Multimodal simile: The “when” meme in social media discourse

The revolutionary effects social networking websites have had on communication are undeniable. In amplifying the speed at which we can now consume massive amounts of data and information, social networks have altered how media is produced and presented. Over the past few years, these global networking platforms, like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, have become Janus-faced technological tools, often regarded as a democratic conduit that empowers political movements and humanitarian campaigns, and simultaneously as a lowbrow medium that sensationalizes trivial matters.

Communication and discourse scholars have been intrigued by the potential these websites and apps have to truly effect sociopolitical change (see Tannen & Trester 2013). Yet, while mAuthor: Adrian Louany scholars are scrutinizing the broader implications of online viral trends and the impact they have on public discourse, few studies have probed deeper into the ways in which their generation and transmission shape our understanding and conceptualization of language and images.

This paper targets these particular questions by analyzing the figurative language and cognitive properties of internet memes, one of the most popular forms of social media communication. The term internet meme has been used rather loosely to label any digital artifact (e.g. text, video, photo, etc.) that is gradually modified and transformed by internet users when shared and transmitted online.

Internet memes can come in a variety of forms, including hashtags (e.g. #throwbackthursday, #yesallwomen), video challenges (e.g. the ALS ice bucket challenge, mannequin challenge), andonline characters (e.g. Grumpy Cat, Harambe the gorilla). A defining characteristic of all these internet memes is their template-like form, which gives users a pre-existing mold to express new thoughts and ideas in a familiar way.

A short history of the “when” meme

The phenomenal proliferation of internet memes has started to generate serious academic interest in the process by which cultural ideas propagate and take new forms (see Shifman 2014; Wiggins & Bowers 2015). Many existing studies, unsurprisingly, have probed the internet meme from the theoretical angle that shares its name: memetics. The memetic approach to internet memes is informed by its original definition first proposed by Richard Dawkins, who coined the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

For Dawkins, the meme was meant to be the cultural equivalent of a gene – a tiny slice of information or data that spreads itself from person to person. This gene analogy was intended to illustrate the process of biological evolution. Like phenotypical characteristics of organisms, which would be modified by the conditions of the natural environment, the meme is shaped, refined, or even removed, at the discretion of people, their society, and their culture.

There is room for a memetic approach to studying the “when” meme in that such analysis might yield interesting findings about how social media users and platforms collectively facilitate the development of a mutually intelligible lexicon of phrases and jokes. In this section I attempt to uncover a possible evolutionary trajectory of this “when” meme, arguing that it has, only recently, fully congealed to form a new simile expression functionally comparable to using the conventional simile signifiers, like or as. There are some prime candidates that can be labeled as the progenitor of the “when” meme, the clearest one being the “awkward moment” meme that rose to prominence in 2009.

The “when” meme as a multimodal simile

In spite of its ubiquity in discourse, simile has not attracted the same scholarly attention as metaphor. In the history of rhetoric, simile, very early on, was likened to metaphor by Aristotle, perhaps marginalizing its uniqueness and its importance (1960: 192). More nuanced rhetorical definitions that arose much later detailed the selective mapping process of simile, though not in those terms.

The seminal 20th century rhetorical treatise The New Rhetoric notes that similes “seek to transfer to the person to whom they are applied some of the characteristic quality of the chosen illustration” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969:362). Cognitive linguists have recently made greater strides in differentiating simile from metaphor. Dancygier & Sweetser argue that metaphors and similes have “different patterns of mapping” (2014: 138).

As suggested earlier, multiple aspects of a metaphor’s source domain (e.g. boxing) are mapped onto the target domain (e.g. business), forming a blended structure where these projected elements interact (e.g. the CEOs, who are the physical embodiment of their company, attempt to physically defeat their opponent). While the mapping between target and source, at first, resembles a single-scope blend, we will notice that only a few selected qualities of the bullet are projected onto the final blended space. The larger shooting/gun frame is not wholly present, and so the simile does not intuitively evoke related concepts within a larger organizing frame.

