The movement from tribes to larger societies is often attributed to the common fictions offered and maintained by organised religion (Harari, 2014). In an increasingly secular society it seems important to understand the elements of religious activity which enabled such large scale solidarity and identify the non-religious activities that have replaced them.
The internet meme has in recent years become an all-pervasive form of cultural communication which now “permeates many spheres of digital and nondigital expression” (Shifman, 2015, p.23). The rise of the meme coincided with what Tim O’Reilly coined as web 2.0 which was characterised by community moderated, content-driven websites like 4chan and Reddit and blogging platforms such as WordPress, Blogger and Tumblr (O’Reilly, 2005). These platforms relied on user-submitted content and encouraged interaction within comment sections, giving rise to a plethora of virtual communities and an “infinite number of different, partly overlapping online subcultures” (Sveningsson, 2008).
In this essay I explore how the participation in the creation and dissemination of internet memes can be seen as a ritualist practice which helps to create more cohesive virtual communities. I start by addressing key concepts, ‘communities’ and ‘virtual communities’, ‘memes’ and the ‘internet memes’, ‘communication’ and ‘ritual’. To understand virtual communities I use Benedict Anderson’s concept of the ‘imagined community’ which he proposed in his seminal book on the origins of nationalism. To address memes I start by looking at the conceptual origins in Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Selfish Gene’ and how his gene-based model for understanding cultural imitation and propagation can help our understanding of internet memes. I combine Emile Durkheim’s views on the role of ritual in society with James Cary’s theory of communication as ritual to explore the use of the word outside of religious contexts. I conclude by suggesting that internet memes act as tools for communication, mediating beliefs and ideals in large-scale anonymous communities and that they are effective in this because of their participatory nature and efficiency in communicating complex social ideas.
There has been some contention about the notion of community, either as a network of concrete interpersonal relationships or as a group with a common sense of identity or characteristics. Prior to 1970 the community was almost synonymous with the neighbourhood, but it was then expanded to include more geographically distant ties, such as family, friends and coworkers (Gruzd, Wellman and Takhteyev, 2011). The online networks that we now label as communities are often large and in many cases the members are anonymous (eg: Reddit, 4chan). We might then borrow Benedict Anderson’s concept of ‘imagined communities’, which he used to describe nations. They are imagined communities “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (Anderson, 1983, p.6). Borrowing from Raymond Williams we can then talk of virtual communities as imagined communities where “a sense of common identity and characteristics” is held in the minds of the members (Williams, 1983, p.75).
The term ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” where he took the ancient Greek word ‘mimeme’ meaning ‘imitated thing’ and shortened it to rhyme with ‘gene’. He was taking the genetic theory of life evolving “by the differential survival of replicating entities”, and applying the model to cultural phenomena (Dawkins, 2009, p.561). The meme like the gene is a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”, and examples of memes might be; “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (Dawkins, 2009, p.562, p.563). In Dawkins’s definition memes are ideas or pieces of information stored in our minds, and drawings, photos and text are vehicles in which these ideas are transmitted. In essence “memes are idea complexes and meme vehicles are their tangible expressions” (Shifman, 2015, p.38).
There is some contention around basing the meme on the gene. Genes are based on physical characteristics or phenotypes, which are a result of the alleles in a DNA sequence, they are an abstract concept but one based on clear physical attributes. Memes, on the other hand, have no concrete physical parallel. In Dawkins’s example of an arch building meme, two different craftsmen may both possess such skill and knowledge however their corresponding neural pathways do have to be identical (Gatherer, 1998). An alternative model proposed by Gatherer (1998) defines a meme as:
“an observable cultural phenomenon, such as a behaviour, artefact or an objective piece of information, which is copied, imitated or learned, and thus may replicate within a cultural system.”
Gatherer’s model allows us more analytic power by treating the things we see as memes and not simply as the result of an ambiguous thought or idea. In both Dawkins and Gatherer’s models, the success of a meme is judged by its staying power, popularity, and the speed at which it propagates (Shifman, 2015). Most internet memes are part of a group of related items that might use the same format, picture or idea and it is these groups or categories which tend to propagate and persist rather than the individual text, picture or video. Because groups or categories display the memetic behaviour of Gatherer’s model Shifman suggests we define internet memes as:
“a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which were created with awareness of each other, and were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the internet by many users.”
This definition then allows us to tie our understanding of internet memes with the sociological theory of memetics as units of culture which can be imitated, adapted and, promulgated.
