Memes and Society

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

You browse the web on the bus and find this great meme that you cannot wait to share with your friends. Then, you may discuss its meaning with your friends because you thought it was funny, smart, or mischievous. So, even if you do not realise it, the meme itself has grabbed your attention for a few seconds, although its meaning is the one part that stayed with you longer.

As defined by Denisova in her book ‘Internet Memes and Society’ (2019, p. 28-29), memes are “empty conduits or layouts that anyone can fill with meaning or commentary”. They may take numerous forms, the most used form being “the basic still-image memes are the image macro and the reaction Photoshop” (Shifman quoted in Huntington, 2015, p. 79). Shifman (ibid.) explains that an image macro includes a text script superimposed over an image; the text being the one that changes continually. In the case of the reaction Photoshop-meme genre, Shifman (ibid.) claims that it relies on text to make its point.

Considering the scholars’ discussions, the format itself does not express anything, although when a user modifies it by adding images or text to it, then it becomes a proper medium through which users communicate with a wider community.

“Memes are the common Internet vocabulary.” – Denisova, 2019, pp. 28-29.

Because the author is anonymous most of the time, their meanings are not fixed. Each user that encounters the same meme could have different interpretations of the message transmitted. So, the components, such as images or text, could be understood in a different manner regarding the values, knowledge, or cultural background of a user.

“Memes function as ‘performative acts’: each person decides whether to ratify or oppose a specific way of interpreting the situation.” – ibid.

When it comes to trying to make changes in a society, more and more people use memes to express their political, economic, social, or any kind of views. Therefore, users take existing images from various mediums and mix them with other images or text to create new meanings that may have “implications for identity building, public discourse, and commentary through collaborative action” (Huntington, 2015, pp. 78-79). By sharing the meme constantly, it gets to circulate in numerous networks, and it becomes a viral meme, which can have a great impact on society.

“Average users with a low number of followers and connections can still spread a meme that becomes an Internet sensation – provided that it gets picked by other people with higher network capital, and thus it results in a snowball effect. They share it with their networks, the networks share it with further networks and further down the line.” - Denisova, 2019, p. 31.

“Feels Good Man”

“In 2006, a frog named Pepe went to the bathroom to pee and put his pants down. A door opened, and another animal entered the room, catching the frog in an intimate moment. Later on, he told the frog that he saw him, ‘hey pepe – I heard you pull yer pants all the way to go pee…’. The frog named Pepe responded, ‘feels good man’.” – ibid., p. 27.

This happened in an episode from the “Boy’s Town” comic created by the San Francisco-based cartoonist Matt Furie, which was uploaded to his MySpace account, according to Denisova (ibid.). In the following years, an unknown user created the Feels Good Man meme, which gained global recognition and became a “political symbol” (ibid.).

Considering memes’ features, the author who created the Feels Good Man meme remained anonymous, while its work became viral by being constantly modified and used for other purposes. As discussed by Denisova (ibid.), the frog reappeared in many other alterations, although it became extremely visible in 2016 during the US Presidential Elections. Until this moment, the feel-good vibe was the most used meaning of the meme. However, in 2016, the Feels Good Man meme became a “rather smug green beast who was bursting out nationalist and hate-infused sentiments” (ibid.).

“Users were pushing the innocent Pepe to act as a Nazi, bark racist billingsgate against the Blacks, the Jews, LGBTQ community and various minorities. Many supporters of candidate Donald Trump exploited the memes to endorse the nationalist agenda, propagate the so-called White Supremacism (also known as Nazism) and condemn the non-White communities of the US.” – ibid.

All these meanings that users chose provoked the other candidate, Hillary Clinton, to the point when her office issued an official statement denouncing Pepe the Frog as a “symbol of White Supremacists” (ibid.), blaming Donald Trump for promoting this symbol on the Internet. The fact that the meme had no author gave the users the power to express their opinions freely, without worrying about being traced and having to take responsibility for the outcomes.

Pepe the Frog is a great example of how the collective creativity of an immense community of unknown users can have a powerful position in provoking institutions or political figures only by modifying images on the Internet. When discussing this specific meme, Denisova (2019, p. 29) compares the “feel-good, nonchalant and relaxed vibe” reformulated throughout the years to the “smugness and arrogance” (ibid.).

“Still, no meaning is encoded, only the emotion. When Hillary Clinton and later on many journalists rushed to write about Pepe the Frog as a symbol of White Supremacists, they made a crucial mistake of the offline world: they attempted to fix the meaning that was not fixed. Memes belong to no one, they are the collective product of Internet interactivity and sites of collective negotiation of values, meanings and norms.” – ibid., p. 29.

