Memes, Macros, Meaning, and Menace

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This article maps some key patterns associated with how internet memes are conceived and how online meme practices have evolved and morphed during the period from 2000 to the present. We document the rise of internet memes during their early years as a broadly communitarian cultural engagement, mostly characterized by goodwill, humor, and an often “nerdish” sense of shared cultural identity. With the massification of internet access and participation in online social practices employing Web 2.0 and mobile computing capacities, changes occurred in how internet memes were conceived and created (e.g., image macro-generators). Since around 2012, many online meme practices have become intensely politicized and increasingly used for socially divisive and, often, cruel purposes. We explore some of these shifts and argue that what we call “second wave” online memes have been used as weapons in personal, political, and social-cultural wars. We conclude that internet memes scholarship would benefit from revisiting the original conception and theory of memes advanced by Richard Dawkins, and attending closely to what motivated Dawkins in this work.