Mobilizing Memes: The Contagious Socio-Aesthetics of Participation

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Participation has often been described as the pragmatic backbone of the Web 2.0. According to this hypothesis, social media reveal a historically new merging of aesthetic forms and social functions. Contemporary processes of participation hence cannot be separated from media metamorphosis and the analysis of the latter provides insights into the conditions and conventions of related social dynamics.
This dynamic interplay of technology, sociality and aesthetics will be addressed by focusing on web memes. These memes can be described as transmedia objects; or relatively stable combinations of video footage, images, and text, “which emerge through grass-roots manner through networked media and acquire a viral character” (Goriunova 2013: 71). That means they undergo processes of spatial dissemination and aesthetic transformation. But much more important than this loose formalistic definition of web memes is their pragmatic dimension. Memes become memes only if they are detected as such by aggregating, curating and archiving practices on platforms like
Due to this self-referentiality of web based communication, web memes not only short-circuit the production, distribution, and consumption of cultural artefacts in the social web and thereby structure the immense variety and almost sublime quantity of digital archives, but also display how social entities develop. The morphogenesis of these media forms is inherently linked to the emergence of social structures built bottom-up, which seem to be associated as much with common practices, as with social representations. In a performative sense it is more about doing symbols than being represented by them.
Since these collective imaginations produce imaginary collectives, they carry political implications: The question is not, if collectives formed by the production, distribution and consumption of web memes can become political ones, but when. This question obviously aims at the tipping point, where participation, in the broad sense of media usage, claims the promise of participation in a more radical sense of disrupting the distribution of the sensible and hence the conditions of “partak[ing] in ruling and being ruled” (Rancière 2001: 2). From this perspective Olga Goriunova has described the correlation between the bulletin board and the political hacktivism of Anonymous as a becoming of political participation via web memes.
Her efforts to grasp the political impact of web memes attest that the explanation of these phenomena also bears a huge theoretical claim. While she is drawing upon Gilbert Simondon’s concept of individuation to describe meme driven processes of aesthetic, social, and political participation, the following considerations confront and complement her thoughts with Gabriel Tarde’s theory of imitation and social monads. Tarde’s speculative sociology opens up a dimension of social contagion in order to describe the virtual politics of web memes. Mainly his notion of society as reciprocal posession contributes to the quest for a theoretical vocabulary that aedaquatly catches up to the daily routine of social media participation. And it helps to revise the biological determinism forming the genealogic ground for the current revival of the meme discourse in the Web 2.0.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReClaiming Participation : Technology – Mediation – Collectivity
EditorsDenecke Mathias, Ganzert Anne, Isabell Otto, Robert Stock
Number of pages15
Place of PublicationBielefeld
Publishertranscript Verlag
Publication date2016
ISBN (Print)978-3-8376-2922-4
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-8394-2922-8
Publication statusPublished - 2016

    Research areas

  • Digital media - Memes, Web 2.0, participation, media metamorphosis, technology, sociality, aesthetics