Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The social function of the meme


"Oops, got the wrong house"

     A meme is a cultural replicator; an act of imitation or communication (Heylighen and Chielens, 2008); the core unit of cultural transmission (Pickerel, Jorgensen and Bennett, 2002). It contains of visual, written and musical images, coupled with social norms habits and rituals that people can easily imitate and transmit to others (Dawkins as mentioned in: Shifman, 2011; Kipnis, 2012). For the current assignment I have sampled 12 memes from “Twitting Orthodoxies” Facebook page, to create a representation of a full year. By applying a selective sampling, I sampled one meme from each month during the last year (Sep. 2012- Aug.2013) in order to include a wide array of Jewish holidays, memorial days and days of routine. The main theme of all selected memes is international/global content that combines Jewish commandments, practices, rituals, schedule, prayers and sacred texts with popular culture artifacts from around the world (i.e. art, movies, music, food, characters and organizations).
     All chosen memes combine two layers of reference: The global one, in which the image of the meme is derived from popular global culture, and the second one, a religious layer, in which, to complete the massage, a Jewish aspect was added to the global content. Thus, the tales of Noah from the book of Genesis was combined with a contemporary reference to the quality of Ikea products; and with the image of actor Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka from the Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory film to create a patronizing and sarcastic criticism about Ikea but at the same time to retell the Genesis story. This condescending Wonka meme is the first example of the various origins from which memes’ content is derived from. Among the sampling I can also point out the Conspiracy Keanu meme that interwoven an advice animal image featuring the image of the actor Keanu Reeves from the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure with a reference to a Jewish holiday Lag BaOmer.  A fairly new ritual created within this holiday is of collecting wood for bonfire by utilizing supermarket carts, usually stolen by teenagers from a near by supermarket. This meme, just like its original contextual purpose, presents paranoid conjecture and an absurdly philosophical question about the motivations of celebrating this religious holiday, pointing out the possible revengeful intentions of harming a well-known chain of supermarkets in Israel - “Shufersal” (by stealing their carts for “wood collecting”). Another meme in the sample features the image of WWII Rosie the Riveter, when the verbal text cites a Jewish-Israeli song of a woman preforming the religious commandment of building a Sukkah, (booth or tabernacle). The two layers together create a new, feminist, meaning of a woman building her own tabernacle with her own two hands, playing up the “can-do” attitude represented in the image.
     Based on the mapping and analysis of all 12 memes I wish to discuss 2 main themes regarding the text and the context of Jewish memes in a global mediascape:
1) Meme as a tool of 
maintaining communal boundaries: According to Helland (2000), Online-religion is a “bottom up” virtual participation in an almost unstructured internet environment; therefore we can identify the meme as performance of Online-religion. Kipnis (2012) offers that the social functions of the meme vary - from an entertainment and humorous functions all the way to criticism and political protest. She claims that memes featured in the “Twitting Orthodoxies” Facebook page carry a specific agenda with a specific audience in mind; these are the religious agenda and the Jewish-religious audience. Therefore, memes featured in this platform are generally clean of criticism, protest or mockery of any kind.
     The chosen memes for the current assignment are reflective of that assumption. From the Jewish-religious layer of the meme, the textual analysis reveals that in deed, there is no criticism or protest against religious commandments or rituals. Most memes that were analyzed show the humorous side of the meme’s functionality, but at the same time function as a tool for reinforcing religious acts and creating clear religious boundaries of the community, all that by using global popular culture references. For example: the Facebook page presented a spin-off of the Orbit gum commercial “eat, drink chew” with the slogan – “eat, drink, bless” as an endorsement for the Jewish commandment of Blessing on Nourishment/Grace After Meals. Another example is the memes using the Sistine chapel fragment of the creation of Adam and How I Met Your Mother’s character Barney Stinson, as they both frame the “Negiah” commandment as positive. Barney Stinson capture the people that keep that commandment (the restrict of physical contact with members of the opposite sex) as “Awesome”; and the fresco painting by Michelangelo gives that an aesthetic or even historical credibility, as the meme frames it – “before it was mainstream”.
     Based on these examples I wish to argue that the meme, as a field of textual analysis, holds a Posmodernist nature, even when referring to religion. The postmodernist nature steams from the eclectic sources used to create a homogeneous massage (- religion is “awesome”); the Bricolage construction aspect of a work in the sense of “do it yourself” online artifact, and the ongoing tensions featured in that small message – the global vs. the local, the popular-secular culture vs. the religious culture, the emancipated social structure of the social media vs. the restricted to only positive massage about religion nature of the specific Facebook page. This posmodernist text is being used for maintaining a very modernist way of thinking about the world; as a sphere of structured rules about thinking and behaving. Thus, another function we can add to the list of memes’ functions is communal boundaries maintaining, as the memes in the religious Jewish context refers to desirable and favorable religious conduct while framing it as positive.
2) “Memeing” as “Culture jamming”; “Culture jamming” as “Participatory culture”: Although the religious aspect of the Jewish meme is granted with the attitude of a status-quo, I have found that there is a unique criticism regarding commercialism and popular culture’s economics. In the following paragraphs I will refer to this criticism as “Culture Jamming” – when the creators of the texts (the memes) explicitly subverted the symbolic economy of the corporate persona and brands (Coombe and Herman, 2002). The logic of culture jamming, as part of the digital culture, is to convert easily identifiable images into larger questions about corporate behavior (Pickerel, Jorgensen and Bennett, 2002). The basic unit of communication in culture jamming is the meme, for its two-level message that punctures a specific commercial image, but does so in a way that challenges some larger aspect of the political culture of social domination (Lasn as mentioned in: Pickerel, Jorgensen and Bennett, 2002). 
     The "Coca-Cola" meme for example, which was created during the "name campaign" is using a well-known; very cheap soft drink, that is usually associated with orthodox Jewish groups, reconstruct the meaning of the original producer and carries a possible criticism about marketing tactics of this global conglomerate. The names on the bottles are distinctly religious Jewish names. For example: "Asael" which means made by god, and "Yedidyah" which means a friend of god and so on, in that way, by utilizing a religious ritual of naming, the creator directs criticism about marketing strategies and targeted audiences. Additional examples were described earlier, when both Noah's Ark and the Lag BaOmer religious references contribute to a critique regarding the derogatory attitude of Ikea towards her consumers (by selling products that are impossible to assemble) and the need for consumers’ revenge in the Israeli rich and powerful chain of supermarkets.
     All of these individually made mass media texts are a part of a cultural shift in today’s mediascape, as the distinction between media consumers and media producers is getting more and more blurred. At the heart of this process lays the Participatory Culture of an active audience, creating and distributing both grassroots and institutionalized media content (Jenkins, 2006). The meme, as an online domain for Participatory Culture enables the prosumer to take part in the social-cultural discussion “bottom up”, creating and circulating their own media content. The Jewish Participatory Culture as reflected from the “Twitting Orthodoxies” memes is simultaneously a domain for social-religious reproduction of rituals and commandments, and for social-economical activism. Digital culture and the new production process of individual prosumers grants the meme with its critical layers, while the religious understanding of the producers grants the memes with their to some extant compliant nature.


