Analysis on Internet Memes using Semiotics
This research analyzes the relation on Internet memes that Internet users find everyday, how they are appealing for them, by deconstructing what internet meme is and what it does. Analysis are conducted especially on how the relation between images, text, and meanings connect with each other to form social messages, political, universal emotions, or even just to be funny and entertain its users. Researchers examine 5 random samples of internet memes on the internet and decode their relation between images, texts, and meanings using semiotics.
Keywords: Internet memes, semiotics, popular culture, cyber culture, images
By Abdul Aziz Turhan Kariko
English Department of Binus University
Background of Study
Memes provide a powerful new way to combine few things such as, creativity, art, message, and humor in the internet culture. Public relations, advertising, and marketing professionals have effectively used Internet memes as a form of viral marketing to create marketing “hype” for their product or service. Internet memes are considered as cost effective and sometimes become a trend. The practice of using memes to market products or services is known as memetic marketing.
Memes are also used in education. Scott Stillar, who teaches English at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, thinks that one type of Internet memes, the Rage comics, are a great way to teach the English language. Rage comics themselves are cartoons using an ever-growing set of internet memes. He feels that Rage comics are special because they consist of well known faces and expressions–anger, shock, defeat, surprise, pleasure, success, or horror, which therefore meant to show universal feelings or emotions of varying degrees under a variety of conditions. Rage comics are used as vehicles for sharing experiences with humor.
A meme itself is a behavioral or cultural trait that is passed on by other than genetic means, e.g by imitation. The term is first coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, as an example of replicator, information copied in evolutionary process. Examples are habits, skills, stories, or games passed on by imitation. Range from valuable inventions, scientific theories, art creations, to ‘viruses of the mind’, such as chain letters or false beliefs.
A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.
According to pcmag.com, the term Internet meme itself can be existed in the form of an image, video, story or joke that is voluntarily passed from one Internet user to another via e-mail, blogs and social networking sites. Considered a form of art, Internet memes are created to promote individuals, groups, movies, art, music and products, as well as to perpetrate a hoax or just be funny. They can disappear in days or last for years.
The writers intend to analyze these memes related to semiotics and mythologies, as well as their role as a dominant part of popular cyber-culture. This paper will also serve as an understanding of teaching students of how images, texts, and art relate with each other to become another way of communication and at the same time, create meanings or messages.
The writers found the urgency of this research as a way to keep up with the internet culture, show an alternative of communication, a cost-effective way of mass advertising, to improve students’ media literacy the study of signs/symbols, philosophy, how images and text relate with each other and therefore create a new meaning. These memes contain humor, universal emotions, social message, cultural message, political message, and many more. From the background study above, it also shows how effective it is in teaching language. Every meme has its own theme, therefore allowing the user to always come up with newer and more creative ideas in delivering its message.
According to Chris Sinha, semiotics is rooted from a classic and scholastic study of the arts of logic, rhetoric, and poetic. It is derived from the word ‘semion’, which seemed to be originated from hipocratic medicine or asklepiadik that focuses on symptomatology and inferential diagnostic. Umberto Eco also said that, Aristotle was also familiar with this concept of signification. Modern semiotics analysis are said to be popularized by two figures, Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguistic expert from Switzerland (1858-1913) and Charles Sanders Pierce, an American philosopher (1839-1914). Saussure divided a sign into two elements: signifier (sound-image) and signified (concept). While Pierce focused on three elements of signs, which are iconic dimension, indexes and symbols.
Stuart Hall said that, semiotics provides a method to analyze how visual representations deliver its meanings. In the works of Roland Barthes in 1960, linguistic models of Saussure was improved/extended through its application on areas of signs and a variety of broad representations (advertising, photography, popular culture, travel, fashion, etc.)
In a discussion on signs, Barthes started with Saussure’s statement; Signified and signifier … are the components of signs. According to Saussure, signs always consisted of three faces: the sign itself, material aspect (letter, image, shape, motion, etc.) from signs that serve function to signify or the one produced by the material aspect (signifier), and the conceptual aspect that is pointed by the material aspect (signified). While signification, is ‘something that points’ signifier to signified. But Barthes did not choose to use the word signification in this. He prefer to use a more neutral, ‘binds’ (not signifies) or ‘act’. He did not emphasize on the active aspect of signifier in pointing signified, but the active connection from both of them. In semiotic analysis, this concept of signification is important to be remembered because in searching the functioning of systems of signification, sometimes we have to find signified, because signifier is known while the signified is not yet clear, and vice versa.
