Europäische Zeitgeschichte

“Small is impactful”. Memes and Politics

From the Hampster Dance and the Dancing Baby in the second half of the 1990s to the hijacking meme of Bernie and his mittens at the US presidential inauguration or the images of the Evergreen blocked in the Suez Canal, memes have become in the last twenty years an important part of our digital cultures (Shifman, 2014), whose often absurd, playful, corrosive and viral character cannot hide also multiple political dimensions. To the question "Do Memes have politics", to paraphrase Langdon Winner (1980), the answer is undoubtedly yes and this presentation aims to analyse the many levels of politics and agencies at stake when studying memes and their impact, in terms of digital cultures, governance, curation, sharing (John, 2017), appropriation by several communities, but also writing of their history.

The first part of the presentation unfolded several levels of politics, starting with the most obvious (memes address political aspects, see for example Denisova, 2019 or Askanius and Keller, 2021) to the more hidden levels (politics of meme generators, of heritagization platform like Know your Meme (Pettis, 2021), of curation …). Relying on a diachronic approach, from the Godwin Law to Distracted Boyfriend, through Leave Britney Alone, this part aimed to address both complementary sides of these Internet phenomena: memes as political forms and politics of memes, while underlying some economic, gendered, affective dimensions which are part of their impact.
We then examined the consequences of the notion of “impact” and “politics” for the shaping of an history of memes, which is at stake in the Hivi (A history of online virality) project, we are currently conducting, may it be in terms of sources, methods (“scalable” and “medium” reading), or topics (notably claiming for a study of circulation and flow (Jenkins, 2009), of processes, of participation (Milner, 2018) and appropriation, beyond a sole semiotic approach of memes).

Tina Askanius, Nadine Keller, “Murder fantasies in memes: fascist aesthetics of death threats and the banalization of white supremacist violence”, Information, Communication & Society, 2021, vol. 0, n° 0, p. 1 18.
Anastasia Denisova, Internet memes and society: social, cultural, and political contexts, New York, Routledge, 2019.
Nicholas A. John, The age of sharing, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2017.
Henry Jenkins, If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes, 2009 (
Ryan Milner, The world made meme: Public conversations and participatory media, Cambridge MA, The MIT Press, 2018.
Ben Tadayoshi Pettis, “Know your Meme and the Homogeneization of Web History”, Internet Histories, 2021 (to be soon published).
Limor Shifman, Memes in digital culture, Cambridge MA, The MIT Press, 2014.
Langdon Winner, “Do artifacts have politics ?”, Daedalus, vol. 109, n°1, 1980, p. 121-136.

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