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Binders Full of Image Macros: Visual Communication in the ‘Meme-ified’ Culture

Despina Skordili

New Media & Digital Culture


Table of Contents



Visual Illiteracy in an Image-Based Culture


From Mona Lisa to Advice Animals:


The Work of Art in the Age of 4chan

Amateurs Creating “Binders Full of Memes”





On October 3 rd 2012 the first presidential debate of the U.S. elections was held between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in Denver. During the debate, Mitt Romney said that, in order to cut the U.S. deficit, he would consider ending federal funding for Public Broadcasting Service. However, the Republican Party‟s nominee clarified that he is a fan of Big Bird, the protagonist of children‟s TV show Sesame Street of PBS. Minutes after Romney‟s comment, photo-sharing websites and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, were flooded with humorous images, portraying the famous yellow bird as a homeless beggar, holding “will work for food” signs, or planning his revenge over Mitt Romney (see fig. 1). What started as a remark made over a political debate, was immediately turned into a phenomenon which was virally spread over the internet as an image: that is, as an internet meme. It is certainly not the first time that a widespread incident has triggered such online reactions. However, what has been remarkable about the reactions to the 2012 U.S. presidential debates was how they turned into a major preoccupation of the mainstream news media. The “meme-ification” of the presidential debate was featured in articles of the most popular news media, such as Washington Post and the BBC, where editor, Kate Dailey, noted that memes drove “the next-day conversation” after the debate (Dailey,


next - day conversation” af ter the debate (Dailey, 2012). Fig. 1: The Big Bird meme.

Fig. 1: The Big Bird meme. “Fired Big Bird/ Mitt Romney hates Big Bird”. Know Your Meme, 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

Back in 1994, media and visual culture theorist William J. Thomas Mitchell was arguing about the necessity of the “pictorial turn” of culture, emphasizing on the power of images against the power of words and text in shaping our worldview and identity. Today, this power of the visual seems greater than ever before and has been an important object of research in scientific, artistic, social and media studies. Peter

Felten talks about an era of “visual explosion”, where the access to images is not any more a privilege of a few experts, but also where digital artifacts are constantly being uploaded at various photo-sharing platforms (2008:60). This “pictorial turn” of the Internet is now more and more apparent, with the increasing construction of websites that seem to be focused on image rather than text. This evolution has recently been the preoccupation of many media scholars, who have conducted remarkable research on the effects of photo-sharing in contemporary culture. Media professor Susan Murray has examined the act of photo-sharing in Flickr as a factor of shifting our relationship with the mundane image (2008). Melissa Terras has also conducted a remarkable research on Flickr, as a case of amateur digital creativity (2011). Online memes have risen during the last few years as a new visual genre of this amateur and photo-sharing culture. Containing particular ideas that are being rapidly seized and spread via the internet, they can take various forms, including text, image, “or some other unit of cultural „stuff‟” (Knobel, 2007:202), such as video, hyperlink etc. Humor is undoubtedly a key aspect in the content of online memes, regardless of the form in which they are being encountered (Ibid.: 208-213). With their sarcasm and bilious humor, memes can act as a means of social criticism and commentary. The success of the memes‟ humorous context relies on the instant recognizability of the object or the concept which is being represented. For example, the humor of the “Kim Jong Il Looking at Things” meme was based on the recognizability of the situation which acted at its source of inspiration: the release of official photographs showing the North Korean leader visiting various facilities for inspection in 2010, as an effort to promote his public image internationally. The story triggered the creation of a Tumblr blog ( featuring a collection of these photos of Kim Jong Il looking at random objects during his visits to factories and other facilities, as a humorous statement about North Korean propaganda (see fig.2). The blog became immediately very popular in social networks, as well as mainstream media.

popular in social networks, as well as mainstream media. Figure 2: Kim Jong Il looking at

Figure 2: Kim Jong Il looking at corn. Kim Jong Il Looking at Things, 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2012