Signs, according to Peirce, are “something[s] that represent something[s]” or “refer to a particular meaning”. If the meaning is based on a particular agreement or social convention, that sign is called symbols. So, every phenomenon that exists in the society, whether it is an object, behavior, even a thought, is seen as symbols that ‘represent’ or ‘refer to’ a particular meaning outside/beyond the sign itself.
The color, red, for instance; independently does not mean anything, except the color itself. But, if the color takes part as in culture, for example, is used in traffic lights (representative), then it will also represent “prohibition” (object) in human cognition. For its use in traffic lights, as a representative, the color red is related with ‘prohibition’ (object) is a result of social convention and even international convention.
Those who don’t understand the social conventions will not see the color ‘red’ that represents the meaning of ‘prohibition’. In Medan, Indonesia, a red flag means that ‘someone died’ (object). While in other places, a sign that represents a similar meaning is a yellow flag in Jakarta, and a white flag in Center Java. Those examples show how signs are cultural phenomenons that are bound to particular social conventions.
In relation to all, all natural and biological phenomenons can be seen as symbols. To those who believe, in a particular social convention, natural disasters (representative) are seen as symbols that refer to a meaning that says ‘God’s Wrath’ (object). A twitch on someone’s palm (representative) would mean symbols meaning he or she ‘is about to receive fortune’ (object). Some symbols and their meanings in Javanese Primbon that are usually taken from daily activities, or taken because a respected figure does or believe a certain value, are based on social conventions. Our society even calls it as a sign (either good or a bad sign). Meaning, all examples above are social and cultural phenomenon. 
Those who do not participate in the social conventions and are not included in the related cultural environment, would not be able to understand of what was represented by a particular cultural or natural phenomenon. In other words, they will not be able to understand the meaning that exist on the phenomenon, or understand it along with the convention that it follows.
According to Peirce, signs exist because of a process that he called semiosis. This process starts with the insertion of an element of sign that exists on ‘outside’ into human’s senses, which is representative or ground, that might be compared Saussure’s signifier. If the process using our senses has already happened, then the next process inside human cognition process is a referencing of what is called object, which is a matter (meaning) that is represented by representative. For example, when we see a red light, because we already know the valid convention, the red light is considered to refer to a meaning ‘prohibition’ (object), which we may compare it to Saussure’s signified.
The next process is called interpretant, which when we create an interpretation related with the situation that we are in right now. If the red light is located on the streets as a road sign while we’re driving a car, we will interpret it as a law obligation to stop and then we will interpret it as a permission to proceed by law if the light changes into green. Interpretan affects our behavior during a particular situation.
The process of interpreting a sign’s meaning from representative, objects and interpretan that is called ‘semiosis’ happens really fast inside our mind. Because of what actually sensed is representative, often times representative is called a sign. It is interesting that Peirce saw the semiosis as a never-ending continous process (unlimited process). He thought that interpretans can be received by our mind and seen as a new sign, or a new representamen. Meaning, a red light that has been interpreted by human’s cognition is extended into a new representamen, for instance it becomes a ‘prohibition’ sign that refer as ‘sanctions for violators’ which then creates an interpretan as a law/prohibition that must not be violated.
Then, the new interpretan transforms into even newer representamen, for example becoming ‘a heavy financial sanction’ that creates another interpretan a sanction that would make us not afford to pay. This is how semiosis continous without an end.
Eco quoted Peirce “A sign is something by knowing which we know something more”, said that a sign (he called it texts) is an opera aperta (an open work). This means that every sign, which is a part of a culture to a particular society, is always open to experience an unlimited semiotical process. A sign can be understood and interpreted differently by everyone within different places and different time, or even within the same person in different times and places.
It has been discussed that we think of culture as a system of signs. One of the theories about sign was coined by Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) which said that a sign consists of two inseparable elements, that is as signifiant that has a meaning and absorbed within human’s cognition (penanda), and signifie (‘meaning’ or the content of the sign).
Barthes developed Saussure’s theory by telling that a characteristic of a sign is based on a relation of two aspects; a form (signifier that he called as expression) and content (a signified that he called as contenu).
