Lol and the World Lols with You: Memes as Modern Folklore

By McNeill, Lynne | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Lol and the World Lols with You: Memes as Modern Folklore


McNeill, Lynne, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Once upon a time, (1) when people needed to offer up some time-tested, widely accepted wisdom to their friends or family members, they would break out a proverb: "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush--take that decent job offer, even if you were hoping a better one will materialize soon. "

"The early bird gets the worm--register for that conference now, before all the cheap hotel rooms are taken!" "You know what they say--a rolling stone gathers no moss. Better get a move on!"

As a form of folklore, proverbs have all the power of the omniscient, invisible (but surely wise!) them behind their messages. We could easily rephrase the exact same advice or warning in our own words, but the minute we use a traditional form like a proverb, we're tapping into something bigger, the "wisdom of many," (2) to use a proverbial definition of the proverb.

These days, when we want to advise, encourage, or warn our peers, we're just as likely to share a meme to their social media feeds.

The connection between Internet memes and proverbs may seem tenuous, but ask any folklorist and they'll let you know that these two forms share one major thing: they're folklore.

Thinking of memes as folklore isn't intuitive for most people. We tend to think of folklore as old, rustic, quaint, or at least traditional. The thing is, while a lot of folklore may indeed be old, rustic, quaint, and traditional, the only one of those qualities that's actually a defining characteristic of folklore is traditional, and perhaps surprisingly, memes are traditional, too.

Many people understand the concept of traditional as standing in contrasr to innovative or modern, but in fact, as folklorist Henry Glassie has so eloquently explained, tradition is simply "the creation of the future out of the past." (3) Tradirion, therefore, actually involves a fair amount of innovation--taking something from one context and putting it to a new use in another. In practice, this process has far less to do with something from the distant past dictating our current behavior than it does with us adapting prior knowledge to creatively and suitably generate our current and anticipated cultural realities. (4)

So when folklorists call a cultural form traditional, we mean simply that it's a form that is passed on, through the informal folk network of person-to-person communication. The informality of this network is what gives folklore its other main defining characteristic: that of being variable, of having no single correct version. As it moves through a population, folklore changes each rime it's shared--sometimes slightly, sometimes greatly--making it a widely available, culturally salient platform for communication. This can happen in face-to-face settings, or it can happen online, via social media. The Internet has certainly expanded both the scope and scale of person-to-person communication, but that doesn't mean the traditional and informal qualities of folk communication no longer exist.

This understanding of folklore ties in perfectly with Internet memes. As meme scholar Limor Shifman tells us, "memes may best be understood as cultural information that passes along from person to person, yet gradually scales into a shared social phenomenon." (6) Shifman notes that memes, by definition, evolve: (7) Each new user adapts and adjusts the meme to her or his unique communicative purpose. Sure, some memes are shared without adaptation, just as some forms of offline folklore are shared without adaptation, (8) but digital content that circulates widely without ever evolving would be classified as viral content rather than memetic content. …

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