However, the memes‟ contribution to the contemporary visual culture goes far beyond the mere exercise of humorous criticism. Online memes also act as “a

distributed collaboration that crosses national borders and languages (…) and brings together people who may not know each other, but who value each other‟s contribution nonetheless” (Knobel, 2007: 220). Therefore, these digital artifacts can be considered as a pure example of participatory culture and online interaction. At the same time, another fundamental element of the concept of internet memes is the practice of remix. A digital artifact can be considered a meme only when it can be imitated, replicated and parodied. In a recent article focusing on video memes distributed in Youtube, Limor Shifman explains: “the meme itself includes a persuasive demonstration of its own replicability and, thus, it contains encrypted instructions for others‟ replication” (2012:197). Therefore, the very nature of online memes promotes participation by giving users the opportunity to create their own version. As shown above, the genre of internet memes is increasingly becoming a research subject for scholars in the digital humanities. However, what appears to be new about these visual artifacts is the way they are transitioning from elements of an “underground” online community to a part of popular culture. Three years ago, Claudia Leigh was arguing that the understanding of a unique internet language and the interpretation of internet inside jokes was indispensable for the acceptance of a new user in a certain online community. “[T]he majority of new visitors to a community will feel alienated. Whilst some will be unafraid of digging deeper and learning the local dialect, most will remain on the outer, unsure of the etiquette of participation. The exception is a community which enables visitors to learn fluently a whole new language quickly and simply” (2009:137). She examines the LOLcats phenomenon (which will be further explained later on) as an example of an internet meme community that seems to be more and more welcoming to new user participation. Today, as it can be seen in the example of online reactions inspired from the 2012 presidential debates, this insider language seems to gradually become comprehensible by a larger part of internet users. It could be argued that online memes are not any more a privilege of an elitist “geeky” community, but that they have rather broken into the mainstream culture. Participants of the online world can be familiar with the image of an internet meme, encountered in photo-sharing websites, social networks, online as well as print media. They can be able to interpret the meaning of the image even if they are not familiar with the concept of memes or with the processes included in the making of the image. Four years ago, Luc Pauwels was arguing in favor of the development of a new, commonly comprehensible visual language, one that could facilitate the viewer in recognizing not only the concept represented in an image, but also the meaning and purpose of this image (2008); in favor of the enhancement of a visual literacy, which will facilitate us to attain “a better understanding of the present culture, its body of thought and products, its past and its future” (Ibid.: 83). Could it, therefore, be stated that the invasion of internet memes into popular culture indeed indicates the rise of a new visual language, of a new way of visual communication? And, consequently, could it be said that the rapid recent spread of this previously insider language into multiple platforms can be seen as a significant factor in the process of developing visual literacy? These are the question that this paper seeks to answer. However, what first needs to be taken into consideration is the contribution of user participation, as well as of the aforementioned “pictorial turn” of the internet, to the rapid online diffusion of memes. The image manipulation programs, which are required for the creation of

memes, can be used not only by professionals but also by anyone with basic amateur skills. Downloadable applications and websites such as Meme Generator ( allow users with no image manipulation experience whatsoever to automatically make a meme just by choosing between multiple available images of memes and writing their own captions. Simultaneously, the evolution of online photo- sharing has facilitated the rapid spread of internet memes through various platforms, making them available to a larger amount of users. So far, no sufficient attention on software has been paid in previous research on internet memes. In his introduction to forthcoming “Software Takes Command”, media theorist Lev Manovich is wondering why software has not been given enough academic attention, since today people are constantly using it in various fields of contemporary society (2013:1-3). Following his argument, I believe that a research on online memes which takes into account the role of software that is used in their making and distribution, can lead into interesting findings. If, therefore, internet memes indeed mark a shift in online visual communication, what has been the role of the software in this process? In order to answer all of the aforementioned questions, I will examine dominant literature arguing about the inadequate attention paid to the visual element, in an age where images hold an increasingly significant role. I will analyze essays by scholars such as Pauwels, emphasizing on the necessity for the development of a new language which will enhance visual literacy. Then, I will look upon the concept of internet memes in order to show that this genre can be indicative that this process is already being gradually pursued. Significant attention will be paid to the role of software, which is used in the making and migration of internet memes, in the rise of this new online communication.

