February 2, 2010
Memes as Mechanisms: How Digital Subculture Informs the Real World

In the last week of January, an interesting conversational thread broke out on the Association of Internet Researchers mailing list regarding a video about scholarship in the "critical commons," on the debate between digital humanities and media studies. The video follows below, but judging by the preview image it might not be exactly what you expect:

Professor Charles Ess reacted to the video, writing:

How profoundly disappointing, if not on the edge of insulting. If (a) you know German reasonably well, and especially if (b) you've seen the terrific film, Der Untergang, that is ripped off here - it doesn't strike me as funny at all. (emphasis mine)

Jeremy Hunsinger, who had circulated the video to the mailing list, responded:

It is actually just a spin off of a meme that uses this clip from that movie, there are probably 30 or so different re-texts and mashups i've seen of this clip. The joke, i think, of the meme is that it never ever comes close to the German, nor is it ever supposed to, nor is the content really supposed to be evil or really related to the clip, it is a play of contrasts and a play of hyperbole. I think you hit it on the head, it is supposed to be contrary to intentions, that's sort of its point. ... however, i'm pretty sure that neither german, nor evil is supposed to be the point here. (emphasis mine)

Before elucidating the above situation (the entire thread of which can be viewed in the AoIR archives here), I want to take a step back to examine the idea of "meme" -- a unit of cultural information -- once more.

We've encountered memes before at the Consortium, particularly in Henry Jenkins's white paper, If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead, written by Xiaochang Li and Ana Domb Krauskopf, with Joshua Green. On his blog, Henry briefly explains the history behind the idea of memes and its confusion with the buzzword "viral":

Talking about memes and viral media places an emphasis on the replication of the original idea, which fails to consider the everyday reality of communication -- that ideas get transformed, repurposed, or distorted as they pass from hand to hand, a process which has been accelerated as we move into network culture.

However, I would point out that the replication and transformation of ideas are part of a dependent relationship that informs us as to the lifecycle of an idea.

I have written before about comprehension of memes, particularly those that replicate online, over at The Department of Alchemy. Back in April 2009 in my article, Internet Culture Research: New (?) Thoughts on Memes, I wrote about the origins of understanding culture through evolutionary steps, as positioned by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976):

To elucidate the construction of the metaphor [of biological processes], Susan Blackmore, in her paper Evolution and Memes: The human brain as a selective imitation device, writes, "As Darwin (1859) first pointed out, if you have creatures that vary, and if there is selection so that only some of those creatures survive, and if the survivors pass on to their offspring whatever it was that helped them survive, then those offspring must, on average, be better adapted to the environment in which that selection took place than their parents were... If you have the three requisites - variation, selection and heredity, then you must get evolution... This [evolutionary] algorithm depends on something being copied, and Dawkins calls this the replicator. A replicator can therefore be defined as any unit of information which is copied with variations or errors, and whose nature influences its own probability of replication (Dawkins 1976)." Quoting Dawkins, Blackmore names the element of transmission shared by genes and memes: they both replicate with variations. Replication with variation is then how Dawkins explains his concept of the evolution of culture, how ideas move, the meme: "The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation."

While Henry dismisses the term "meme," I embrace it, because its use particularly emphasizes the origins (past) and potentialities (future) of an idea. Understanding ideas as memes helps us construct family trees for those ideas, but it also helps us understand how we understand ideas.

Henry argues that spreadability adds value to an idea by allowing the idea to inhabit different contexts. He states:

Rather than emphasizing the direct replication of "memes," a spreadable model assumes that the repurposing and transformation of media content adds value, allowing media content to be localized to diverse contexts of use.

However, I argue that the referential knowledge inherent to the subcultural network behind Internet memes allows for an increased understanding and application in new and different contexts.

Returning to the video above: While Ess's reaction to the video should not be discounted, it is somewhat misinformed. As Hunsinger correctly explains, the video comes from an evolutionary, memetic chain of similar videos, which place subtitles over the iconic scene from Oliver Hirschbiegel's Der Untergang (Downfall; 2004), a film that depicts the last days of Adolf Hitler in Germany. The meme, however, evades the historically dramatic tone of the film in favor of a number of comedic situations. The succession of these videos has been dubbed The Hitler Meme (or "Hitler finds out") in the Know Your Meme database (which archives Internet meme phenomena for a general audience; for a more subcultural approach, Encyclopedia Dramatica explains the Downfall videos here [NSFW]).

The origins and history of the Hitler Meme are fairly vague. Last week, I spoke with Jamie Wilkinson, lead researcher for Know Your Meme, who sent out a call to find the first iteration of the chain. Based on this original scene...