Coombe, R., Herman, A. (2001). Culture Wars on the Net: Intellectual Property and Corporate Propriety in Digital Environments, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 100, (4), 919-947.

Helland, C. (2000). Online-religion/religion-online and virtual communities. In: J. K. Hadden., D. E. Cowan (eds.). Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises (205–223). JAI Press, New York.

Heylighen F., Chielens K. (2008). “Evolution of Culture, Memetics,” Article prepared for the Encyclopedia of Complexity and System Science (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) [online] available at http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/Memetics-Springer.pdf [September 17th 2013].

Jenkins, H. (2006) Convergence Culture: Where New and Old Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Kipnis, J. (2012). Internet Memes – Israel 2012. Annual Report - The Israeli Media in 2012: Agendas, Uses and Trends [online] available at https://mailhost-3.tamu.edu/service/home/~/chapter7%20Israeli%20MEME.pdf?auth=co&loc=en_US&id=2092&part=2 [September 17th 2013]. (Hebre)

Pickerel, W., Jorgensen H., Bennett W. L. (2002) Culture Jams and Meme Warfare: Kalle Lasn, Adbusters and Media Activism. Center for Communication and Civic Engagement [online] available at http://depts.washington.edu/gcp/pdf/culturejamsandmemewarfare.pdf [September 17th 2013].

Shifman, L. (2011). An anatomy of a YouTube meme. New Media and Society, 14, (2), 187-203.

Other memes that were sampled and analysed but did not make it to this post:

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