Students say Internet memes stimulate social discourse

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 | 5:05 p.m. CST; updated 9:04 a.m. CST, Thursday, December 19, 2013

COLUMBIA — Tori Simons, an MU sophomore studying health science, said she doesn't want people to think that she can't express herself without using memes.

"They can make what's happening in life funny," Simons said.

Memes are something that resonates with a mass audience and goes viral. Rebecca Black's song "Friday" is a meme. The Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World"  is a meme. "Grumpy Cat" is a meme.

Simons said she always sees them on her Facebook timeline. She doesn't share them often on her own profile, but she spends a fair amount of time browsing through the ones posted on social media.

Whether they are passive browsers or interactive participants, students said memes are a popular way to categorize oneself and connect with others online and in real life.

GIFs, image macros and viral videos

Memes are cultural artifacts in which image and text are integrated to tell a joke, make an observation or advance an argument, Ryan Milner said in his dissertation on discourse and identity in participatory media.

Milner, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said a meme can take many forms, including a captioned image, known as an image macro; an animated image, known as a GIF; or a viral video, such as Psy's "Gangnam Style" in 2012.

"I feel like certain memes are only relevant to some people," Simons said. "Like Bad Luck Brian — I think those are dumb."

Bad Luck Brian is an image macro series "featuring a photo of a blond, teenage boy wearing a plaid sweater vest and braces, accompanied by captions that describe a variety of embarrassing and tragic occurrences," according to an entry on

Simons said she would rather look at something that's meant to be both humorous and relatable, such as memes about finals week or about her job.

When she's home on break in Sedalia, Simons works at Kmart. She said there's a blog she enjoys looking at that hosts GIFs depicting problems Kmart employees face.

These snippets can be ironic or humorous and might not always have a lot of depth, but they can allow people operating within the same visual shorthand to share multiple perspectives, Milner said.

'Form of identity curating'

Memes such as reaction GIFs are used in conjunction with all of the other things on social media platforms, such as text posts, "likes" on Facebook or "hearts" on the online blogging platform Tumblr, said Kate Brown, who wrote her thesis on displaying online identity through reaction GIFs.

"All of these things create layers and layers of interaction and are a form of identity curating," said Brown, who researched reaction GIFs when she was getting her master's degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Bita Eghbali, an MU sophomore studying journalism, likes to add GIFs depicting a popular character's facial expression to her social media posts.

"I like the ones with personal resonance," Eghbali said, recalling a text post about being called down for dinner before it's ready to eat. What made the post funny to her was the reaction GIF tacked on at the bottom — an angsty teenager screaming in frustration.

"They're versatile and can be used as an interpersonal representation of emotion going back and forth with a friend or in a public argument," Milner said. "They can be used to represent our own identities and expression but also to categorize others."

Eghbali also likes memes that cater to specific fan communities, such as those around the "Harry Potter" series and the TV show "Arrested Development."

She said that when she sees these memes, she knows exactly what's being referred to. She said she feels included.

A touch of comic relief

"People use reaction GIFs very deliberately, whether or not they realize it," Brown said. "They're not just grabbing a random GIF; they're making deliberate choices about what kind of GIF they use. People search these out —  it's important to not brush them aside as arbitrary."

Whether it be a social issue or a personal event, image macros and GIFs take something serious and add comic relief, said Jourdan Prehn.

Prehn, an MU sophomore studying nursing, prefers reaction GIFs and other memes that take something recognizable from pop culture and relate it to real life.

They allow people to say things they wouldn't be comfortable enough to say with words, Brown said. It's become so easy because the reaction GIFs that are usually the most popular are the ones that are the most emotive.

Prehn said she shares memes like these indiscriminately; she'll post whatever she thinks relates to the moment.

"With the sarcastic ones, you can actually hear (the character) saying it in your head," Prehn said.

Although Simons also relates to these memes, she doesn't want to reduce her online identity to images she didn't create. She would rather represent herself with original content.

"I don't want to use someone else's thoughts to make myself seem funny," Simons said. "Who needs memes when you have a Twitter like mine?"

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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