This theory is depicted with an E-R-C formula (expression-relation-contenu), which is a relation between expression (form) and content (meaning). He called it as a primary system, for example, a name for a housing complex Pondok Indah (Elegant Hut). In the primary system, the name only means as a housing complex. But according to Barthes, the relation between the name and the meaning, which is a housing complex, can be extended. It can be considered as a, for instance, a housing complex that is located in the South of Jakarta, very spacious, has big houses and big lawns, has luxurious shopping district, and so on. This is called a secondary system which characteristic is meta-language.
The secondary system can also be extended toward its content. So, it’s not about giving an explanation on what Pondok Indah is, but instead of what image that is obtained from the housing complex. This image is called connotation. A connotation of the housing complex is based on how society views/thinks about Pondok Indah. The society’s perspective is depended upon the culture that lives within the society.
It is often that the society does not only have one perspective, instead they have different views depend on every social group’s experience regarding the matter. Pondok Indah could possibly have connotation meanings such as ‘rich people residents’, ‘elite district’, ‘high class district’, ‘new rich people yet corrupted district’, ‘pleasant housing complex’, or ‘luxurious sector’. Connotation often times does not have a relation with its primary system, or its original meaning. Connotation creates new relation between the form, and content (meaning) that is given by a social group towards a sign. Connotation is formed because of its experience of a social group in relation to a particular sign. Based on that experience, a social group or the society creates the connotation.
We can conclude that signs as a cultural element; is open to a variety of interpretation. Whatever theories that we use everyday, the meaning is no longer inherent to the sign, instead it is given by the society who believes it.
According to Peirce, in its meanings, signs experience an unlimited semiotic process. Eco saw that signs are open to interpretation, which is as an open creation, while Barthes saw it further, which is a sign as a continuous cultural element that earns connotation. Therefore, the relation of shape, meanings, content, signifier and signified, or between representamen and object, is determined from the outside, by those who perceive them and called as sign users. This process happens in the cognition of the sign users that perceive them. What is interesting is, the relation can be made up or modified, in any way they can.
Myth is used here as it is used in semiotics (or the study of symbols) specifically drawing on Roland Barthes conceptualization. Myth, according to Barthes, is a representation of the dominant ideologies of our time. He traces the structure of the myth as a second-order semiological system in which the sign (the totality of a concept and form) becomes the signifier (mere form). In his classic example, Barthes shows a picture of a young Black soldier giving the French salute. This image is at once a complete sign (Black soldier gives French salute) and the form or signifier of the second-order system: the myth (France is a great empire supported by all, regardless of color or creed). Importantly, Barthes points out that the myth is decoded from its roots. The construction of the myth is forgotten and the mythic sign is stated as fact. It is this decoding which makes myth such a powerful transmitter of culture and ideas.
Semiotic approach is basically qualitative-interpretative, that is a method that focuses itself on signs and texts as its study, as well as how researchers interpret and decode the texts and the signs themselves. Semiotics plays its role on every system of signs, whatever the substance and its limits; images, gestures, tones, voices, music, objects, setting, and even the combination of all of them, that forms a load of both conventional and contemporary entertainment.
Semiotics is applied as a method to approach texts on media with an assumption that the media themselves are communicated through the elements of signs that they already carried. The signs that are carried on the media are also filled with certain interests that show their own complexity, because signs on media is certainly never carries a single meaning. The semiotic tradition consists of a set of theories on how signs represent ideas, situation, feelings, materials, and condition beyond the signs themselves. Analysis are conducted especially on how the relation between images, text, and meanings connect with each other to form social messages, political, universal emotions, or even just to be funny and entertain its users. Researchers examine 5 samples of internet memes specifically the ones with image and caption that produce meaning. The relation between images, texts, and meanings is then decoded using semiotics.
The writer analyzes five samples of internet memes, with three sub-samples each. Specifically only on images that contain characters and humor-based captions, these memes are posted anywhere on the internet from 4chan.org or 9gag.com, and they are even shared by users on social media network Facebook. The writer takes three samples and their varieties of random memes and then analyzes them on how the image and the caption are used to create meanings to provide entertainment to user. Memes that are analyzed are taken from a site called memegenerator.net, one of the many sites that provide memes to be customized according to its users.
The first two images (internet memes) show a character called Success Kid, an adorable toddler clenching a fist while expressing a determined and victorious pose towards the viewer. The cheeky-faced angelic baby first showed up in early 2008 and spread across several social media network. The early months of Success Kid showed the picture of the baby with the caption “Ima F*ck You Up”, making it both funny and offensive. The image eventually transformed into the same photo with a different tagline/caption, today the photo is used to depict different episodes of successful events along with accompanying text. Success Kid appears to be hilarious and witty, saying many of the things that we wish we could say but do not have the courage to do so.