Multimodal broad-scope simile: Frame metonymy and reversibility

As an example of the first type of “when” meme, consider Figure 3, which features comic-like panels depicting the crowning of Miss Philippines during the 2015 Miss Universe pageant. For those not aware, the crowning of the winner became a trending story on social media because the announcer, Steve Harvey, incorrectly declared the winner to be Miss Colombia who was crowned but then had to have her crown taken away on stage and given to Miss Philippines. The embarrassing situation became fodder for netizens across the world who ridiculed Harvey for the mix-up.

Memes that appeared immediately afterwards tend to focus on either Harvey’s clumsiness, Miss Philippines’ incredulity or Miss Colombia’s premature celebration of her victory, instead of on the entirety of the event. The fragmenting of this event into more comprehensible sub-scenes aligns with memes’ tendency to only transmit small strands of information, making them also evocative visual metonymies. In assuming that audiences have knowledge of what transpired, these memes depict these individuals, often in the form of video screenshots, as metonymic representations of their respective actions and feelings.

Screenshots of Harvey, for instance, were taken up by the internet community and used in memes in which he accidentally gives an Oscar to Leonardo DiCaprio, whose failure to win an Oscar (before his first win a few months after this blunder) had been a long-running joke online. These memes poked fun at the fact that Harvey might be the only person who can give DiCaprio a chance at winning an Oscar. Jokes, like this one, are good instantiations of how viral news stories and the individuals in them are stripped down to a fundamental core and function as frame metonymies and as input spaces for more complicated blends.

Multimodal narrow-scope simile: A constellation of viewpoints

Photographs of animals are used frequently in “when” memes to illustrate everyday human experiences and behaviour.4 While verbal similes frequently compare animals and human beings (e.g. they ate like pigs; he floats like a butterfly), multimodal similes can go beyond mapping select features of the animals being highlighted by additionally aligning the audience’s viewpoint directly with that of the animal in the visual. The richness and vividness of the visual provides a constellation of viewpoints which cannot be easily conveyed through verbal similes.

Mimetic speech and performance

To recap, my first two categories of the “when” meme were distinguished by the visual input’s level of accessibility. The “Miss Philippines” meme was significantly harder to make sense of than the “Crocodile” or the “Koala” ones because the broad-scope simile refers to a highly specific event. Yet, regardless of accessibility, all of these memes hinged on the same fundamental mechanisms: the incongruity of the verbal and visual components is reconciled by the selective mappings of frames, viewpoints and roles.

The source-focused “when” meme

The last “when” meme that I will touch upon briefly here is the source-focused “when” meme. I call this type “source-focused” because the source domain (the visual input) directly dictates the content and expression of the target domain. Our first example, Figure 8, is taken from a Facebook page called Classical Art Memes; classical art “when” memes marshal much of their humour from their use of modern commentary, superimposed as a textual voice that reframes the conceptualization of medieval and renaissance artwork.

The meme contains Johan Zoffany’s Self-portrait as David with the Head of Goliath, and though the text is highly bizarre and makes little sense without some idea of what cover photos of Vogue, a lifestyle and fashion magazine, look like, the interaction between David and Goliath in the text does not describe the visual input in radically different terms. Unlike many of the other memes we have looked at where the text inserts new relationships between roles and values, the text maintains core aspects of a David and Goliath frame.

In short, the source-focused “when” memes do not establish a stark contrast between itself and the image, nor does the text modify its viewpoint to accommodate the you in ways that would make it a viewpoint we can relate to personally. The same goes for Figure 9 and its photograph of a dog sitting in a chair using a computer.

Audiences are not meant to see themselves through David’s or the dog’s viewpoint, even though we have seen previously that “when” memes can induce us to take up the viewpoints of animals in spite of jarring incompatibilities. The idiosyncratic quality of this meme is that the text tends to illustrate the image in detail, resulting in a multimodal artifact that appears to poke fun at the “when” meme’s form. Memes that begin to reference themselves to form meta-jokes are not an uncommon occurrence.

Author: Adrian Lou

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