... the earliest-uploaded step turns out to be the Spanish-subtitled "Sim Heil: Der untersim," uploaded to YouTube on 10 August 2006, in which Hitler complains about "the lack of new features in the demo trial of Microsoft's Flight Simulator X" (Know Your Meme).

The video was later uploaded with English subtitles by the same user on 30 August 2006, but was eventually removed due to a copyright claim by Constantin Film Produktion GmbH (Downfall's film studio).

As the Spanish video's description states, the Der Untergang spoof started as a joke ("Simplemente una broma en forma de video"), like most Internet memes. And like most jokes, one must understand the references to comprehend the humor. However, as more and more Downfall videos were created, the joke evolved into a two-fold structure: the joke portrayed in the subtitles, and the video as a joke in itself. To exemplify the binary, two videos follow:

Hitler gets banned from Xbox Live, currently the most-watched Hitler Meme video on YouTube, with over 3.5 million views.

What does Hitler think of the Downfall meme?, a meta-commentary on the Hitler Meme with a Hitler meme video

The Hitler Meme has already gained widespread attention, appearing for example in Wired Magazine (Hitler Remixes Are Big -- on YouTube) and the New York Times (The Hitler Meme). But what value does it hold for us trying to understand the Internet's influence on producers and consumers?

First, we can look quickly at the appropriation of the footage from Der Untergang for a very different purpose. It might be understandable that these videos are instances of fair use, but according to the YouTomb archives, Hitler Memes have been removed from YouTube by Constantin Film Produktion GmbH over 50 times. Perhaps the uploaders of the parodies did not file DMCA counternotices, or there might be moral ambiguity in the fair use of this material (even though there seems to be a trend in online comedy toward associating humor with Hitler, typified by Godwin's Law).

Second, even though "a dramatic recreation of Hitler's last stand is not exactly a laugh-out-loud subject," the director of the film, Oliver Hirschbiegel, has reacted to these fan(?)-producers of his work, positively. Very recently (15 Jaunary 2010), the Vulture section of New York Magazine Online reported that Hirschbiegel approves and supports these mashups of his film:

"Someone sends me the links every time there's a new one," says the director, on the phone from Vienna. "I think I've seen about 145 of them! Of course, I have to put the sound down when I watch. Many times the lines are so funny, I laugh out loud, and I'm laughing about the scene that I staged myself! You couldn't get a better compliment as a director.

One of the director's favorite parodies, about Michael Jackson's death.

As for the idea of such a serious scene being used for laughs, Hirschbiegel thinks it actually fits with the theme of the movie. "The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality," he says. "I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like." He adds, "If only I got royalties for it, then I'd be even happier."
These reactions from the director seem to go against the actions that his film company have taken in having videos removed from YouTube, but it's a particularly interesting relationship of producer-consumer that is particularly heightened because of the ease of access to video editing and sharing hubs online.

Third, and probably most important, the Hitler Meme videos represent a convenient entry point for Internet culture to merge with communication and media studies in the academy.

Let me reiterate two points that I made above: 1) Memes help us understand how we understand ideas; and my main argument, 2) The referential knowledge inherent to the subcultural network behind Internet memes allows for an increased understanding and application in new and different contexts. To expound the first point, let me approach the latter first.

The confusion behind comprehension of Internet memes tends to be that they belong to an informational subculture of digital (mostly) youth inhabiting spaces such as 4chan (an anonymous imageboard) and Something Awful (a popular forum). Unlike some subcultures in which participation is through the association of fashion or philosophy (eg., goth subculture), this online subculture thrives in information appropriation, management, and consumption. It is, basically, a media subculture. And in consuming an infinite amount of media, authenticity in the subculture amounts to recognizing references made to these multiple films, games, music, celebrities, etc.

As a subculture, it makes sense that an outsider will not be able to understand references made within the subculture. Again, we cannot blame Ess for missing the purpose of the Hitler Meme, having never experienced the video chain before. As he explains:

it seems that for at least a few of us, the effort at humor doesn't work.

The Hitler Meme particularly makes immediately association with the meme a bit difficult as well, since it deals with potentially objectionable material (unlike LOLcats, for example). Before a memetic video titled "Hitler's Ultimate Downfall" was removed from YouTube, it was initially blocked in Germany and Poland, among a few other countries (YouTomb).

And as Professor Christian Fuchs writes of his viewing:

probably another influence here is that my cultural background is the german-speaking world, so i tend to view all media content related to the nazis with great care.

