Alongside serious reportage of bad news, you’ve probably come across at least one crisis meme that treats that bad news with a dose of ghoulish humour.
Just hours after the Daily Mail printed the image of a London looter the version above appeared.
Why does internet social commentary take these precise forms? And why does that matter?
We are adept at treating ideas as having two levels: structure and content. This gives us the ability to express an infinite amount of ideas with a finite language. Some idea structures, though, are particularly reusable.
Memes exploit the structural properties of cultural objects as templatable. This growing awareness of templatability is the key to why internet social commentary looks the way it does.
O RLY also had an easily understood templatable structure: superimposed text on an image.
In 2004, Agoraphilia blogger Glen Whitman coined the term “snowclone”. It refers to sentences such as “grey is the new black”, in which the nouns (“grey” and “black”) can be replaced, formulaically, by any two other nouns, such as: “30 is the new 20”. The template in this case being: “X is the new Y.”
The looting meme image above is a snowclone. The template slots are the midshot of a person attempting to look cool or dangerous, the textual set-up at the top and the punchline at the bottom.
It is based on the Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world” advertising campaign. The campaign featured a central male figure and tagline: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis”.
This is precisely the kind of phrase that lends itself to becoming a snowclone (“I don’t always X, but when I do, Y”).
Satirists can use either the original image and superimpose satirical text or superimpose the text on an appropriately striking recent image.
The above and below “I don’t always …” snowclones appeared immediately after the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in May.
A different form of meme uses “exploitable” image elements, in which a striking element from one image is superimposed on to another.
The original “Disaster Girl” meme shows a young girl with a devilish look in the extreme foreground of a picture showing a burning house.
The face of the girl is easily superimposed on to other disasters, such as the burning shops and residences in Croydon, South London, during the London Riots.
The use of Disaster Girl reinforces the meme itself and its use as a rapidly deployable comment on the situation.
Meme templates can be combined with other images that have achieved viral popularity, providing social commentary by linking concepts.
One part of the image comment below is the 1939 British “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, produced to boost morale at the start of the second world war.
This is combined with the “Y U No” rage comic illustration of a plump sweating face with a moustache, combined with non-native English, imploring someone to do something (“why you no X?”).
The “Y U No” man’s question indicates confusion and worrying about the rioting from those who hold a particular stereotypical viewpoint of polite, stiff-upper-lip, British society.
Meme templates are often combined to comment on internet comment culture itself.
The “Scumbag Steve” meme is often used to illustrate anti-social practices.
One offshoot of Scumbag Steve is Scumbag Brain, which purports to comment on one’s own anti-social thoughts.
In the example below, this is used to comment on the comparative amounts of attention and sadness given to the Norway killings versus Amy Winehouse’s death.
The generation of memes is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Several sites, such as Meme Generator and Rage Comic Builder provide all the artwork and creation tools required to create new versions of existing memes.
Such memes often take the form of a pinwheel background with a photograph in the center.
Thematically they centre on bad advice. Recent meme generator variants have had a political leaning, using Barack Obama and American economist Paul Krugman to give bad advice about the US debt crisis.
The pros of comment culture
Whatever we call it, internet comment culture is a reinvigoration of an active public voice. It’s a combination of popular culture and folk culture, appropriating and mashing together objects and ideas from media industries and objects and ideas created from whole cloth.
These crisis memes may trivialise, or appear ghoulish, simplistic and/or self-congratulatory. But they are ours.
Indeed, the London riots have now themselves generated several new memes, two of which combine some quite important political issues. The most popular is the meme showing a looter stealing one of the rings of the upcoming London Olympic Games.
But perhaps more important is loot-alikes. This meme involves finding an image of a looter (CCTV, mugshots etc.) and placing next to it a very similar looking image of another person, preferably a famous person.
What’s fascinating about this is that it is an ironic comment on the UK Police using social media to identify looters by posting their images.
Indeed, many of the loot-alike images are those posted by the UK Police.
We shouldn’t look to internet comment culture for a utopian future.
Memes are by nature very difficult to predict, control and, if necessary, eradicate. Further, as much as we might want to see a rise in active, producer, read/write culture, the use of copyright materials in such memes represents an unresolved issue.
Perhaps the most important question we should be asking about online comment culture is: whose culture is it?
At the very least it is US-centric, potentially continuing the claimed trend of US cultural imperialism through media.
But might it also represent the beginnings of a split between the online and offline worlds? Groups have always demonstrated their cohesion through restricted code, group-specific words and ideas.
Many of the memes above hold more meaning for those in the know. Might that knowledge be used to develop divisive cultural principles?
Perhaps Philosoraptor will discover the answer.