Visual Illiteracy in an Image-Based Culture

Giving an explicit analysis of the concept of visual literacy is a difficult task, as multiple definitions of the term have been coined by scholars from different academic discourses. According to Maria Avgerinou and John Ericsson, the term can be attributed to John Debes, co-founder of the International Visual Literacy Association, who, in 1969, defined visual literacy as “a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences”. Debes explains: “The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication”. (Debes, as quoted in Avgerinou, 1997: 280). Almost four decades later, art critic James Elkins noted that the use of the term “visual literacy” is still very limited in academia. He states that this is a matter that needs to be taken into consideration, because in an age where images play a crucial role in everyday life, university education it still based mainly on text. Elkins argues that it is time for visual studies to be given a central role among all multiple disciplines. “What is needed is a university-wide conversation on what might comprise an adequate visual introduction to the most pressing themes of contemporary culture” (2008: 3-4).

Accordingly, Luc Pauwels, professor of visual culture, talks about the need for the development of a language that will make visual artifacts more approachable to the individual and that will facilitate their understanding (2008). However, his idea of “understanding” is not limited to the meaning of the object or concept which is being represented. Pauwels argues that visual information needs to be rendered more “communicable” (Ibid.: 80). And this will be achieved by making visual literacy a priority inside the frames of society. In his essay “Visual Literacy and Visual Culture:

Reflections on Developing More Varied and Explicit Visual Competencies”, Pauwels gives his own description of the concept of visual literacy: “learning to look more consciously at visual manifestations of reality, and of societal phenomena in particular, learning to understand various forms of images and visual representations (etchings, paintings, photographs, film, maps, graphs, scans) and areas of application (advertising, art, reporting, training, science, etc), being able to place images and visual representations in a broader context of production and consumption, and becoming aware of the personal and cultural coloring in visual reflection and action” (Ibid.).

As it becomes apparent from the aforementioned attempts for a definition of visual literacy, the concept can be associated with the way we perceive the meaning of visual artifacts. However, Luc Pauwels states, in a culture where images are not being paid enough attention as a way of communication, “the dominant visual conventions have become so self-evident that one often forgets that they are indeed conventions (one way of looking at something based on implicit agreements on the meaning of certain formal elements and arrangements)” (Ibid.). This idea that the ways that images are being created or perceived is affected by conventions which have been founded inside the cultural frames of the individual is not a recent one that has appeared within the internet revolution. In her 1989 research “Computer Imagery:

Imitation and Representation of Realities”, Beverly Jones argues that such conventions have always been embedded in the cultural cognitions of the creator and viewer. An image artifact “reflects the historical cultural setting in which it is created” (32). These conventions are being formed unconsciously and usually remain invisible to the individual. Are, therefore, these embedded rules, that affect our perception of images, adequate for the interpretation of visual meaning? According to Pauwels, there is a long distance between recognizing what is being shown in an image and interpreting what is being expressed; between recognizing what is being represented and the purpose or meanings of this representation. According to the visual culture theorist, “there is a specific need for educational training programs aimed at enhancing visual literacy in the broad sense, with a view to attaining a better understanding of the present culture, its body of thought and products, its past and its future” (2008:83). Therefore, what needs to be done is for society to focus on the visual education of citizens, granting them the necessary skills to interpret the messages which are being expressed through visual artifacts. Along with Elkins and Pauwels, Peter Felten, associate professor and director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elton University, points to the inadequacy of visual studies in contemporary higher education. He notes that today, students are “digital natives” (2008: 60), since they have been raised in a culture where the visual element is strong. However, education still does not emphasize in teaching them the necessary skills in order to create or to critically examine visual artifacts. His own idea of visual literacy “involves the ability to