“Star Wars Kid”


However, there are certain aspects of memes that raise ethical questions. Denisova (2019, p. 39) gives the example of the Star Wars Kid meme that was created without the consent of the person that appears in the meme. Just imagine someone taking a picture of you while doing something funny or embarrassing, then they post it on the Internet without your consent. If it becomes viral, and you find it, you will feel like your privacy has been violated, which is true.

This happened, according to Denisova (ibid.), to a 14-year-old high school student Ghyslain Raza, who made a video playing with the imaginary lightsaber, “the replica of the sward from the Star Wars saga” (ibid.). His classmates posted it on the Internet without his consent, attracting millions of views.

“The teenager received plenty of unwanted comments and bullying, had to drop out of school and receive counselling for depression, while the Star Wars Kid video sparked myriads of parodies and remixes.” – ibid.

There was no way that Ghyslain could have control over his image and his public representation because it is impossible to erase something from the Internet, especially if it becomes viral.

Users from the other side of the globe made alterations to his image or added text script, such as “The most hated kid on the internet”. Zimmerman (2013) recalls how the kid mentions in an interview that he had suicidal thoughts. Therefore, it is certain some memes’ implications regarding the ethical aspect are still alarming.

“Pepper Spray Cop”

In her article “Pepper Spray Cop and the American Dream: Using Synecdoche and Metaphor to Unlock Internet Memes’ Visual Political Rhetoric” (2015, p. 77-78), Huntington analyses the creation of the Pepper Spray Cop meme around The Occupy Wall Street movement. She describes the movement as being

“relatively short lived in terms of time spent in physical protest, but it was born out of years of economic turbulence, and its rhetoric about economy and class rippled throughout public discourse in the United States. According to the movement’s Web site,, OWS was first and foremost a response to an economic recession and high unemployment rates in the United States.” - ibid.

Because OWS was a "reflection of tensions between political ideologies regarding economic structure and underlying notions of human liberties" (ibid.), activists promoted the movement frequently on social media platforms, gaining attention and followers that supported the protests and changes of the movement outside of the virtual medium. As discussed by Huntington (2015, p. 81), the negative impact for the young people of missing opportunities became more apparent “in the fall of 2011, when the release of 2010 census data demonstrated high levels of unemployment among that age group”.

The Pepper Spray Cop meme appeared when people protested tuition hikes at the University of California, calling for changes in the “University’s system regulations around university police” (ibid.).

“When the UC Davis chancellor requested the dispersal of the protestors, campus police used pepper spray on protestors who were sitting on the ground.” – ibid.

The image of the policeman spraying the protestors quickly became a viral meme, considering that the networks for the OWS movement were actively engaging in the virtual world. Users started giving the impression that the police Lieutenant John Pike “spraying a toxic chemical on the human protestors was no more concerning for him than spraying a garden for weeds” (Kennicott quoted in Huntington, 2015, p. 83). The meme became so popular that users started Photoshopping Pike’s figure into historical scenes, drawing attention to the unfair treatment used by the policeman.

“The meme made use of a variety of iconic images from history, including art history and pop culture, to question the role of authority in society. This rhetoric reflected larger questions of the broader OWS movement, including fundamental notions of human liberty. Throughout, intertextual rhetorical practices of appropriation, parody, and pastiche are evident.” – ibid.

All in all, memes are powerful in the technology era. Although they can raise ethical questions when one’s public image is altered by unknown people that constantly modify his/her representation in the immense medium that the Internet provides. However, most memes are innocent, holding humorous meanings that are interpreted in countless ways.

When it comes to digital activism, memes are powerful due to their anonymity that cannot put the author in an uncomfortable position and the various formats, through which users can freely express their opinions. If it becomes viral, a meme can certainly make a shift within a society by absorbing intriguing trends in various contexts.

Reference List:

Denisova, A. (2019) Internet memes and society. New York: Taylor & Francis. ISBN: 978-0-429-46940-4 (ebk) (Accessed 27 October 2021).

Huntington, H.E. (2016) "Pepper Spray Cop and the American Dream: Using Synecdoche and Metaphor to Unlock Internet Memes’ Visual Political Rhetoric". Communication Studies. 67(1). pp. 77-93. DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2015.1087414 (Accessed 27 October 2021).

Zimmerman, N. (2013) 'Star Wars Kid' Breaks Silence, Says Online Fame Made Him Suicidal [UPDATE]. Gawker. Available at: (Accessed 27 October 2021).

This article is written as part of an assignment for the Digital Activism class in the MA Media and Creative Cultures program at the University of Greenwich.

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