But as with most Internet memes, especially since they promote humorous situations, the association of the new meaning connoted by the meme tends to be displaced from the original meaning of the appropriated media. In his close reading of the video, Fuchs writes:

The video is making two false analogies. The Nazis would today probably support Internet censorship, Internet surveillance, etc. And actual Nazi groups are trying to use the Internet for their own propaganda, but most of these sites work in a traditional way without much employment of "social media" and "web 2.0". One can argue if this video is funny or distasteful - these are unnecessary moral discussions, but one thing is for sure: the clip is unintelligent.

However, Hunsinger points out that a close reading is the wrong approach, and retorts:
The clip has nothing to do with Nazi's or evil or censorship. The meme is playing purely off the emotional portrayals. ... It is the reproduction and reconstruction of those meanings in relation to the emotions that make this work. ... As I indicated, some people might not be ideal for this meme, audiences differ. However, if you are going to read the meme, you should try to do it justice within its own genre, that is my basic argument.

Let me return to a question posed earlier. Now that we have established that the sequence of videos based on Der Untergang holds meaning for a specific digital subculture, what value does it possess? I mean to draw a line between meaning and value, because to the latter I attribute a sense of beneficial worth. People can associate with Internet memes, but what can they derive from them?

To set up an approach for answering this question, I will return to an article I wrote previously for the Consortium, which contains notes from a talk I attended by MIT Media Lab professor Judith Donath (Human Signaling: Competition and Cooperation in Everyday Communication). In this presentation, Judith explains that these small and subtle subcultural references and jokes, in memetic fashion, create structural meaning beyond the simple meaning that one video or picture might hold. Primarily, she uses examples from the LOLcat phenomenon, which are various pictures of cats with short captions attached to each photo. While the picture-phrase combinations can vary, a handful of these combinations rely on a certain grammar to connote meaning (and I do not mean the childish wording that LOLcats tend to promote). Instead, I mean the repetition of specific phrasings that in themselves are smaller memes in the LOLcat meme universe. Anil Dash, in his article, Cats Can Has Grammar, points out a few of these:

  • Invisible Item. Variations on the seminal Invisible Bike, these are images of cats, usually in midair, with captions that prompt us to fill in imaginary objects or actions that complete the scene. There's something brilliant to these images, speaking to our mind's ability to intuitively extrapolate unseen details.
  • Kitty Pidgin. And finally, the newly dominant lolcats, of the family I Can Has Cheezeburger? These seem to be spawning nearly infinite variations, and have exploded in popularity since being named "lolcats" instead of the more general "image macro" or "cat macro".
NOTE: The third bullet here does not represent one of the structural meanings; instead, this kitty pidgin is the "childish wording" to which I refer above.

With "I'm in ur X, Ying your Z" and "Invisible X," as Judith explains, each of these jokes becomes a phrase with embodied meaning. It is a structure through which we can understand not just a joke but also a way of comprehending a context. For example, a common image macro (the form of a LOLcat) is the "You're Doing It Wrong":


The image with the phrase is a joke in itself, but it also contains a structural meaning of an ironic situation that appears to be correct from another (albeit incorrect) perspective. Explanation: in the above picture, the soldier is fighting with a weapon and holding it like a bow, but it is obviously a gun.

Pushing the structural meaning of the meme to another level, then, is the following iteration:


By applying the meme to the protest image above, the author gives value to the You're Doing It Wrong structure. And our understanding of the image is mediated by the meme: while the protesters believe that they are correct, the author illustrates a particular political statement against their beliefs.

Now, while the subcultural joke is still present, the meme provides another way of approaching the picture's context. Perhaps not for people outside of the subculture (although this particular instance is fairly easy to understand). Therefore, to further illustrate my previous point, this meme increases our understanding (and possibly appreciation) of the political statement for this picture now that the meme is applied to a new and different context.

The Hitler Meme is a bit more difficult to comprehend, evidenced by the email thread. However, it is fairly simple to understand when we examine the narrative of the video rather than its content. Without explaining the actual content of the video (since it obviously varies with each parody), let me do a close reading of the structure of the Hitler Meme:

- actor sets up situation, which superior seems to understand
- superior confirms that he understands
- actor(s) introduce problem that contradicts superior's understanding
- superior suggests his frustration in extended silence
- superior explodes in confused anger
- superior realizes he cannot overcome problem
- superior accepts problem

This is a fairly simple narrative structure that introduces a problem and illustrates its embellished reaction (helped in particular by the exaggerated body language and facial expressions). Each Hitler Meme video establishes a problem with a (usually hilarious) tirade about a (sometimes banal; occasionally significant) crisis. Regardless of the quality of the issue at stake, the Hitler Meme presents a joke (basic meaning) whose structure dictates further meaning when applied to multiple contexts.