understand, produce, and use culturally significant images, objects, and visible actions” (Ibid.). The author refers to some recent attempts, from multiple academic disciplines, to make visual literacy a higher priority; however he argues that this delay of realizing the importance of this field indicates a “failure of many academics” to consider it as a factor of human learning, rather than as a plain factor of technological and cultural evolution (Ibid.: 63). It has become evident so far that visual studies scholars seem to be increasingly concerned with the empowerment of visual communication in culture. Luc Pauwels makes his own suggestion for the realization of this goal: he argues that what needs to be done is to render makers and viewers of visual artifacts more familiar “with new forms and conventions regarding the appropriate use of visual representations and their always changing expressive possibilities” (2008:81). Therefore, making images more accessible to a larger audience is not enough, but it is also important for people to be taught new ways of creating visual artifacts, as well as having the skills to critically interpret them. As I will attempt to show in the following parts of this paper, this goal is already becoming gradually realized: the increasing creation and diffusion of internet memes through multiple platforms can be seen as indicative of the development of a new way of visual communication and, consequently, of the empowerment of visual literacy, as far as online communication is concerned.

From Mona Lisa to Advice Animals: The Work of Art in the Age of


The term “meme” is attributed to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who, in 1979, compared the way that ideas are being spread “from brain to brain” to the way that genes “propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs” (1979:192). As genes evolve, they have the ability to pass on their DNA traits, for example through mutation. At the same time, they are subjected to the law of natural selection, as only the fittest ones will survive and carry on evolving and propagating. In this sense, memes (from the Greek work “mimesis” which means “imitation”) are the cultural equivalent of the aforementioned biological phenomenon, “the new replicators”, as Dawkins characterizes them. They can include any kind of popular idea, concept, style, catch-phrase, fashion etc., which “catches on” and is rapidly passed on to other people‟s minds. Analogously to genes, memes also have the ability to replicate, transmitting their cultural “DNA”. In addition, their longevity depends on their “survival value” (1979:193), as their appeal in human culture will decide whether they will manage to spread and multiply. Internet memes have come to include online phenomena that are being uptaken and spread via the internet (Knobel, 2007: 202). They can take various forms, but this paper is going to focus on memes presented as images. Undoubtedly, the role of technology in the rapid spread of visual artifacts is not something that rose along with the advent of the internet age. Almost eight decades ago, Walter Benjamin discussed the ways in which technological evolution has facilitated the copying of works of art and how this process eliminates the value of these artifacts. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the cultural theorist introduces the concept of “aura”, a term which has been met with different interpretations from scholars examining his argument, but which can be understood as

originality, authenticity. Benjamin argues that the evolution of technology is responsible for a loss of aura in art (1968:217 252). For example, the multiple reproductions of “Mona Lisa” will not carry the same qualities as for the viewer of the original painting at the Louvre. As Jos de Mul explains, only the original painting by Leonardo da Vinci carries a “historical tradition in which it is embedded and from which it derives its meaning as an unbridgeable distance” (2009:97). However, if one wants to watch the Mona Lisa, they can now look upon the countless reproductions of the artwork, distributed through various interfaces, such as magazines or computer screens. “Uniqueness and permanence of the auratic object are being replaced by transitoriness and reproducibility” (Ibid.:98). Benjamin‟s essay was, of course, written long before the digital age, but it is intriguing to see how his argument applies to the new ways of reproducibility that have been introduced by digital media. But first, it has to be noted that the spread of viral phenomena in popular culture has been a practice that begun long before the internet era. Popular catchphrases, such as “Elvis has left the building”, widespread games, such as the “knock-knock” jokes, or the famous “Guerrillero Heroico photograph of Che Guevara, wearing his black beret, appearing in graffiti stencils, works of art or t-shirt prints, are examples of concepts that have been spread from mouth to mouth or through other various non digital platforms. In the case of internet memes, the increasing ease of image editing programs, such as Photoshop, most of which are freely available on the internet, as well as the development of applications and image generators that let users automatically create a meme, can be seen as a contemporary example of Benjamin‟s argument. As it has been mentioned above, one of the essential characteristics of internet memes is that they have to inspire acts of copy, replication and parody. Their makers do not intend in creating original artifacts, but they aim at triggering user participation. Advice dog (see fig. 3) is less interesting as an image of a dog standing in front of a rainbow colored background, than as an artifact which can trigger various re-interpretations.

as an artifact which can trigger various re-interpretations. Fig.3: Advice Dog template and Advice Dog interpretation
as an artifact which can trigger various re-interpretations. Fig.3: Advice Dog template and Advice Dog interpretation

