Maybe you’re like me and you have a penchant for acquiring books faster than you can read them. One of our creative directors Scott Walters also suffers from this affliction, which he recently diagnosed as “tsundoku.”
Tsundoku is a centuries-old Japanese portmanteau word that literally means “to pile up” (“tsumu”) “reading” (“doku”). Who knew?
With the dawn of a new year and a new decade, this seems like a good time to dust off those forgotten tomes and pull together a new reading list. To help spur things along, I’ve shared the titles I’m digging into and I’ve asked my colleagues here at Smith to do the same.
Check out our list for a wide-ranging set of recommendations. If you want to chat about one of these titles, or if you have a great read you’d recommend, please let us know!
A bit of “wisdom” is juxtaposed with a dead genius. A troubled Keanu Reeves sits on a bench with Forrest Gump. Outrage and irreverence repurpose a famous political poster. We’ve all seen graphic posts like these in our social media feeds and email. They’re called Internet memes.
The word “meme” was coined by evolutionist Richard Dawkins in 1976. He combined the greek word mimeme (meaning to imitate/imitated thing) with the word gene as a means to extend Darwinian concepts to ideology and cultural evolution.
Dawkins’ theory was a bit of an overreach. He and other memetic scholars failed to convincingly link cultural artifacts to changes in culture in the same way scientists can link a specific gene with a physical trait. Culture is just too complex. Upon deeper inspection, it proved impossible to determine “who is the boss?” in regards to the potency of a meme versus human agency (Shifman p. 12). As a result, a memetic approach to cultural studies withered on the vine.
Yet, the idea of a meme being a discrete packet of cultural information that is transmitted visually is useful. We can see this work itself out over thousands of years of world culture in areas like religion, architecture and (more recently) mass media.
Memes everywhere you look
If Dawkins’ memes tried to trace cultural evolution, Internet memes represent cultural devolution. Forget high-browed, survival-of-the-fittest theories of cultural competition. Today’s memes are more likely to be nonsensical, disposable and misleading. They’re emblematic of our open-source, user-generated, socially-constructed digital environments.
One of the key challenges for memetic thinkers was linking original artifacts to historical developments. They just didn’t have a good “fossil record” of original memes. Kilroy was the exception.
The “Kilroy was here” graffiti left behind by U.S. soldiers was a traceable example of a viral meme from its emergence.
Though Kilroy’s run as a cultural phenomena seems to be over, the meme is still an excellent example of bottom-up dissemination. It was the soldiers (not the leaders) who loved and spread Kilroy organically.
“Kilroy Was Here [is] an example of a pre-internet meme with the kind of cultural replication that happens on the internet.”
Because Internet (240)
If the Internet, especially social media, seems chaotic and ridiculous it’s because it is. There is no controlling authority. No gatekeepers. No grammar books. The connections, ideas and content populating social media feeds (including memes) are products of the great connected masses doing whatever strikes our fancy. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Understanding Internet Memes
Today’s memes often defy explanation, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.
Focusing on what we do rather than searching for intent, Lemor Shifman looks at how memes are produced and identifies “Two main repackaging mechanism of memes on the web: mimicry and remix” (Memes in Digital Culture, p. 30). Google any famous meme and you’ll see this process at work — the same photos are repurposed over and over until the original meaning is often lost. This straightforward analysis links meme generation to other forms of communication. How we write, for example.
Meme-generators like IMG-Flip and LiveMeme present users with pre-loaded, popular images and the ability to add their own original copy. This process simplifies, automates and drives “mimicry and remix.” To understand memes, look at how the technology guides the output as a great starting point.
