Gifs and memes

We have tried to demonstrate how human creativity, technological affordance and economic advantage each contribute to shaping our own individual networked media experiences – as both producers and consumers (Lister, p. 231)

When I read Lister last weekend, I added a comment to my notes which said, simply, “GIFS AND MEMES”. I’ve been thinking about gifs and memes a lot lately – a colleague and I share responsibility for a Twitter account for an inanimate metal box (best not to ask, honestly), which posts mainly bad song lyrics, gifs and memes.

Parks And Recreation GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Lister’s chapter, I thought, exhibited an understandable bias toward textual communication, and the development of community through discursive practice. He mentions emoticons but in the context of belonging: the correct deployment of an emoticon is, for Lister, a way for a participant to demonstrate their understanding of the cultural and behavioural norms of that community (p. 214).

Tv GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There are studies on exclusively visual media (see Highfield and Leaver, 2016, for a short literature review) – on selfies, Instagram, and how these contribute to culture and generate communities. Gifs and memes are almost exclusively visual too, and they have a communicative currency of their own. Tolins and Samermit explore how gifs depict affect and action, and argue persuasively that they’re:

used to reproduce actions that in face-to-face conversation do not require demonstration (2016, p. 77)

So while they’re visual, they have a specific and maybe even symbiotic relationship to text. They’re used, for example, on Twitter, to reiterate a textual point, to indicate humour, to underline a particular emotion or clarify that sarcasm is intended. Or they’re used on their own, in lieu of text, in response to its absence. Highfield and Leaver describe how the visual can sit ‘in concert’ with the textual (2016, p. 49); I think this is a pretty good example of it.

Gilmore Girls GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

One of the things that interests me most about gifs and memes is how they’re decontextualised from their origin – the TV show or news clip or image. One does not simply have to have seen The Fellowship of the Ring to understand that Boromir meme. They don’t have to have heard of Tolkien, let alone read the book. Identity and belonging very much play a part here, but perhaps not in the way that Lister intended.

Star Wars GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There’s a Facebook site called ‘Memebridge‘, where students at Cambridge can submit memes which are then posted anonymously. There’s one for Oxford and Manchester Universities too, and maybe more – I’m not sure. It’d be interesting to do a mini-ethnography of these pages to explore how the memes are being used and how they generate community and reflect culture. There’s probably room too for some critical thought on the ownership of memes, and the network created by repetition of message and mediation. Memebridge is mostly in-jokes, gentle digs at people or things, and self-deprecation, but I wonder if community here requires a different form of literacy. I haven’t read this yet, but it looks as though Kanai (2016) draws some interesting conclusions after considering socio-cultural approaches to reaction-gifs.

I think there’s still much that could be explored in relation to the themes of this block and the deployment of gifs and memes. I’m wondering now if any of my fellow #mscedc students have created any…



All gifs from Giphy

Highfield, T., & Leaver, T. (2016). Instagrammatics and digital methods: studying visual social media, from selfies and GIFs to memes and emoji. Communication Research and Practice, 2(1), 47–62.
Kanai, A. (2016). Sociality and Classification: Reading Gender, Race, and Class in a Humorous Meme. Social Media + Society, 2(4).
Lister, M. (2009). Networks, users and economics. In M. Lister (Ed.), New media: a critical introduction (2nd ed, pp. 163–236). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, N.Y: Routledge.
Tolins, J., & Samermit, P. (2016). GIFs as Embodied Enactments in Text-Mediated Conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 49(2), 75–91.