Fig.3: Advice Dog template and Advice Dog interpretation by an internet user. “Advice Dog”. Know Your Meme, 12 Dec. 2008. Web. 31 Oct. 2012

The remixing aspect of internet memes has facilitated their expression through various different types of representations. Recently, there has been a rise of one particular visual style: the image macro. As it is explained in, the “Internet Meme Database”, image macros consist of a picture with a caption, which is usually a humorous message or a catchphrase (Image Macros, 2012). The

name originates from the computer science macro: a pattern that generates a specific sequence of instructions which are being repeated in the course of a program (Greenwald, 1959: 131). Significant examples of image macros are LOLcats (see fig. 4), which consist of photos of cats with captions written intentionally with poor grammar and spelling (LOLcats, 2008). The term originates from the internet language abbreviation “LOL”, which stands for “laughing out loud”. Another category of image macros are Advice Animals, images of animals with a color wheel background, accompanied by a caption which represents a specific social stereotype (Advice Animals, 2011). For example, one character featured in Advice Animals is the Advice Dog, mentioned above, an image macro with the picture of the head of a dog in a rainbow colored wheel background, captioned with text which represents the stereotype of people giving unsuccessful of unethical advice. Some other examples included in the Advice Animals category are Socially Awkward Penguin- image macros that depict a penguin in front of a blue wheel background, with a text that typically describes stereotypical situations of low social skills and self esteem- and Philosoraptor- image macros picturing the head of a dinosaur with a thoughtful expression, captioned with text which represents common existential inquiries (see fig. 5).

which represents common existential inquiries (see fig. 5). Fig. 4: One example of the LOLcats series.

Fig. 4: One example of the LOLcats series. “I Can Has Prom Date?” Web. 01 Nov. 2012

Fig. 5: One notable example of the Philosoraptor series. “Philosoraptor”. Know Your Meme . 21

Fig. 5: One notable example of the Philosoraptor series. “Philosoraptor”. Know Your Meme. 21 Mar. 2009. Web. 01 Nov. 2012

Image macros were rapidly spread through multiple online communities in the beginning of the previous decade, most significantly in 4chan (, a popular image-based board. The website, which was created in 2003, consists of 50 discussion boards with different themes, such as video games, animals, music or a random board, known as “/b/”. The members of the community can share images and post comments, usually anonymously. What is remarkable about the communication of members in 4chan is the unique language they use, which is distinct than in most internet forums. Users communicate with a particular internet slang, both in text and image, using an intended poor spelling and peculiar vocabulary. The content of the discussions is full of offensive humor and inside jokes, which all the members have to comprehend in order to be able to fit into the community. Apart from the above, one of the most significant elements of the online communication in 4chan is the spread of internet memes that have been popularized by the website. The community has been credited for being a launching platform for multiple viral phenomena (Brophy-Warren, 2008). And, although the website still remains relatively unknown to the offline world, the memes that have been distributed through it have often exercised a strong influence into the mainstream popular culture. One of the most indicative examples of 4chan‟s impact was the “Rickrolling” phenomenon. It started off in 2007 as a prank in 4chan, with members posting hyperlinks on the boards of the website, claiming that they include very promising content. In fact, the links led to the music video of Rick Astley‟s popular „80s song “Never Gonna Give You Up” in YouTube. The prank soon became a viral phenomenon, as users were posting fake URLs in social media and other various internet platforms, increasing the views count of the video into several millions (Ibid.). The phenomenon was soon spread over the mainstream media, resulting to Rick Astley‟s nomination at the MTV Europe Music Awards, twenty years after his popular song was released (“Astley Shortlisted for MTV Award”, 2008). One could, therefore, argue that internet memes are not only inspired by the mainstream culture, but they also influence it by suggesting new ways of visual communication. Today, the pictorial turn of the internet and the increasing availability

of image manipulating software have reinforced this phenomenon. The recent example of the meme-ification of the presidential debates will help us examine this phenomenon more deeply.

