When most people think of memes, they think of a funny Facebook post or a viral image. But when one University of Arkansas – Fort Smith professor thinks of memes, he sees an expanding form of communication worthy of extensive research and classroom study.
G. Bret Strauch (Bowers), assistant professor of English, has conducted research into memes as a form of communication since 2013, although his interest in the area extended back into his years as an undergraduate student at Youngstown State University. There, he studied famed biologist Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene,” in which Dawkins coined the term “meme.”
“My interest started as an accident,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve always been fascinated by Dawkins’ conception of memes. For Dawkins, memes were ‘thought viruses’ which were responsible for evolution in society and culture. And as Internet memes became more pervasive, I became interested in how these humorous, simple images transmit and shape our society and culture.”
“They can affect society in different ways,” he continued. “They can function as propaganda and disinformation, but can also function as a community and relationship building genre, or for cultural or political critique. It’s sort of a cheap form of advertisement.”
Memes – a term referring to a humorous image, video, or group of text spread rapidly by Internet users – represent to Strauch a shifting mode of communication in the twenty-first century, one in which meaning is created through conversation.
“We see the development of the novel as a finished product, but we don’t see the negotiations behind the scenes like we do with memes,” Strauch said. “You can see arguments between users determining the actual steps at which it fits the genre. So we’ve never seen the negotiation as much as we’ve had now.”
Memes also serve as a case study of how content goes viral, and what qualities memes possess that make them spreadable.
Since beginning his foray into research, Strauch has published several articles on the topic, including articles published in New Media and Society and a chapter in the book “A Sense of Community.” Last month, Strauch was invited to speak at Kansas University’s Reason Fest to discuss memes and how they affect culture and society.
He has also incorporated memes into the classroom. In his Hypertext Theory and Practice class, Strauch tasks students with creating their own memes, giving them an opportunity to test the boundaries of the genre and understand what makes a meme work. While it may seem like just a fun class exercise, Strauch sees understanding memes as essential for students wanting to pursue careers in social media.
“There are so many content strategist-type jobs opening up that are focused on social media, and those positions rely on understanding why content spreads and how it spreads,” Strauch said. “It’s such a simple thing that gets created and redistributed. It’s easy to see how studying memes can benefit students wanting to become digital marketers.”