There is something so funny about the juxtaposition of an adorable little baby with such a fierce look of determination on his face, accompanied with a variety of texts to create meanings that represent universal emotions.
The first image of Success Kid is accompanied with a caption that says “Puzzle Says 2-4 years, only took 1”, which gives meaning to the picture that the toddler feels victorious for completing a puzzle for only 1 year that normally takes 2-4 years. On the second image, the caption is written differently by another user, “Fart in class, nobody notice it!!” that depicts an everyday life situation when a student farts in class without nobody noticing it, again the text and the image is coherent to be juxtaposed with one another. The last image of the Success Kid has a caption that says “Murdered someone, got away with it”, which of course is quite impossible for a baby to murder someone intentionally (even get away with it) and in reality there are laws to punish someone to commit a murder, and usually people will not be able to get away with it because the authorities will do whatever they can to arrest them, the image and the text creates a meaning of how good the feeling is after killing someone and get away with it, this image and the text are combined with each other for entertainment purposes.
The Most Interesting Man in the World Meme This meme is called as The Most Interesting Man in the World, which it all began when as a commercial of Dos Equis Beer. The company released a set of commercials with this character, with each one showing his extreme level of interestingness and charm. The ads were aired locally in 2006, and gained much more attention when they went national in 2009.
Actor Jonathon Goldsmith is the one who playing the role, along with the voice of Will Lyman doing the narration. The YouTube video became a trend in 2009, reaching over one million views. The Most Interesting Man in the World character has since appeared on its own, and has featured the key catchphrases spoken at the end of the commercial: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”
The main formula of this meme parody taken from one of the lines in the commercial: “I don’t always do X, but when I do, I Y,” like shown above.
The first image says “I don’t always study for test, but when I do, they’re cancelled”, it shows how he feels unlucky/lucky (depends on the interpretation) to study sometimes but to have the tests cancelled by the teacher. The second image says “I don’t always go to work, but when I do, I fall asleep” that can possibly mean he is an incompetent worker but still being proud about it, which is funny considering the image shows a charming and trustworthy old man. While the function of the third image that says “I don’t always have sex, but when I do, it’s with your mom” is to mock the viewer that the meme has sex with the viewer’s mom, of course this caption only serves as a joke and entertainment purposes.
The meme called Philosoraptor wonders about all the questions in our lives that we should be asking. Unlike normal philosophers, Philosoraptor is a character who has the courage, the fortitude, and the insight to ask innocent questions such as “If a vegetarian eats vegetables, does a humanitarian eat humans?”
The meme is considered as a wildly intelligent looking dinosaur, accompanied with philosophical statements or questions about the society, cultural phenomenons, etc. The Philosoraptor is shown to be able to pick apart and examine all flaws related in the poor treatment of gay people in the society. Philosoraptor states: “Why do the religious say that sin is natural, but homosexuality is unnatural, even though they consider it a sin?”
The first image says “If feminists hate men so much, then why do they dress like them?” creates an argument/debate that feminists dress like men even though they probably hates the idea of men being more superior than them, which gives the idea that the way they dress is backfiring at them. The second image says “What if God plays Sims… and we are the characters” refers to a video game called the Sims where people can play as God to have characters in the game to build houses, get a job, have relationships, have sex with other characters, etc. This caption creates an annoying but brave idea that God is possibly playing a game with humans in real life and He can actually control them in such a way to His amusement. The last image is a question that asks “If Satan punishes the evildoers, doesn’t that make him good?” to challenge viewers to think that Satan is actually serving under God to punish bad people, which automatically means that Satan is in fact doing a good thing, not as bad as what people thought.
Good Guy Greg Meme Above is a character called Good Guy Greg, which is a refreshingly nice character, a rare type of meme in the meme world. At first, he may seem irresponsible, but as soon as users are familiar with him, he’s a hilariously helpful guy. The meme shows a photo of a man, smiling around a homemade cigarette. Viewers might see the meme smoking not only a homemade cigarette, but probably smoking a ganja (weed, joint, pot). Good Guy Greg is depicted as a really good guy, easygoing, kind, always keeps his cool. He may not be the smartest character, or may not get all the jokes, but he does nice things.
