Limor Shifman (2013). Memes in Digital Culture. MIT Press eBooks.

Memes as opinions

Memes are usually not produced by Facebook users, but rather they tend to be shared from popular internet sites. As shown in our last video from south Italy, people who don’t want to express their opinions directly share moral memes that indicate their values and beliefs. These may be quite personal, as are the comments they subsequently receive from others.

Memes provide a more subtle way to hint at how a person feels and how they themselves would like to be seen by their friends. For example, we found that many women in our south Italian fieldsite prefer a ‘romantic’ visual presence, where soft colours and optimistic tones dominate.

Silvia is a 64-year-old retired school teacher. Every day she shares a few visual postings on her Facebook page that range from pictures of the sunrise taken by herself and uploaded together with ‘Good morning!’ wishes, to memes which express sharing love and gratitude within the family, and to congratulating the local police (carabinieri) for arresting some notorious member of the Italian mafia. Silvia feels that memes help her express feelings that would have been otherwise extremely difficult for her to put into words, especially given that she has such a diverse audience which includes her close family, people she knows from the town, as well as her ex-students.

Religious memes

One of the key topics often expressed through moral memes in several of our fieldsites is religion. This should not surprise us since the genre of the meme may fit common religious imperatives which advocate the sharing of positive messages.

In our south Indian fieldsite we found that Hindus often feel it is a religious duty to send memes every day to their friends. They might choose either a religious image, or refer indirectly to religious or moral values. By sharing a ‘good’ image people feel they actually share positive values, which help to build a good Karma.

Memes from south India

By sending ‘Happy Diwali” (a Hindu festival) memes in south India and Trinidad or romantic memes in China, people not only advertise their moral values and encourage others to adopt them, but they also regard this activity as a form of practical morality in itself. Moral memes are seen as capturing both religious and secular ideals, the imperative to share the kind of good thoughts and righteous behaviours that most people could not contest. Therefore, even if many Facebook users may not actually ‘like’ or share these memes, they nevertheless notice and may tacitly approve the messages the memes express.

The globe-leaping Kermit the frog

But these moral memes are not necessarily serious. They can be equally humorous, or a combination of humorous with an important message. For example, there is a genre of memes associated with the Kermit the frog found in both Trinidad and Chile which contain such messaging (as illustrated in the previous step). Although humorous, they also have a serious intent, to disparage pretentiousness and claims to a higher status. As we see in the following examples from Chile, they often do so by employing sarcasm and irony.

The moral police of the internet

We have explored how and why memes have such a broad range, from very funny to very serious. Memes from both ends of the spectrum are used to make points about other people’s behaviour or to abstract moral values. In this way you can also imagine memes as a sort of moral police of the Internet, which in an indirect fashion try to spread certain moral values while at the same time disparaging values they disapprove of. Despite their supposed appeal to general values, they can actually be quite personal and intimate. They also provide a way in which people can bond, especially for those who might be shy or reluctant to express their opinions in a more direct way. This may be one of the advantages of such visual conversations as opposed to traditional textual and oral genres.

Can you think of any examples of such moral memes on your social media? Do they tend to be the serious kind or the funny kind?

- Why We Post: the Anthropology of Social Media (FutureLearn)