Amateurs Creating “Binders Full of Memes”

One of the characteristics of the new face of the digital is the rise of a new creativity era which has been enabled by technology. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the contemporary processes of the creation and migration of internet memes. While in the early development of the internet, memes where shared through e-mails, instant messengers and hyperlinks, today their distribution occurs in faster paces through various web platforms. Internet memes “travel” from photo-sharing websites, such as 9gag ( and Imgur ( to blogs and social networking websites, such as Facebook, and- as it has been shown above- they even end up in the mainstream media. In order to better explain this process, it will be useful to look upon the online reactions which were inspired from another unfortunate comment that was made during the second presidential debate. When Mitt Romney was asked, on October 16 th 2012, what he would do to end pay inequality between women and men, he replied with a story about his attempt to find more women that could become part of his cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts. As he explained, when he asked his aides to see data of female candidates, they presented him with “binders full of women” (Dailey, 2012). His unfortunate choice of these last four words immediately triggered online reactions. The hashtag #bindersfullofwomen became a worldwide trend on Twitter and the internet was “flooded” with memes that parodied Romney‟s comment (see fig. 6). Soon, a Tumblr blog ( as well as a Facebook page ( were created in order to concentrate the internet memes which were inspired by these four words. And, as with the case of the “Big Bird” meme, the “Binders Full of Women” meme became a dominant topic in mainstream news media that were occupied with the meme-ification of the presidential debates.

Figure 6. An image macro inspired by Mitt Romney’s phrase “binders full of women”, featuring

Figure 6. An image macro inspired by Mitt Romney’s phrase “binders full of women”, featuring a picture of Disney’s Cinderella in the background. Binders Full of Women, 22 Oct. 2012. Web. 01 Nov. 2012

Apart from the rapid distributions of images in online sharing platforms and digital communities, another element which shows the important role of software to the intrusion of internet memes into the mainstream popular culture, is that of the tools used in their making. A brief examination of these tools can lead this research into interesting insights, following Luc Pauwels‟ argument that “the experience of personally producing images and visual representations can be very enriching” for the process of the development of visual literacy (2008:80). Image editing software, such as Photoshop, which has been used extensively for the creation of internet memes, is today easily and freely available to online users. At the same time, the simplistic visual style of image macros does not require advanced image manipulation skills; adding a text to a picture is a procedure that can be done by non-professional users with basic editing knowledge. However, over the past few years the creation of internet memes has been rendered even easier with the development of online services and applications which allow the user to automatically make an image macro and share it to social media. For example, with Meme Generator users can chose one of many pre-existing image backgrounds, which feature some popular internet meme characters, or upload their own picture and make a new character. Then, they can caption the image, by typing the top and bottom text and, so, the new internet meme is automatically generated. The simplistic visual style of internet memes and the non-requirement of special skills for their creation do not undermine the important role this visual genre has acquired as a new way of communication. As Jeffrey Bardzell writes in an essay examining amateur creativity: “amateurs have demonstrated in staggeringly diverse ways that low production quality work can nonetheless bear culturally important meanings (…) The core strategy of this phenomenon is the remix, and this aesthetic is encouraged by the technical ways that multimedia software uses art” (2007: 29).

This paper has shown that internet memes have acquired an interdependent relationship with mainstream culture. The latter can act as a source of inspiration for the creation of internet memes and, simultaneously, internet memes are increasingly becoming a significant preoccupation of mainstream media. As it has been mentioned above, Luc Pauwles argued that visual literacy can be achieved if people are taught how to create visual artifacts and how to be able to critically interpret them. It could therefore be stated that the recent invasion of internet memes into mainstream media indicates that the mission of promoting visual literacy is leaning towards a realization. The interpretation of internet memes is not the privilege of an elitist internet community any more. The use of an inside language might be one of their distinctive characteristics; however their mobility through various platforms has rendered this language recognizable. At the same time, the increased availability of the software which is being used in their creation has made it easier for online users to create these visual artifacts. Internet memes, as a new genre of amateur creativity and as transmitters of significant meaning, can be seen as a step towards the realization of visual literacy, rising as an important, developing way of visual communication.



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