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What does it all meme?

May 30, 2017 by Rebecca Collins   Comments (0)

Sometimes the last-minute ideas are the maddest, yet, nonetheless worth pursuing, don't you think?

Such a last-minute idea came to me ten days ago, during my Final Major Project assessment, just in time for the forthcoming degree show. During this assessment, for which I wasn't actually being assessed being a part-time student (but that's not particularly relevant), one of the tutors not-really-assessing me suggested I create something interactive for the degree show to help members of the public to engage with my ideas on repetition. Just prior to assessment I had been asked if I needed an electrical socket. I had at the time said an emphatic 'no'. However, straight away after the assessment and after we had had this discussion, I changed my answer to a definite 'yes'. At that point, I had no idea what I was going to do with electricity, I just knew that I needed it.

The idea to create a new piece of art, with electricity, was bonkers and I had just over a week to do it. But sometimes I perform better under stress. It was a challenge, and 'challenge accepted', to quote Barney from How I Met Your Mother.

Of course, I needed help. I couldn't rise to this challenge alone. The tutor had mentioned memes as a source of inspiration. The idea came to me that perhaps I could create an interactive 'meme generator'. The question was: how? At that point, I had no idea. I could picture it, but I couldn't just go forth and create it. I also didn’t know a huge amount about memes. I knew them only as those annoying, more-not-than-often originally funny, images of cats or people pulling faces accompanied by overlayed corny witticisms. I knew that they worked, on some level, on the basis of their combination of image and text. I knew that they were popular and I knew that I’d seen thousands of them yet I rarely engaged in meme spreading myself.

However, there seemed to be something behind the whole meme phenomenon that resonated with my current obsession with repetition and copy. After all, the meme is the epitome of the combination of appropriated image and text resulting in an imitated but new effect. They illustrate the fallacy of Plato's shadows perfectly. This was exactly what I’d been thinking about and aiming for. I concluded that I had found a gold nugget. I just needed to do something.

To start the process, I carried out a little meme research. I found out that there was a formula to the world of memes. Not all memes communicate the same thing. Not all memes use the same strand of humour or message delivery. Some use photographic images, many of which are so recognisable as to border on the annoying, and some use cartoons. Images are often chosen for their generality and universality, for example, Batman slapping Robin and the toddler in a green and white top lifting his fist in triumph and others are chosen for their warped ugliness, for example, the cat with goggly eyes. The common theme seemed to be generality, and this aids in the generation of irony when combined with unexpected text. There are, I discovered, in fact a number of purposes to Internet memes: generality, irony, message and ambiguity. The meme world was actually much more interesting than I'd originally thought. Academics had even studied memes.

Memes are effective when there is a conflict between the original meaning of the image and the implied meaning in the superimposed text. They also work when the effect of the text contrasts with the effect of the image (aggressive vs cute or adult vs child). The most popular memes use images that have been copied, copied and copied again. This is a form of radical repetition. We love familiarity and we love even more the uncanny sense we can get from familiarity. The symbolism of the image can be totally unrelated to the original symbolism of the image when it was first constructed and, for some reason, this works.

Roland Barthes came up with the idea of the ‘third meaning’ in an essay of the same name (written in 1970). Here, he was talking about what happens when, using the analogy of parchment paper, the original meaning (here, image) is ‘wiped’ and new meaning replaces it. The image, in the case of the meme, being used a symbol, has an original meaning co-existing with a new meaning and there is something about that that creates something popular. So this is the prefect case of copying that creates something of value.

That is exactly what a meme is, a cultural object that is constantly being replaced and reproduced, copied to infinity, through replication. Memes illustrate Gilles Deleuze’s praise of the copy perfectly: they are dynamic repetition: they are reproduced and actualised to new ideas and they are fluid. They produce endless reproductions. There is no finite limit. They are the differences in repetition.

The best memes display a mastery of the matching of the signification of the image with that of the text. So after thinking about memes in this way, I knew just what I had to do: I had to create a meme generator to go along with the other reproduced and copied, repeated elements of my degree show pieces.

After research, my next task was to create an actual formula for the 'meme generator'.

In my research on memes, I had found out that there are various types of meme: irony, political, the X of the Y, work-related, relationship-related, cute cats, existentialism (the futility of life) and when / if. Through this, I had my formula.

I then studied hundreds of memes on the Internet. I felt as if I was losing my mind by this point. I teased together, from my endless scrolling, a number of templates for each category: for example, When the [noun] [verbs] / and you [verb] the [noun] or All I know is that… / I [verb] [noun]. Each category seemed to have roughly six templates. I created text files for each template for each category (this came to around 40 files).

The next step was to look at the images used in the most popular memes. I didn’t want to use the same images we see every day on Facebook (so no Batman slapping Robin or cat with goggly eyes), I wanted there to be an element of originality (albeit appropriating images that weren’t intended to be turned into memes). I sourced from my own images, mostly from my phone; took photographs; and found some lesser well-known images on the Internet.

Finally, I created word lists as text files for each template for each category. This added up to a lot of words. I had to create words that would work for different templates. The idea was that any combination of words when randomly put into the templates and matched with an image would create a unique meme which might hopefully be just as funny and uncanny as those created by conscious thought.

Not being a whizz with C# coding, I outsourced the next bit, the tricky bit. In other words, the putting together of the templates, the words and the images into a simple step-by-step interactive programme which could be run from a laptop and accessed / manipulated by big buttons. I was lucky that I knew someone who could do this for me, for free. The success of course depended on my comprehensive instruction. The computer programmer and I spent a lot of time talking it through over a glass or two of Chateauneuf du Pape.

The last part of the task was to create a physical box to house the devise. This was easier than the coding bit, although I had a great deal of help with that as well.

The result: the meme generator! Or, Plinth XP, as I fondly call it.

Testing the meme generator threw up a number of issues with some of the chosen words and templates, but with some tidying and fiddling, the final result, I hope, is interesting. Some of the generated memes that were thrown up through the testing process were better than others. My three children have had great fun creating memes. Some were a little nonsensical, but others were quite interesting and actually almost funny.

There is still some element of doubt of course as I have now run of testing time, and I haven’t been able to generate every combination of meme. So, the degree show will be a bit of a test for this idea.

To return to my initial thought, sometimes the last-minute ideas are the most interesting. If the meme generator works, I will now spend more time developing the piece for future use. For now, however, it seems to be exactly what I’ve been trying to discover with my obsession with repetition so I'm going to go with it and test it on the public.

Does it work? I hope so.