Unfortunately, some scholarly writers stretch credulity a bit as they attempt to apply their respective fields to “meme studies.” (lol) When Cognitive Linguisticians Zinner and Geeraerts’ attempt to decipher the constructive act of choosing a photograph and writing meme copy, they get stuck on trying to understand how humor works. The real humor is in their analysis:
“As [anti-joke chicken] reveals, some of these image macros only truly make sense –- or at least receive an additional layer of interpretation –-when the recipient is aware of the name of the meme – or perhaps more accurately, the overall meaning of the meme that is captured by the name. ‘Sudden Clarity Clarence’, for instance, expresses the fact that any instance of the meme in question needs to be read in terms of an unexpected (though not necessarily deep or crucial) insight. In the theoretical framework of Construction Grammar, this links up with the non-compositionality of constructions: their conventional meaning is more than the simple sum of their parts.”
Zinner and Geeraerts, p 177
Aneeq Ejaz asks if memes are new form of literature, seeing them as a means of “transcultural expression [in a] hyperconnected world.” Maybe, but Ejaz’ critical interrogation of memes that “project emotions onto animals, like the famous Grumpy Cat,” feels a bit forced.
I wonder what code-shifting strategies Hipster Kitty is using to regain her lost feline/feminine agency?
Even amateurs want in on the action on sites like Know Your Meme. Know Your Meme is a crowd-sourced collaboration “that researches and documents Internet memes and viral phenomena.” Sounds a little too X-files to me.
Silly, Clever, Unpredictable
To me, the joy of memes is that they bubble up from the vox populi. Who cares if they make little sense? Or if they don’t have any lasting value? Or if they can be at times ignorant, crude or patently false? Memes are made by we the people, who often make little sense.
Internet memes are glorious because they are free expression and because (like Kilroy) they rise spontaneously from the crowd, unlike the dogma produced by thought leaders and gatekeepers.
The best way to “get” memes is to make memes. I’d love to see you use the meme generators above to make and post an original meme on the comment section of Smith’s LinkedIn page .
Next in this series, we’ll look at Emoji.
Ejaz, A. “Are Internet Memes a New Form of Literature?” Quillette. November 28, 2016: https://quillette.com/2016/11/28/are-internet-memes-a-new-form-of-literature/
Gries, L. (2015). Still life with rhetoric: A new materialist approach for visual rhetoric. Logan: Utah State University Press.
McCulloch, G. (2019). Because Internet; Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York: Riverhead Books
Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in Digital Culture. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
Shifman L (2014). The cultural logic of photo-based genres. Journal of Visual Culture 13(3): 340–358.
Zinner E. and D.Geeraerts (2018). One does not simply process memes: Image macros as multimodal constructions. De Gruyter 167-193.
When I hear any fuss about textspeak—weird punctuation, abbreviations, inventive phrasing and other short cuts that are common to texting— I think about the moral certitude of Mrs. Wilson. She was my 8thgrade English teacher and the type of grammarian who would send a parent’s note back to them with the errors circled in red ink.
Mrs. Wilson taught us the rules of grammar as though they had descended from Mt. Sinai. These were not to be questioned, only obeyed in their immutable state of perfection.
Many hold on to Mrs. Wilson’s view of grammar, not recognizing that these rules are not laws of nature. No, grammar and punctuation are invented technological conventions designed to help us merge speech, writing and printing.
Like any technology, these conventions have a beginning and a history. Mrs. Wilson’s rules have only been with us for a couple hundred years.
About 500 years ago, before the printing press was invented, books were hand-illustrated, rare and extremely expensive. Also, most weren’t written in the vernacular, but in Latin.
Latin, an inflected language, doesn’t use word order to determine sentence structure. Instead, agreement between prefixes and suffixes determine syntax. Even with the words rearranged, each sentence below reads, “Bad is the plan that cannot be changed.”
malum consilium quod mutari non potest
non postest quod mutari consilium malum
quod mutari malum consilium non potest
To make matters even more confusing, up until just before the printing press was invented scribes didn’t use punctuation or even spaces between words. They wrote in a form called scriptio continua.
A page in a book looked like this:
The way people read scriptio continua without punctuation was out loud, allowing the inflections in the language signal all of the separations and meanings.
