DSG on internet memes and their political potential for the working class.
When Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976 he drew upon his ﬁeld of genetics and evolution to provide a rich metaphor for the way ideas, and systems of ideas, were transferred between populations. Rather than holding their form as they might originally be conceived by their author or originator, ideas changed according to their environments, developing to suit the needs of those using them, adapting to external conditions, much like a gene might. Based upon their suitability, universality or ability to shape-shift, ideas either took root and survived or died out. It remains a reasonably simple idea – for example, religions who held a degree of understandability, adaptability and universality spread quickly across the world, much as a virus might. Others, lacking relevance for those who came into contact with them, burdened by rituals which failed to touch their participants, died out, or existed only in small, homogenous populations.
Dawkins’ lucid idea caught the eye of those with a particular interest in the ﬁeld. Fittingly, however, it wasn’t until we experienced a major change in the concrete conditions of the information environment that the idea of memetics really took hold. Prior to the invention and popularisation of the internet the meme was an interesting theory – today it’s a conceptual tool without which our understanding of information transfer would be unable to function. More than this, the meme has become a self-conscious and self-reﬂexive idea; memes are called out at their birth, referred to as memes in their early life, become riffed upon until they reach a position of universality, or die, unsuitable for further use.
It is in the pervert’s hothouse, online megafora 4chan.org, alternatively deﬁned by FOX News as the “internet hate machine”, that the most ubiqitous memes of internet history have emerged. 4chan.org, created by Chris Poole at age 15, functions principally as a imageboard1 based on the Japanese model popularised by the Futaba Channel. 4Chan is home to 10 million regular users, with anonymity being the socially acceptable default. The most visited board on the site is the random – or /b/ board – the inhabitants of which are affectionately referred to as /b/tards.2
What sets 4chan apart from any other online community is not just its preference for anonymity or its anti-leader and anti-celebrity ethic but the sheer speed at which ideas, images and threads are generated, commonly referred to as the hivemind.3 A primary driver of memes within 4chan and within wider social networking is the concept of “lulz”. A bastardisation of the plural of the popular acronym “lol”4, lulz are essentially the raison d’être of the internet meme – an attempt to derive humour, usually through a joke of prank. But more than this – humour for its own sake, humour devoid of a moral framework. For the internet to crash into someone’s lives, rip up their family photos and take a shit in their front room, and to ﬁnd it funny. Lulz are more than a social glue for the fabric of internet society – they are an ideology, a be-all-and-end-all. For 4chan and the culture it has spurned, lulz are the embodiment of a certain corporate ethos – “EVERYTHING IN THE LULZ, NOTHING OUTSIDE THE LULZ, NOTHING AGAINST THE LULZ”. To feel a twinge of sympathy for the victim of a raid5 is not to engage in a moral discourse – it’s to betray weakness, and unacceptable dissent against the ideology. It is to render oneself a “MoralFag”.6
Joke memes (memetic lulz) operate by a continual development of the humorous content, adding more and more layers to the joke until sometimes the original source of humour has been totally removed. Instead, it’s the referencing back to its own history that becomes the source of humour. However, with the need for the humour to actually make sense in relation to the content removed, the form itself becomes its own subject. Content unrelated can be added to this, picking up some of the cache of the original meme to ensure its reproduction.7
It is within this context of a completely amoral historical role that we must analyse the signiﬁcant and under-critiqued change in internet culture in the past few years, then. From the “end-point” of total irony has developed a deviant culture – Anonymous, an online group engaging in online and IRL8 political and social actions. Anonymous is a signiﬁcant case study in internet memetics; and, importantly, in the move from a focus of lulz and life-ruination to an engaged and effective attempt at political organisation for the aim of radical social change. The constituent parts of Anonymous are made up of a rapidly evolving framework of moralfaggotry, trolling9, anonymously-authored action and lulz for lulz sake. Identifying the birth of Anonymous is in itself problematic due to the very nature of its name – existing as a vehicle by which any gathering of individuals can identify, whether for ethically motivated micro protest or raids for the sake of individual life-ruination. Perhaps this is best represented in the case of Jessi Slaughter, a Youtube tween, targeted for a raid in 2010, for her self-aggrandising yet naive videos in which she proclaimed to her haters “I’ll pop a glock in your mouth and make a brain slushie”. This quickly provoked rage in the 4chan community, resulting in a torrent of abuse, pizza orders and Jessi’s home address being circulated online.
