This essay published in the “Journal of Visual Culture” analyzes the function and cultural significance of memes based on photography. The author classifies them into three categories: reaction Photoshops, stock characters macros, and photo fads. He identifies in all of them two functions: the hypersignificance -that goes beyond the focus on the code- and the capacity they have to operate as prospective elements for future memes.
The features of the Internet have made the dissemination of memes a global, highly visible and ubiquitous routine, sharing common characteristics and formats. Memes become the manifestation of idiocy -as opposed to study- as a simple and effective creative element in mass culture.
“This argument builds on Olga Goriunova’s (2013) conceptualization of ‘idiocy’ as a core characteristic of contemporary participatory culture. In contrast to stupidity -which is an innate, uncontrolled way of thinking- idiocy in the digital sphere constitutes a performative mode that is acted out on purpose, as an expression of creativity”
The article illustrates the three categories of photo-based memes with several examples:
Stock Character Macros
Hypersignification takes different forms in these three genres: in the reaction Photoshops it highlights the constructed nature of the images – here it is interesting to highlight the way this category makes use of iconic images – and the ability of the users to manipulate them. In the stock character macro the hidden mechanisms of stereotypes are brought to the fore and in the photo fads the scaffolding of the meme creation communities are shown. The normative and social implications of these acts of hypersignification have multiple aspects: in some cases they are used as elements of collective criticism and in others to cover up racism or misogyny. Hypersignification seems to play a role in the creation of connected communities of individuals.
The last part of the essay discusses how memes expand the relationship of photography with time. If in the traditional photo album the reading is vertical -in the sense that it is related to the timeline- in the digital album the reading is horizontal and related to space (users connected from different places). If in other contexts the photograph is a reference to the past, in the case of the meme it is a prospection towards the future, an invitation for others to collaborate with new versions and alterations.