Contemporary history of Europe

Put it Back! Archived Memes in Context

Memes constitute a significant aspect of online digital cultures (see Shifman, 2014; Milner, 2018; Denisova, 2016). Their role in reactions to events like the Ukrainian war highlights their broad influence. However, preserving memes, especially in their original context, proves challenging (Pailler & Schafer, 2022). Initiatives like SUCHO's Meme Wall and the one by the Library of Congress (which archived Know Your Meme but also Meme generator, when creating a particular collection in 2017 “Remix, Slang and Memes: A New Collection Documents Web Culture”) reflect attempts at preserving these cultural artifacts. Furthermore, institutional web archives, as exemplified by projects I led like Hivi (A history of online virality) and Buzz-F in collaboration with the BnF Datalab, have significant content related to memes and viral online phenomena such as the Harlem Shake. Nevertheless, the process of archiving memes remains underdeveloped, resulting also in challenges related to retrievability, searchability, and contextualization.

This presentation delves first into the unique challenges posed by memes concerning contextualization. It explores their circulation across platforms, notably on social media networks, their diverse and ephemeral nature, and the cognitive context intricacies tied to content and usage. Memes can for example vary drastically in meaning based on where they appear – be it a tweet, a post within an activist Facebook group, or other contexts. Understanding these multilayered intricacies is vital for comprehending the broader significance of memes and for developing suitable archiving processes.

Following a brief presentation of the various contextual layers involved into meme analysis, we will delve into the extent to which meme archiving addresses – or could address – these diverse dimensions. It becomes crucial to identify elements that must be preserved to facilitate proper contextualization and potential new approaches to these challenges. One proposal involves for example creating shared ontologies to enrich metadata. Additionally, the idea of specialized meme collections within archives could be explored.

This presentation draws upon the experience gained from two research projects, Hivi and Buzz-F, with the aim of initiating a discussion on context preservation and the challenges posed by ephemeral online phenomena such as memes. It offers insights relevant to the Research & Access theme, touching upon topics such as Unrealized business and technical requirements for web archives research; Creating & providing researchers with datasets from web archives collections; Collaborations between researchers and web archivists.

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