The point of this little history lesson is that only a few centuries ago most people didn’t read. Those that did, commonly read aloud. And the majority of existing books didn’t have punctuation or space between words. Then everything changed with Johannes Guttenberg’s movable type press. BOOM!
The printing press awoke and transformed forms of writing that had been stagnant for a couple millennia. It facilitated knowledge sharing and built connections between people and cultures. But this didn’t happen immediately.
For the first 200 years of printing, there were no agreed upon rules. Each little town’s printers invented their own way of making books. They made up their own unique spacing and punctuation and also cut and pasted ideas from competing printers. From this process emerged various letter shapes, punctuation marks, spacing, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc.
Over time, these divergent methods merged into the standardized grammar rules that were lovingly taught to us by sweet middle-school teachers with red pens.
Most of the grammar and punctuation rules that we think are permanent have only become standardized over the past couple of hundred years. In fact, even standardized rules are in flux.
Fresh and in your face
Today, we are living at an exciting new moment for writing. Computers are freeing words and meanings from the limits of a printed page. New literacies and grammars are being created on the fly. Just like with the first little print shops in Europe, it’s untamed masses (not red pen gatekeepers) who are inventing (un)rules for using OMGs, #s and Emoji.
Digital forms like text messaging, file sharing and streaming are shifting once immovable constraints of time and space, integrating a myriad of media, and empowering new connections across the globe.
This makes this a really cool time for writing geeks. We still have the highly precise and refined Standard English for writing contracts and such. And we have this vibrant, eclectic, inventive, bubbling stew of digital communication that is constantly changing, constantly evolving.
This is a major disruption. Grammars that we viewed as permanent we now see were simply asleep. Computer processors, small screens and user desire are creating something fresh right in front of us.
People are just starting to write about textspeak. Some write from a linguist’s perspective, others with a cultural curiosity. For me communication is the most interesting issue. How are people connecting and making sense of life while using the capabilities of these new platforms?
The following observations just scratch the surface of what’s happening with textspeak.
Short for abbreviation
Two main reasons drive textspeak abbreviations. First, the screen on an SMS text box is small and it scrolls. Every space and character are precious in a small space that must be read in a linear fashion. Second, it’s hip to know what others don’t. Never rule out cool as a driver of change.
Using abbreviations on a small interface is nothing new. Check out the writing on this coin for the Emperor Trajan:
In textspeak, abbreviations and acronyms often signal idioms and colloquialisms, not literal meanings. Where IRS is short for a scary government agency, people writing lol usually aren’t laughing. Sarcasm, irony and slang underscore a lot of textspeak.
This is where the hip factor comes into play. If you don’t have the 411 on how to KPC then H-MDY…H_FDAY you’re old, slow and uncool. As with any slang, textspeak is a moving target. Try and keep up.
There’s a maxim in real estate investing—highest and best use—that says a structure needs to elevate the value of the land. In a text message the screen is like an empty lot in San Francisco. You want to be careful to build the right house on it.
Long scrolling texts are very difficult to read because, unlike a full-size page, one’s eye cannot scan back up through the document to connect points and references. Both the writer and the reader can easily get lost.
They’re also unfriendly. Imagine a conversation where one of the parties just kept talking and talking while the other party was reduced to simply nodding. Many good conversational on and off ramps are bulldozed in a long text. Maybe, send an email instead.
Blocking and spacing is a textspeak alternative to punctuation that helps us stop/pause/resume. It also enables the writer to separate and emphasize important points in the conversation.
Remembering that texting more closely approximates talking than it does formal writing, blocks and spaces also make room for the reader to jump in with a comment, rebuttal or (more typically) a random non sequitur.
ALL CAPS are everywhere in advertising and print media. They are meant to stand out and grab our attention. However well they’ve worked for marketers, they don’t have a great reputation in interpersonal correspondence.