Attacks are typically carried out in the form of DDoS attacks10, orchestrated with the tool Low Orbit Iron Cannon, coordinated through Internet Relay Chat11. LOIC allows a large group to collectively overload a site’s server and bandwidth capacity, taking the site offline. Although most attacks are based in the virtual, typical tactics within raids attempt to make an individual or organisation’s existence a misery through whatever means possible, be it unpaid take-away deliveries from every store in the city to their address or calling in bomb threats to a location where the individual organisation is known to be. Within the amoral frame of the rules of the internet everything is permissable, providing it results in lulz.
Prior to the poorly researched public outing of Anonymous as a known entity by the mass media (in an attempt to elucidate the cyber activities of the Wikileaks saga), the group has been responsible for countless hacktivist based political actions. Too numerous to detail in full, the most successful long term projects of the group are commonly recognised as Chanology (the ongoing cyberwar on Scientology) and Operation Titstorm: the attacks on the Australian government’s websites and the targeting of individual politicians as a response to the government’s attempt to censor the internet. Operation Payback targeted the MPAA (Motion Pictures Association of America) which was attempting the digital privatisation and enforced copyrighting of easily available online content, as well as repeated attempts to shut down the p2p torrent directory The Pirate Bay. It was Operation Payback that swiftly evolved to support Wikileaks during their disclosure of diplomatic cables, attacking Mastercard, Paypal and Amazon for their withdrawal of services from the organisation.
This marked the start of a difficult shift in motivational factors for Anonymous and the 4chan community. No longer were lulz the determining factor in actions– instead, in true meme-development fashion, another layer of meaning had entered the equation. As the populations of North African and Middle-Eastern countries rose up in (partly online organised) insurrection, Anonymous began to draw links between previous political actions, such as Operation Titstorm, which focused on the hacker-inspired defence of internet sovereignty and freedom of information, and its concrete relationship with IRL political change. The defence of Wikileaks, for example, could no longer be sustained as an autarchic, purely online action happening in a political vacuum. Wikileaks was having very real repercussions in Tunisia and Egypt, and it was at this point where Anonymous began a series of Operations, including providing advice for activists on avoiding state surveillance online, recipes for antidotes to tear gas, connecting video livestreams and info sheets lifted directly from the boards of 4chan. In the ﬁnal instance, Anonymous worked to restore internet access via dialup connections and proxies to Egypt when the panicking regime “turned off the net”.
The decision by Anonymous to undertake these actions was a result of its organisational processes. Due to its (nominally) non-hierarchical discussion process, combining polling and free conversation on IRC around the issues, and the consensus decision-making process, Anonymous could legitimately move as a group from taking action based on meme humour and start to take action as a response to human rights abuses and governmental repression, without cracking due to internal pressure, or under the weight of its own contradictions. Hackers could opt out, dissenting voices could be heard, but, ultimately, effective action could be taken. The meme of raids had fundamentally altered and evolved due to changing social conditions. That’s not to say the original quest for lulz was entirely destroyed–plenty of chat revolved around the trope “LOL FALTERING REGIME, let’s hit it till it breaks”– but in terms of primary motivation, Lulz had been superceded by Sincerity.
The fascinating case study of Anonymous is just one example of how memes are more than a theory of information, but a concrete form in themselves. But in terms of the potential of these organisational forms, Anonymous is just an encouraging, if problematic, start. It is indicative of a changing political understanding, as highlighted by Paul Mason, in a generation entirely removed from the political landscapes of the Cold War. We will move beyond Anonymous in the coming years, as technological literacy spreads beyond the geeks into the general population, and these forms become the default for young agitators and other discontents of neoliberalism, rather than the more rigid structures of old ideologies. The somewhat chaotic, rhizomatic manifestations of Anonymous political actions foreground the collapse of the concept of programmatic political movements, favouring instead a multiplicity of struggles. We are not compulsive recidivists, nostalgic for massed, uniﬁed throngs driven on by demagogues. We are more than happy to see this tactical shift, away from intrinsically authoritarian notion of “political unity”, if it is to be replaced with class unity. We don’t see this decentralisation of power and authority in determining the direction of actions to be a negative impact of technology. Memetics offer an opportunity for the instigation of autonomous actions, delivering death by a thousand cuts to our enemy.