Finally, then, what is the value of the Hitler Meme? We can see that memes can be used to emphasize certain aspects of an issue (eg., the irony of the gay rights protesters). Coincidentally, a fairly recent use of the Hitler Meme has been used at a local university, which also happens to be my alma mater.

At the start of the fall semester of 2009, Boston University announced that it would be downsizing students' print quotas. Reducing the quota from 500 pages to 100 pages, both students and professors raised protesting voices all around campus. Boston.com reports (BU limits paper route for students):

While the university has encouraged professors to move their readings and handouts online - which means students would be responsible for printing them out - it has limited undergraduates to printing 100 free pages per semester. After that, it's 12 cents per page, even though the Kinko's on campus charges 10 cents a page. Graduate students get 500 sheets; and law students are allocated 1,000 sheets.

Boston University's student-run Daily Free Press (Faculty members frustrated by print quota changes) also writes:
[S]ome faculty members have also experienced trouble adjusting, especially given the late notice of the change, they said. Others, meanwhile, said they had not noticed any impact from the reduced print quota. "I haven't changed that much," Writing lecturer Amy Chmielewski said. "I still have my students print out the readings. It's under 100 pages, so it's still cheaper than textbooks." President Robert Brown apologized for not telling faculty members about the change earlier, which would have allowed them to adjust students' access to material, according to an Oct. 14 Daily Free Press article.

In the midst of the turmoil, one exemplary reaction surfaced on YouTube: Der Printergang (uploaded on 14 October 2009). The video references buildings across Boston University's campus, a handful of the University's colleges & students, and even Boston College's lower printing prices. The video ends with Hitler's words of hope: "I don't have term papers for another few weeks. There's still time for a printing injection."

The use of this meme in the Boston University printing crisis works extremely well, and the video was passed around across students networks on Facebook and Twitter rapidly. Eventually, by Internet or word of mouth, the video made it to multiple university administrators (on which the Daily Free Press also reports). Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore reacts on his own blog:

Students, as Nazis, concerned about University print policies and residential computer labs - I know it's over the top, and I do get the point - ouch! Heard the word on the street about this video throughout campus, including conversations with administrators and faculty. I refrained from replying to folk with DM and e-mail links so I could think about it before I passed it on or made comment. Don't misread me - I'm not a killjoy; I love a good remix; I live for decent satire; I adore commentary on things going on; and, I think human around race, culture, and ethnicity, when done right, is some of the funniest stuff I've heard. My gut told me that this time I needed to move on. Not sure we're at a point where people portraying Nazis makes good satire. Reminded me of the unease I felt this summer with the Nazi commentary and remarks embedded in some conversations and demonstrations about health care. Maybe we should be over it. Maybe I'm just part of a generation that's needlessly sensitive about these images and what they have implied - perhaps it's time for us to grow up and appreciate humor.

Even in this situation, the video's content is questioned. However, the video-as-meme lends particular emphasis to the situation. Yes, the video is certainly humorous because it is quite exaggerated, but the anonymous uploader of Der Printergang uses this meme to point out the relatively outrageous problem (and the heightened reactions that are fairly appropriate) to an audience of students, most of whom would understand the memetic reference and appreciate the criticism of the school.

Memes tend to be jokes, first, but they represent a valuable example of networked knowledge online. Although most memes do not escape the subcultural barriers of small Internet communities, a few do make an impact on the real world. Of course, many Internet memes are simply humor. But the evolutionary structure of some memes create a strong cultural value that acts as a grammar for information networks.



Great post! I'd also add a couple of comments about how I think the Hitler meme works. Of course, part of the pleasure is in iterating the meme, and figuring out how to best exploit its structure and flow. I'm sure that some of the meme's iterations do that better than others, suggesting varying levels of success in exploiting it.

Second, while of course the joke is about the excess and the emotion involved and not Nazis and evil per se, part of internet culture/4chan expression is ABOUT being offensive in some way-- even if not to those in your particular group. Thus things are done 'for the lulz' or as griefing, directed at people who 'take things too seriously.' In that sense, the Hitler clip is the perfect platform for these mixes, as indeed some people will get offended (as we saw on the aoir list), although I would be curious to know just how offensive the Hitler meme is, compared to other types of memes out there.


Hi Alex,

Thanks for the great post. I'd submit that at a certain point one might want to consider how participants of the meme are remixing with a certain sense of future borrowing, recomposition and redistribution in mind. Jenkins comes close in his discussion of sharing and redistribution, but I think that a rhetorical approach might also be useful. This article of mine might be useful for discussing this particular aspect in relation to meme participation:



Jim Ridolfo
Assistant Professor of Composition & Rhetoric
University of Cincinnati