Most of us have either sent or received an angry email. So, we understand that ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING!!! But we don’t only shout when were mad. Sometimes we shout when we’re excited or happy, or even ironic:
To exclaim: CONGRATS
To emphasize: We will be heading to Atlanta NEXT WEEKEND
To be ironic: I’m so CHILL
To show how out of touch we are: LOL is so 2008…lol
Punctuation optional? (not exactly)
As I mentioned in my last article, the punctuation issue is getting on peoples’ last nerve. Old school writers are baffled by its chaotic absence and digital natives are thrilled to see it go and change. Here are a few of the ways punctuation is different in textspeak:
The period signals passive-aggressiveness.
An asterisk signals *emphasis*, like little sparkles.
The ~humble~ tilde is sarcastic.
A semicolon says show off.
An apostrophe signals anal retentiveness.
A single question mark begs a response. Three or more says W@ dude???
Smartphones let us drop wonderful sprinkles on top of our textspeak. We can add music, photos, emoticon, emoji, gifs, video, and more. Linking media is one of my favorite aspects of digital communication. It reminds me of being a kid and discovering a great new band. Half the joy was sharing the music with my friends.
Over the next few articles we’ll take a closer look at the sprinkles that color our Internet conversations.
We Smiths have an over-healthy love of the communication arts. Some might even call us word nerds.
For example, Smith Communication Partners is not named after a person. The word smith means artisan. Like blacksmith, except we’re implying wordsmith.
Think about it. Not only did we dig the esoteric meaning of smith, but we also loved the idea of presenting ourselves as communication artisans (word nerds). As an added bonus, we loved the ambiguity created because Smith is also a common surname.
Other signs that we are word nerds:
We share “war stories” about the typos we find in marketing materials.
We send each other pictures of bad grammar on billboards and signs.
We post photos of beautifully crafted sentences when we find them .
So, imagine the alternating waves of excitement and terror washing over us for the past few years, as social media and the ubiquity of cell phones have given rise to new and strange ways of communicating and messages that seem to operate without any rules. What’s with all the pound signs? #chaos #grammarpolice
The sharing of texts, memes, GIFs and emoji, are now the norm. They are not only supplanting informal writing, but also talking. (Say bye-bye to phone calls.) Most troubling to word nerds, almost all these emerging text forms have burst on to the scene without any agreed upon grammars or norms.
In real time, people (mostly young people) are creating their own language, idioms and meanings using all of the ingredients found on their phones (text, image, audio, video and hypertext). It’s like the Wild West, this free exchange of ideas without any controlling authority.
Pretty exciting, but can’t we use a comma now and again?
The truth is there are grammars and norms in operation. They just aren’t standardized (yet) and aren’t always visible. In her book, Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch traces the rise of many of these new, implicit grammars. Of note are the various “typographical tone[s] of voice” that can be achieved by using CAPITALIZATION, minimal punctuation, message breaking, alternative meanings to various keyboard signals, and other nifty inventions.
“[A message] from an older relative to a teenager, or a boomer boss to a millennial employee reads differently depending on what you think is neutral.”
Because Internet p. 112
Suddenly, the world is a very confusing place for word nerds, communication consultants and all people who know (and care) about when to use a comma and when to use a semicolon.
If You Can’t Beat Them
It’s important to remember that these emerging forms of “writing” are taking the place of talking, not formal writing. All of the existing rules of proper English use are still exceedingly important in business, law, government and academia—anywhere precision is important.
So let’s take a joyful and open stance towards these changes. Sending puppy pictures, Sad Keanu memes, and 🤷🏼♀️ is new and inventive and wonderfully expressive.
I say enjoy the ride.
To make that ride easier, over the next couple of months I will write five articles that examine, explain and extol the virtues of Txt messaging, memes, GIFs, emoji and link-sharing. The point is to learn a little about how they are created, used and understood. And, maybe, to consider how these informal modes might make their way into a professional’s communication toolbox.