Popular Culture students dissect memes at class conference

In the last two weeks of Winter Term, students in Jacqueline Botterill’s class took a deep dive into what she calls an “integral, prevalent, influential part of contemporary discourse” — memes.

These prolific digital messages are made up of an image or video that has been altered in a way that might be appreciated by some, disliked by others and perhaps largely misunderstood by still others, which then spread through digital networks based on how they resonate with the users who encounter them.

Botterill, an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film, says that while memes are “easy to dismiss as trivial, digital dross, from a critical perspective, they are important to study because they offer a window onto the complex dynamics of contemporary media and culture.”

Over the course of the term, students in PCUL 4P23, “Advanced Research in Media and Popular Culture,” learned about the complexity and significance of memes before selecting an area of research to dive into and then share at a class-wide conference held March 31 and April 7.

The panels at the conference included presentations looking at specific types of memes, how people interact with memes and the effectiveness and lifespan of different memes, among other topics.

Emily Morrison, a Media and Communication major from St. Catharines, examined the way that users create identities using memes to engage with communities on 4chan, an anonymous imageboard website.

She says she was surprised to find how little research has been done in the area of memes.

“We’re at a point where it feels like there’s a new meme format every couple of days, meaning the research that could be done on memes is constantly expanding, and yet we’re only still at the beginning of meme research in the grand scheme of things,” says Morrison. “Throughout the conference, people presented research on topics that I was aware of but would have never considered studying myself, since memes are so ingrained in our culture. The ideas they had chosen to analyze just felt natural to me, like something I passed by every day and didn’t think much of.”

Olivia Elliott, a Media and Communication major from Brockville, looked at the opposing subcultures that create vegan memes, particularly those designed around the debate over the virtues of almond milk versus cow’s milk. She says that she appreciated all of the research shared at the conference.

“It was so interesting to learn about the different ways memes can express how people feel and how they are used to bring people together,” says Elliott. “Understanding why memes can do what they do can help us learn how to reach specific groups or even global audiences.”

One of Elliott’s favourite presentations was done by Kate Rebarter, a Media and Communication major from St. Catharines, who talked about nostalgia in memes, particularly around children’s television programming like Spongebob Squarepants.

For her part, Rebarter was also impressed with the work done by her peers.

“Perhaps I might have been prejudiced against memes because of their lighthearted humour, but there are many aspects of memes that warrant deeper analysis,” says Rebarter. “I really enjoyed the conference and I wish that students had more opportunities to showcase the research they are interested in.”

Botterill says the conference presentations reflected strong critical-thinking skills and a broad understanding of both the limitations of the research and the potential for improvement and expansion in future projects.

“The skillful way presenters applied the methodology learned through their degrees to build new insights into media and popular culture problems floored me, and their suggestions for future work illustrated a firm grasp on the current state of media studies,” says Botterill. “At this conference, presenters ceased to be fourth-year students — they became the new communication scholars, practitioners and professionals needed to understand and improve media and popular culture.”

Morrison believes her new-found ability to engage with meme culture will be an important part of her skill set moving forward.

“Meme research is extremely relevant to anyone who wants to work in any sort of digital marketing,” she says. “Memes are almost like a language of their own, so if you want to work in the online sphere, you must understand them.”

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