Chapter 6: 21st-century media and issues

6.4.2 Sharing a meme means sharing a message (synthesis)

Alexander Caldwell

English 102, February 2021

Memes are seen almost everywhere on social media. Memes share a variety of viewpoints, feelings, and topics all a while being humorous. In recent research, I have found that memes have a heavy relationship with communication and thus, literacy. Memes accomplish this by their unique quality of having meaning and by being able to transmit this meaning to the meme’s audience. I choose the topic of memes because, on a daily basis, they make me laugh. I also am a firm believer that memes contribute to the culture of humanity through the use of literacy and to be more specific, communication.

In James Gee’s article “What is Literacy” Gee mentions the idea of secondary discourse. The author regards secondary discourse as an expansion of the ability to communicate with people and institutions that are not intimate with the individual. These communications are learned and built upon experience (22).  Gee’s comment on secondary discourse generally covers the matter of how most memes are shared. Memes that are shared on social media fall under the category of secondary discourse because the media is not a group of people one would refer to as their intimates.

In an ironic twist, the original definition for “meme” is similar to what Gee described as secondary discourse. In Patrick Davison’s article “The Language of Internet Meme,” the word “meme” was created by Richard Dawkins in 1979 to describe the behaviors of a living being. Memes, according to this definition, are a learned idea or set of actions. These qualities of an individual can quickly and easily be shared with others (Davison 121). I think that, in a way, secondary discourse can be categorized as a meme. The reason being is that secondary discourse could be described as a behavior of communicating. I feel that the focal point of Davison’s article is on the topic of how memes are a language of their own. Memes, like any language, follow a set of formulas and branch out similar to how a language has accents and slang. The overarching meme is what is called an image macro. Variants and remakes of this meme are then called submemes (Davison 127).

To relating Dawkin’s definition of a meme back to the modern-day definition of a meme is simple. Davison writes that memes are digital items that can be altered, the alteration having something to do with the meme’s mere existence, the meme’s behavior, or the ideal behind the meme (123). This implies that modern-day memes, like secondary discourse, fall under the category of Dawkin’s definition of what is a meme. Adding to the fact that memes not only have a set of formulas, they also are ingrained into one’s culture. This accomplishes Davison’s goal of suggesting that memes are a language of their own. A way that could perhaps help Davison prove his point even further would be a study or an experiment. A well-planned experiment that aims to prove or disprove that memes can be interpreted by an audience and can be used to carry information, like how many other languages do.

Interestingly enough, there was such an experiment in Harshit Sharma’s “Memes in digital culture and their role in marketing and communication: A study in India.” Sharma first writes how memes are used in advertising. The example he points to is a commercial done by Old Spice. It involved a short, humorous scene with Isaiah Mustafa. To say the least, the advertisement became an internet sensation that boosted Old Spice’s sales (Sharma 305). This goes to show how companies can cleverly use memes to communicate to their audience and convince them to buy products. Referring back to Gee’s secondary discourse, advertising is a secondary discourse because a non-intimate institution is attempting to communicate to a non-intimate audience. Sharma then points to Limor Shifman in “An anatomy of a YouTube Meme” where Shifman writes that advertising can be assisted by memes because memes obtain one of the most valuable resources to an advisement, the audience’s attention (qtd. 306). With an increase in audience attention, memes can allow the secondary discourse of advertising to be more successful. With that said, it is time to observe the experiment. Sharma’s experiment conducted was a qualitative experiment, an interview with five experts of the marketing and communication field. The interview was an attempt to find out the opinions these experts had on using memes to communicate and advertise. The experts revealed that memes have positives and negatives. Memes can promote a product without the company having to make the meme themself, which of course, is a positive. Memes can also be found as untasteful, rejected by the internet, and decrease the popularity of an item, the negative side of using memes (Sharma 309-313). The experiment conducted ties into Davison’s conclusion that memes are a language by suggesting that experts use the language of memes to communicate the idea of their product. The language of the meme is then shared and even made by people who are outside of the company, meaning that this meme-advertising language can be learned by anyone, which fits in nicely with Dawkin’s definition of what a meme is.