The variations of this meme have Greg in full good guy mode, not quite getting the joke but still being really nice. Notable examples of Good Guy Greg include his photo with the lines: “Disappears for half an hour – shows up with Burger King for everyone.”
The first image says “Crush is breaking up with her bf, help them go back together”, shows how Good Guy Greg even helps his crush (a girl that he likes) to go back with her ex-boyfriend. While in reality it is rare to have someone to do the thing that Good Guy Greg does, normally someone would seize and take advantage of the situation. The second image says “Knows you’re broke, buys you pizza” shows how we want to have an ideal friend that do nice things to us when we are in the need, in other words, this image and text how we long for an ideal friend (or even to be an ideal person), same with the third image that says “borrows ur car, fills up gas and change oil”, how good The Good Guy Greg (read: ideal friend/man) is to even change the oil of the car that he borrows.
High Expectation Asian Father Meme
High Expectations Asian Father plays a role as a stereotype of highly demanding, perfection-seeking Asian parent, as he pushes his children beyond the limits of endurance in matters of education and even overall performance.
The meme was developed and became popular in 2010. Even though it only serves a stereotype for Asian fathers, the meme is still popular and relevant with all people who have ever had someone push them to do better. Much of the humor lies in the perception of Asian parents, especially of the first generation, pressuring their children to study harder and do better or suffer their anger in the form of grave disappointment, humiliation, even harsh punishments.
The meme shows a photo of the head of an Asian man wearing glasses, with a wrinkled forehead, along with a sense of disappointment and wonder on his face. High Expectation Asian Father has some variations from mispronunciation of words, misunderstanding certain words and phrases; ensuing from their improper use. The meme is famous for pushing his children to getting A grades in school, for example, “remember, you’re an Asian, not a Bsian!!!”
The first image says “You get A- on exam? That’s Asian F” shows a disappointment of the Asian father toward his child for only getting an A- instead of A (or even A+), it also means how grade A- is actually grade F for Asians. The second image says “You need to go to the doctor? At your age, I was a doctor” is to humiliate his child that he/she is not a doctor yet, unlike his father who already became a doctor at his/her age. The Asian father didn’t even try to get the child to go see a doctor for his/her sickness, instead he scold him and feel disappointed at him for not becoming a doctor yet. The last image is an example how the Asian father misunderstood a word by yelling “Vitamin C? Why not vitamin A?” Shows how stereotypical Asian fathers are sometimes not really smart to misunderstand certain words, clouded by his extreme expectation for his son to get grade As in school.
Internet memes serves as a humorous way to have fun with context, words, images, meaning, symbols, culture, popular culture, etc. The fact that it only needs an image of something or someone accompanied with a caption/text can generate different meanings. It can be interpreted and customized anyway the user wants it. Take Good Guy Greg meme for example, it is only picture a young Caucasian man smiling around a homemade cigarette which is then called as Good Guy Greg, while in reality we do not really know if the guy’s name is Greg, and if he is a good person. Even if it was, it would take a research to find the truth that he really is a ‘good guy Greg’.
Internet memes allow users to produce meanings according to the theme of a picture; it also contains language formula as shown in The Most Interesting Man in the World meme. Sometimes users also write/generate meanings while not following the formulas/themes, just to have fun with it. Internet memes require users to be creative in producing meanings in respect to symbols, words, and contexts. It is similar on how advertisements in the form of images works; an image + word[s] = meanings. Internet memes are examples of how images, texts, art, language, creativity, myths, and popular culture relate with each other, which then is open for multi-interpretation regarding its user. These memes contain humor, as well as reflecting universal emotions, social message, cultural message and many more.
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 Graham, Gordon (2002), Genes: a philosophical inquiry, New York: Routledge, p. 196, ISBN 0-415-25257-1
 Saiful Totona, 2010, Miskin Itu Menjual: Representasi Kemiskinan sebagai Komodifikasi Tontonan, Yogyakarta: RESIST Book. Page 22
 Ibid, page 22-23
 Ibid, page 25-27
 Benny, H. Hoed. 2009. Semiotik dan Dinamika Sosial Budaya. Depok: Komunitas Bambu. Page 241-242
 Ibid. page 242
 Ibid, page 243
 Ibid, page 243-244
 Ibid, page 244
 Ibid, page 245
 Ibid, page 245-246
 Ibid, page 246
 Roland Barthes. Mitologi. 2009. Yogyakarta: Kreasi Wacana. Page 164
 Totona, Op. Cit, page 22
 Ibid, page 24-25
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