here, and I’ve embedded them below as well. Citations for images and screenshots, as well as suggestions for further reading, are below the embed.
Presenting a conference-style paper on Twitter was familiar but also challenging! A Twitter conference opens up the Q&A (and makes it easier to directly share digital resources with interlocutors) but it is also tricky to keep up with and keep track of questions, and the decentralized audience means that you can’t be sure that everyone has seen the range of questions and responses circulating (until they’re collected in a Twitter Moment or by other means). It’s also hard to gauge who is tuning in for the conference and what these kinds of public speech acts look like to people who aren’t aware of the context, though the conference presentation lends itself well to the Twitter threaded monologue now familiar to many users. It was exciting and interesting to think about what kinds of declarations and images might work well on Twitter: as someone who has a tendency to write long sentences and paragraphs, I liked working within these particular constraints for this presentation. I’d definitely try this format again!
Image Citations / Relevant Links (listed in order of appearance)
- Adele-Inspired meme found via Google Image Search; Image by KC Green: original Gunshow context; “This Is Fine” meme entry on Know Your Meme; photo of author provided by Jim McGrath
- “Is This A Pigeon?” meme, reprinted in May 2018 Guardian article on the meme (found via Google Image Search); Gritty muppet galaxy brain meme found on Twitter, October 2018 “Wonka sign” from Art of The March (Digital “Archive” of Boston Women’s March Signs, 2017; no direct link to sign, so search for “meme” to see it and others); “Fellow Kids” Meme, reprinted in July 2017 Verge article on the meme (found via Google Image Search; image of actor Steve Buscemi from 30 Rock)
- Screenshot of “Data Mining Memes in the Digital Culture Web Archive” (Trevor Owens, The Signal, Library of Congress, October 2018; also check out the LoC’s Web Cultures Web Archive!); Screenshot of tweet by The Museum of English Rural Life (@TheMERL), April 2018; Screenshot of ‘One Does Not Simply: An Introduction to the Special Issue on Internet Memes.’ Laine Nooney and Laura Portwood-Stacer, Journal of Visual Culture, 13(3). 2014. 248-52; Screenshot of Google News search results for “memes,” October 18, 2018
- Screenshot of Twitter thread on Library of Congress Meme Generator dataset, October 2018; Excerpt from “The Blackness of Meme Movement,” Laur. M. Jackson, Model View Culture 35. March 28, 2016; Photo by Marisa Gertz from “Memes Have Finally Made It to the Museum.” Luke Winkie. Vice. September 17, 2018. Photos of exhibition: Know Your Meme. “Know Your Meme Presents: Two Decades of Memes.” Know Your Meme. September 2018. (Internet Archive Wayback Machine Link); Meme by Jim McGrath, April 2018.
- Screenshot from “‘Distracted Boyfriend’ meme is sexist, says Swedish ad watchdog.” Rob Picheta, CNN, September 2018.; Screenshot from “The ‘Millie Bobby Brown is homophobic’ meme is absurd, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.” Alex Abad-Santos, Vox, June 2018.; Screenshot from “Democratic Senator Tells EPA’s Andrew Wheeler to Resign Over Racist, Conspiratorial Memes.” Alexander Kaufman. Huffington Post. October 2018.; Jimmy Fallon and Donald Trump, September 2016.
- Screenshot of Donald Trump tweet, July 2017 (via The Daily Dot)
- Screenshots from “Trump sparks furor with video targeting CNN, fuels debate on presidential conduct.” David Nakamura, John Wagner, and Aaron Gregg, Chicago Tribune, July 2017 and “#CNNBlackmail: how Trump’s wrestling GIF sparked a debate about CNN and doxxing.” Aja Romano, Vox, July 2017.
- Screenshot of “moth meme” found via Google Images.
- Photo from a course on “Media Literacy in The Age of Fake News” I taught this past summer at Brown. I wrote about this course on my blog if you’re interested.
Further Reading (very brief list but a good starter, hopefully!)
McGrath, Jim. “Memes.” SAGE Handbook of Web History. Eds. Niels Brügger and Ian Millgan. 2018 (out soon; email me if you’re a researcher interested in a preprint copy of my chapter!)
McGrath, Jim. “Moths, Man.” Believable Gods. October 2018.
Dewey, Caitlin. (2015) ‘How Copyright Is Killing Your Favorite Memes’, The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/09/08/how-copyright-is-killing-your-favorite-memes/?utm_term=.684b32e941f3)
Furie, Matt. (2016) ‘Pepe The Frog’s Creator: I’m Reclaiming Him. He Was Never About Hate.’ Time (http://time.com/4530128/pepe-the-frog-creator-hate-symbol/)
Gal, Noam, Limor Shifman and Zohar Kampf. (2016) ‘’It Gets Better’: Internet Memes and the Construction of Collective Identity’, New Media and Society 18(8): 1698-1714.
Godwin, Mike. (1994) ‘Meme, Counter-Meme’, WIRED (https://www.wired.com/1994/10/godwin-if-2/)
Goldsmith, Kenneth. (2001) ‘The Meme Museum’, Harriet (The Poetry Foundation) (Internet Archive Wayback Machine Link)
Milner, Ryan. The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press. 2016. (publisher link)
Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2012. (publisher link)
Solon, Olivia. ‘Richard Dawkins on the internet’s hijacking of the word ‘meme’’, WIRED (UK). June 20, 2013. (Internet Archive Wayback Machine Link)
Questions, comments? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.