Ritual is a word generally associated with spiritual and religious activity however Émile Durkheim argues these activities perform a specific social function one about collectively affirming beliefs and ideals. He writes at the end of his book ‘The Elementry Forms of Religious Life’, that the role of ritual is to unite the “whole world of feelings, ideas, and images” which, “mutually attract one another, repel one another, fuse together, subdivide, and proliferate” within a community of individuals (Durkheim and Fields, 1995, p.426). Essentially ritual is an activity where “collective beliefs and ideals are simultaneously generated, experienced, and affirmed as real by the community” (Bell, 2009, p.20).
Communication as a ritual was a concept proposed by James Carey as an alternative to the traditional view of communication as transmission. The ‘communication as transmission’ model sees the function of communication as the transferal of information to inform, impart knowledge and control others. “A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs” (Carey, 1989, p.15). He examines this further through news consumption; in the transmission model the newspaper is “an instrument for disseminating news and knowledge” in the ritualistic model reading the news is likened to attending mass. He points out that the news is just “a portrayal of the contending forces in the world” (Carey, 1989, p.16). This idea is rationalised by the fact that, like religious rituals, “news changes little and yet is intrinsically satisfying; it performs few functions yet is habitually consumed” (Carey, 1989, p.17). Hegel, writing in the early 19th century, made the same connection, “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude toward the world either by God or by what the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows how one stands.” (Hegel, 2002, p.274). The big difference between many religious rituals, such as attending mass, is that reading a newspaper is generally performed alone, however the social or tribal sentiment might still exist in that “each communicant is well aware that the ceremony (s)he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands” (Anderson, 1983, p.35).
We might look at instagram as a modern equivalent, it is a social platform where people share photos and the most popular categories for these photos are selfies or pictures of friends and activities (Hu, Manikonda and Kambhampati, 2014). In the transmission model we might see the participation in posting and consuming photos as a means of informing your followers/friends as to how you look, who you are hanging out with and what you are doing. It is a small step from this view to see instagram as the result of a self-obsessed narcissistic culture where people spend their time competitively comparing themselves to others. A more optimistic view might be taken if we regard instagram as a cultural church, a place where people can participate in a social exchange of ideas and sentiments through the ritual sharing of images of the things and people around them. The transmission view and the ritual view are not mutually exclusive; a banker might read the news purely to gauge the stock market and a narcissist might use instagram to feed a need for praise and validation. The question here is whether the pervasiveness of newspapers and instagram is the result of a need for a cooperative ritual within society .
Memes are in many ways hallmarks of a participatory culture which grew out of the user-focused web pages of Web 2.0 and “like many Web 2.0 applications, memes diffuse from person to person, but shape and reflect general social mindsets” (Shifman, 2015). They are characterised by a rough, ascetic, and amateurish aesthetic meaning they take little technical skill to create and so invite participation. Due to the affordance of combining video, image and text, internet memes allow for the encoding of complex ideas into symbols which are simple and easy to consume. This I suggest is key to their discursive value within large and diverse communities as it allows for individuals to easily gather the ideas and opinions of its members. Memes are also predominantly satirical which is seen as a “common strategy that supports social bonding and the maintenance of social boundaries” (Willmore and Hocking, 2017).
Imagined communities, that is communities that are held together by a sense of communion, of common belief and interest, need those commonalities to be maintained (Carey, 1989). Within a nation this might be seen as the role of the media and within Catholicism the role of the Vatican, but it is less obvious on the internet where, in most situations, there is no governing body or centralised source of discourse. It is true that there are individuals, such as celebrities, who act as central reference points providing rhetoric and often fostering their own communities of followers. However, in the autonomous self-governed communities where there is no clear central authority and, accepting that imagined communities are held together by commonalities, there must exist some method of conversation mediating beliefs. I am also generally referring to larger communities, as there are many where membership is in the tens of millions making normal conversation through message less viable (Redditmetrics.com, 2018).
Internet memes offer a solution to this as they are able to encapsulate complex social ideas into a format which is fast and easy to consume. They employ popular arguments “and popular texts, intertwining them into a vibrant polyvocal public discourse” (Milner, 2013). If we think of ritual as the activity where beliefs are ‘generated, experienced, and affirmed’, then we could say that the engagement in the production and dissemination of internet memes is a ritualistic practice. What I have offered here is a way of framing the use of internet memes, seeing them not as a trivial cultural ephemera but as an important semiotic system that offers the opportunity for large scale, cohesive, self-governed virtual communities.