Another author that makes mention of Dawkin’s work is L. Grundlingh in the article “Memes as speech acts.” Grundlingh explains Dawkin’s work on memes a bit further and notes that Dawkin got the word meme from the Greek word mīmēma, translated as “something imitated” (147). Grundlingh also talks about secondary discourse but gives it a different name. In the article, Grundlingh mentions “speech acts” which is referenced to being the communication and understanding between two people (148). Already having closely related topics, Grundlingh takes a step in a new direction to tie memes and communication together by mentioning semiotics. Semiotics is defined in Grundlingh’s article by T. A. Sebeok “Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics” as being an apparent link between nonverbal and verbal communication (qtd. 148). The importance of semiotics lays heavily in the fact that memes can be tied into semiotics. Memes share verbal and nonverbal pieces of the semiotic definition. This leads Grundlingh to suggest that even memes without a set text to describe a scenario can be considered a form of communication as well (150). Referring back to Sharma’s article, the Old Spice commercial that became popular was a video advertisement and did not include a text-styled meme, rather it was a recording. The recording itself used semiotics by creating a humorous scenario with Isaiah Mustafa and it was tied together by the vocal side of the commercial, Isaiah Mustafa speaking to the audience. Grundlingh continues by writing about pragmatics. Pragmatics is a writing term that describes the audience’s ability to understand the author’s piece of writing or created content, while also understanding the author’s purpose behind the content (Grundlingh 151). As one may have already guessed by now, pragmatics relates to memes and secondary discourse. Understanding a meme, with or without text, is key to knowing what makes the meme funny. Pragmatics, by this definition, relates to Gee’s secondary discourse because everyone that uses secondary discourse must be successful at basic pragmatics, or understanding what other non-intimates have to say. With that said, the four previously mentioned articles seem to have a lot in common.

From the gathering for the four articles, I have found a plethora of overarching themes at play. The three articles that relate to the most are the three articles directly related to memes or articles written by Davison, Sharma, Grundlingh. The first noticeable concept was that all of them seemed to refer to Dawkin’s term for a meme. Another similarity I noticed was that all of the articles seemed to want to classify memes by a certain category to which relates to writing or communication. While they all used different words and terms to categorize memes, Gee’s secondary discourse ties all of their ideas into one shortened bundle of information. The bottom line is that memes are categorized by a different variety of different terms. They all seem to point to the fact that memes relate to the sharing of a message from the creator of the meme, to the audience of the meme. This sharing implies that there is a meaning to be understood. To summarize the findings, memes are a form of communication that is between the meme creator and the general online public.

To conclude the topic of meme communication, I will share my insights and feelings towards this research. I think that a large majority of meme enjoyers do not know of the perplexities of the content they are consuming. With that in mind, I noticed that in the articles, some of the terms overlapped. Ironic as it may seem, I even noticed that Grundlingh made a reference to Davison’s article. With all the terms flying around, I’m surprised that one of the authors did not try to condense all the terms into one final paper. The research before suggests that memes are another advancement or perhaps another alternative to traditional communication. Therefore, I must end by saying that sending a meme is like that of sending a message.

Works Cited

Davison, Patrick. “The Language of Internet Memes.” The Social Media Reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg, New York University Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Gee, James Paul. “What is Literacy” The Journal of Education, vol. 171, no. 1, 1989, pp. 18–25.

Grundlingh, L. “Memes as Speech Acts.” Social Semiotics, vol. 28, no. 2, Apr. 2018, pp. 147–168. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10350330.2017.1303020.

Sharma, Harshit. “Memes in Digital Culture and Their Role in Marketing and Communication: A Study in India.” Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture, vol. 9, no. 3, Nov. 2018, pp. 303–318. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1386/iscc.9.3.303_1.


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