Finally we offer a very telling short anecdote, regarding the two contradictory drivers of memes, lulz and sincerity, that caught our attention earlier in the year. When union members and activists occupied the State Capitol in Winsconsin in an impressive defence of collective bargaining rights, it received global attention, not least because of live streaming of the occupation and a tech-savvy bunch of activists inside the Capitol. Reports started to come through of supporters worldwide ordering pizzas from the local pizzeria for those camped inside the building. Ian’s Pizza’s soon set up a blackboard to chart these small acts of solidarity, and they became a meme in their own right. Soon pizzas were being delivered to these North American labour activists from across the Middle East and Europe, and even China. This seemed like an important symbolic shift in the power of memes, to us. When 4chan began making raids, a staple of their arsenal was to bombard their victims with hundreds of unwanted, unpaid-for pizzas. Now, the pre-paid pizza slices arrived in their thousands, as a gesture of a shared struggle against neoliberalism. Memes have the capability to drop their amoral, malicious impetus, and become forms of political struggle, practical and moral support and solidarity. Where once Memes + Lulz = Terror, perhaps today Memes + Sincerity = Communism– or, at least, a step in the right direction.
Excerpted from Occupy everything, reflections on why it's kicking off everywhere, published 2012
- 1. An imageboard is an internet message board predominantly used for the posting and reposting of images.
- 2. 4chan message boards are organised alphabetically /b/ board represents the random board and is where most site traffic is driven. As a result of the nature of infantile/ offensive content posted /b/ boarders o en affectionately refer to themselves and others as btards or ./b/tard.
- 3. The hivemind is a concept of the form of collective intelligence created when large numbers of autonomous users operate within decentralized or self-directing networks.
- 4. “LOL” has become one of the most popular acronyms developed for ease of communications on online and short message services (including text messaging). Originally meaning “laugh out loud”, it now conveys a general sentiment of amusement or humour. In youth culture it is also used IRL [libcom note: in real life]– often heavily ironically. The past tense of “LOL” is “lolled”.
- 5. Raids are carried out when the hivemind assembles to attack a single individual, government or organisation, raids usually escalate in scope rapidly and are often begun by dropping dox (ﬁnding real life addresses/names/telephone numbers of the target).
- 6. Part of the internal social disciplining structure within 4chan are the concept of “Fags” – “fag” connoting disapproval rather than actively implying homosexuality. These are given preﬁxes according to the nature of the action of which the community might disapprove – i.e. “GaiaFags”, “NewFags” (newer, niave members).
- 7. A good example of this is the meme “in ur base killin ur d00dz”. The original meme was based on images from computer games where one player had inﬁltrated another players base and is proceeding to kill his characters (d00dz). The joke was a brag. Today the image has been replaced so many times, and the slogan altered, that the original context is now irrelevant, as long as the user references the meme itself with the phrase – “in ur XXXX, XXXXin ur XXXX”. If you want a taste, google image search “I’m in ur”.
- 8. IRL= “In real life”, an acronym used to differentiate between experiencing reality in ﬂeshy ﬁrst life, as opposed to reality observed through the ﬁlter of contemporary technology.
- 9. Internet slang for the act of posting inﬂammatory extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.
- 10. DDoS attack = A Distributed Denial of Service attack is an attack on a website carried out by ﬂooding the host server with requests from multiple (usually tens of thousands) of users. Prior to the use of Low Orbit Iron Cannon these were previously carried out by large botnets.
- 11. IRC is an acronym for Internet Relay Chat, a chatroom platform developed in 1988 for group discussion, it is supported across all platforms but requires a so wareclient such as mIRC in order to participate.