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    Proliferate! A techno-social history of the internet meme, from print to platforms

    Barton, Hannah Jane (2023) Proliferate! A techno-social history of the internet meme, from print to platforms. PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London.

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    Internet memes are often understood as artefacts that have communicative utility within online discourses replete with legible aesthetic and affective attributes. Accordingly, valuable scholarly work has been done to understand how internet memes function as and within online social interactions. However, less attention has been paid to the ways in which the assemblage of technologies that comprise the internet mediate the social practices that produce internet memes. This thesis attends to this lesser-studied area by acknowledging that it is from the internet, as a particular but evolving assemblage of technologies, that the internet meme emerges. In so doing, I develop an analytic framework which recovers technics as co-constitutive of the social practices that bring forth internet memes. Thus, the techno-social of this thesis’ title references the supposition that internet memes are contingent on the irreducible relationship between the technics of the internet and the associated social practices they mediate. This claim is advanced by historicising the internet meme. In the first half of this thesis, I identify a selection of precursor “memes” that emerged from antecedent techno-social arrangements present in mid-to-late 20th century Anglo / U.S.-centric discourses. These accounts are mobilised to better clarify the specificity of the internet in mediating the techno-social practices that produce internet memes – a dynamic explored in the latter chapters of the thesis. A techno-social history of the meme therefore asserts that memes – internet or otherwise – have historically emerged and will continue to emerge across myriad techno-social milieu; with the historical framing functioning as an analytic device that draws into relief the ways in which the internet makes the internet meme distinct. Such an approach relies on a working definition of the meme, internet or otherwise. This is no simple task. As is recounted in this thesis’ introduction, the concept of “the meme” has been a contested one since the term’s emergence. Drawing on the work of Limor Shifman in particular, I assert that memes can only be differentiated from other forms of cultural production in the specific ways they proliferate – via social practices of reproduction and remix animated by the use of technical media. Notably, the recognition of proliferation as the meme’s defining feature undergirds this thesis’ analytical framing, since proliferation as a social practice, and the aesthetic and affective attributes of the memes that emerge, must be realised in ways contingent on technical affordances. The internet meme then, is recognisable as such since it proliferates, and is rendered distinct through being proliferated on the internet. Having provided terms of definition, Chapter One moves to historicise the proliferating meme. In this section, the manipulation of photographic imagery relating to the Kennedy Assassination – by professional media, governmental bodies, and private citizen researchers – is reconsidered as a form of meme. Articulated as such, this chapter goes on to detail the ways in which the aesthetics and utilities of the Kennedy Assassination “meme” were realised in ways contingent on the techno-social conditions from which it emerged. Chapter Two develops this perspective further in assessing the production of mid-to-late 20th century alt-media as a form of memetic social practice; afforded by the appropriation of reprographic technologies, which in turn supplied the artefactual output with distinct forms and functions, and cultural significances. Having made the case for mobilising a techno-social history of the meme in the preceding sections, Chapter Three moves this work “online”, and offers an account of how the early web of the ’90’s and ‘00’s brought forth its own meme forms, notably the spread of web-based urban legends. Chapter Four then turns to address examples of what might be widely understood as internet memes proper - the Image Macro and GIF formats – and accounts for the ways in which the social usage of the assemblage of digital media technologies that comprise the internet gave rise to and proliferated these meme forms. Finally, Chapter Five will reflexively consider what the framework established in the prior chapters reveals about the contemporaneous internet meme – a meme form that emerges from a platformised techno social milieu – a milieu I’ll argue is characterised by financialised media ubiquity. The framework developed in this thesis provides a lens not only for studying the distinct forms and functions of meme forms, with particular attention paid to the internet meme, but also accounts for the inevitable future evolution of memes as techno-social arrays continue to reconfigure


    Item Type: Thesis
    Copyright Holders: The copyright of this thesis rests with the author, who asserts his/her right to be known as such according to the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. No dealing with the thesis contrary to the copyright or moral rights of the author is permitted.
    Depositing User: Acquisitions And Metadata
    Date Deposited: 15 Nov 2023 10:32
    Last Modified: 15 Nov 2023 10:32


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