http://www.yale.edu/habitus/habitus_design_6.625_(3).pdf#page=6 The Creation and Meaning of Internet Memes in 4chan: Popular Internet Culture in the Age of Online Digital Reproduction Carl Chen From lolcats to memes, Internet gimmicks have become more and more prominent in popular culture, giving rise to interactive communities such as “Yale Memes.” As a result, these viral images have become institutionalized as a genre with its own established culture and norms. Carl Chen (MC ‘13, Sociology) traces this Internet phenomenon back to its roots in the site 4chan and examines the forum using Habermas’s idea of public spheres and Macdonald’s theory of mass culture while also providing insight on the political culture promoted by these Internet communities. Ultimately, Chen’s analysis allows us a new perspective of contemporary Internet culture and the social implications for their worldwide audience participants. Written in SOCY 313: Sociology of Arts & Popular Culture. The rise of digital technology and the Internet has unexpectedly fostered a new form of cultural media: the Internet meme. The latter part of this term—meme—was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe the natural human spreading, replication, and modification of ideas and culture within his Darwinian hypothesis for cultural evolution (192-195). According to this definition, a meme can technically be any transferable form of information, but due to the mechanisms of digital and Internet technology, it is now commonly conceived of as an extremely contagious and often very humorous part of Internet culture that can sometimes generate enough hype to break into mainstream popular culture. These Internet memes—funny quotes, silly captioned pictures (or an image macro), riffs on popular culture, and viral videos—are created, found, and shared by Internet users who usually belong to online communities, the most infamous being the “random /b/” sub-forum of 4chan.org. These forums all differ in culture and membership, and 4chan is particularly interesting because it is kind of like the Id of the Internet, where people are completely free to be creative and open-minded, but also depraved and offensive. To survive, some online communities, such as the above, require significant financial support through direct donations from their members, but other companies have since been able to generate high revenue from selling advertisements on their websites as well as meme-related merchandise to millions of users. One particular image macro meme that was created from 4chan in 2005 and has since become a mainstay of both Internet and popular culture is a “lolcat” (the combination of LOL, an Internet acronym for “laughing out loud,” and cat). In Figure 1, the meme is a funny picture of a cat, which is either cute and/or in a silly situation, combined with superimposed text in the form of “lolspeak,” or broken English interspersed with Internet terminology (Kim). Millions of people browsing on the web or reading printed magazines have since enjoyed user-created lolcats, which have also inspired many other image macros. By breaking into popular culture, this Internet meme has created its own economic value, as shown by the sale of the meme aggregator website ICanHasCheezburger.com for $2 million (Grossman). Although the specific example of a lolcat for study might seem slightly outlandish, the Internet meme as an online community’s cultural artifact actually helps to illuminate how they express values and share interests, which then leads to the fostering of critical judgment in the membership and even creation of political action. Using 4chan and its characteristics as the prime example, I will study the cultural and social aspects of the Internet meme to determine the importance and value of popular Internet culture in the age of online digital reproduction. First, by focusing on the liberating social structures of this forum, I will demonstrate how it shares traits with the ideal public spheres in the social theories of Jürgen Habermas. After explaining the mechanisms of 4chan, it will also be evident how it is comparable to the Folk Art and Avant-Garde communities of Dwight Macdonald’s theory of mass culture. Consequently, the Internet memes created from 4chan should belong somewhere near these free realms, since the community owns the means of production and is able to exercise autonomous critical judgment on their culture. However, culture industry theorist Theodor Adorno would likely conclude that they are not producers of free forms of culture, but are rather just a chaotic group of users still shackled by the false consciousness imposed by a capitalist economy. On the other hand, Bernard Gendron would strongly argue that Adorno’s theory has failed to consider the new role of technology, which transformed the means of production, ownership, and type of Internet culture. As for their true cultural and artistic creative value, Internet memes—because of the demographic of the users—seem to straddle very fine lines between questionable innovation and ironic kitsch as well as biting wit and profuse vulgarity. But regardless if users are actually producing good culture created for culture’s sake, these Internet memes also have the power to significantly influence a community’s social values. In the case of 4chan, the sharing of information promoted independence and autonomous creativity, which transferred over into their collective political conscience, leading to the formation of the loose hacker-activist network known as “Anonymous.” Hopefully, by understanding the processes of these structures, people will then be encouraged to participate in this cultural process and push for more freedom on the Internet, so that not only will Internet culture improve by lowering the barrier to entry for creative production, but political activism may also increase from the values developed from producing free culture.