One Does Not Simply Make Memes and Not Consider Intellectual Property Issues: Social Media, Memetic Circulation, and Writing Studies

The authors who have come before me in this MediaCommons cluster on intellectual property have said so many astute things already. I agree that writing studies broadly will face considerable questions about pedagogy, censorship, preservation, and production in the coming years. I want to shift the conversation to considerations about the intersections of social media, memetics, and intellectual property, because I believe that this is an area that writing studies must continue to attend to as social media technologies become more and more ubiquitous in our everyday lives.

Worldwide, nearly two billion people use social media technologies, and the U.S. has a similarly strong presence—65% of adults use social networking sites according to Pew Internet Research data, an increase of nearly ten times the number in 2005. I imagine that many of you reading this MediaCommons entry have social media accounts on sites like Reddit, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, or one of the many other social media technologies available to us today. And I imagine, too, that many of you have seen and perhaps even circulated an Internet meme or two in those sites. From Good Guy Greg to Bad Luck Brian, Socially Awkward Penguin and Futurama Fry, thousands of memes are created and shared in social media—and even researched and catalogued on sites like Know Your Meme. Thanks to web tools like Meme Generator it is incredibly easy for individuals to compose their own memes within minutes.

The creation and circulation of memes is a hallmark of social media use and has been since the early days of All Your Base Are Belong to Us and You’re the Man Now Dog. Yet both popular and academic interest in memes—as an object of interest as well as an object of study—has increased since those early days. Dissertations and masters theses have been written about memes; writing studies scholars have written multiple articles about memes, including their effects on political rhetoric, identity construction, and social justice issues; undergraduate students have published research on memes in journals like Young Scholars in Writing; and rhetoricians have blown off steam on Tumblr with Rhet/Comp Ryan Gosling when writing all of that scholarship about memes became too much. As a result, for those of us who are interested in the convergence of digital rhetoric, social media, and intellectual property, the proliferation and circulation of memes is a fruitful area of study.

As a writing studies scholar who works in an editorial capacity with several different academic journals, I have faced questions about the appropriateness of including Internet memes in published scholarship several times now. Indeed, when working with the undergraduate journal Young Scholars in Writing, several members of the editorial staff had lively conversations about Fair Use, copyright, and memes when we were presented with Saint Xavier University student Maggie Collins’ essay draft on “advice animal” memes and sexism. Collins breaks down multiple advice animal memes such as Good Girl Gina and Overly Attached Girlfriend, assessing whether these memes reinforce stereotypical understandings of women through their juxtaposition of texts and images. But to be able to really showcase these memes to her audience, Collins needed to be able to actually show the images to her audience in her journal article—or at least, as her faculty mentor, that was my argument. After consulting a copyright specialist, the journal’s editor at the time agreed that these memes constituted Fair Use and Collins’ essay ran with the images intact (albeit in black and white). I include this as an example of just one of the ways that writing studies is grappling with intellectual property issues around memes. When analyzing memes, when writing about them, when instructing students to compose their own memes for classroom assignments, when using them to promote our programs and writing centers, do we as instructors/writers/composers know enough about intellectual property law and Fair Use rights to advocate for our (or our students’) rights to compose and recirculate memetic images? Are we approaching the composition of such texts with what Danielle Nicole Devoss and Jim Ridolfo have termed rhetorical velocity—“a conscious rhetorical concern for distance, travel, speed, and time, pertaining specifically to theorizing instances of strategic appropriation by a third party”?

And Good Girl Gina is a fantastic example to include because currently, the Know Your Meme database entry for this meme has no images because of a cease-and-desist order resulting in their removal. Other memes like Scumbag Stacey have met a similar fate. When instructing students to make memes for a class, or when creating memes for our own personal use, how might we think about where the base images come from, as there are many popular memes that rely on a real person’s image. For example, the recent TV appearance of Ken Bone, in his red sweater at the second presidential debate, has spurred multiple memes. For some, this newfound fame is exciting; for others, being associated with concepts like being a “scumbag,” a stalker, a racist, and so on is very unappealing.

I’ll end here with an image that I think is appropriate for this conversation. And what I would end with is a question: In the image below, we’re presented with a binary situation, and one that does not account for what Lawrence Lessig has called a “remix culture.”

Does it have to be this way? In the wake of rampant image creation and circulation in social media, can we continue working toward a society where we encourage remix and appropriation in creative ways? And if we do—and I hope we do—what will we gain? As people who study composition, writ broadly, we should be thinking about the impact of social media and meme culture on composing practices, and embracing the exciting questions about intellectual property that such practices bring up.


Thank you for this response, Stephanie. I was thinking of these same questions when I taught on 'plagiarism' through copyright this week in my writing courses. I used the meme below as a way to start talking about issues of production and power. We talked about many of the issues your discussing here, particularly that there are people behind any creative work they find online (including photographs) and that they will assume different roles within these systems at different times (users of other's work, creators of work, distributors...). When we talk about writing through IP, we open up an understanding of the reasons behind rules we follow in the class outside of learning a system of rules.


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