Pepe the Frog and Drake Approves: Variances in the Exploitability of Meme Genres

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Presented at the 60th Annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in Seattle, WA.

Abstract

The Pepe the Frog meme and its involvement with the 2016 Trump Presidential campaign highlight the growing significance of Internet memes and their influence on events in the physical world, despite primarily operating in online spaces. Memes are a unique form of digital media due to their exploitability–the ability for an individual or small group to inject a given meme with their own meanings and take advantage of the viral nature of memes to spread their ideas.

While there has been some initial work to categorize and define various meme genres, it remains the case–in both academic and popular discourse–that memes are often conceptualized as a single homogenous group, and that all memes share identical characteristics. My presentation will highlight the importance of defining separate meme genres and show that understanding memes as a single monolithic group limits the potential for meaningful analysis. Additionally, much of the work defining meme genres has relied on textual analysis of individual memes, or consideration of an individual’s intent in creating new instances of a meme. I will argue that meme genres can also be defined by a given meme’s potential for exploitation.

Using case studies of two specific memes–Pepe the Frog and Drake Approves–my presentation will argue that certain meme genres are more exploitable than others. In just a few minutes, almost anyone can download, remix, and share their own version of a meme. This low barrier of entry enables nearly anyone to redefine and manipulate the meaning of a meme. Because there is no single authority that determines the official definition of a meme, it is possible for a meme to be exploited and its meaning changed drastically. However, the ability of these new meanings to become widespread and accepted depends upon the specific meme genre’s level of exploitability. While Pepe the Frog was redefined by white nationalist groups and designated a hate symbol, the Drake Approves meme has resisted widespread redefinition, even in instances that convey specific ideologies such as misogyny and racism. My presentation will conclude with a reflection on the idealistic promise of increased online participation and consider the negative influence memes may have on the otherwise positive effects of increased online participation.

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Ben Pettis