When digital citizens meet internet memes

Why do people use and create internet memes? Can you trace the impact of internet memes offline? How does an internet meme circulate and evolve into different versions? Should we set a boundary on internet memes? Bonnie Tulloch, a doctoral student at the iSchool at UBC, has been exploring the answers to some of these questions.

With a background in children’s literature and nonsense literature, Tulloch’s current research explores how young people communicate information through internet memes. Furthermore, by analysing new forms of storytelling, she seeks to identify how communicating information through internet memes relates to the concept of digital citizenship that’s being introduced in schools.

“One of the things that I’d come across in my research on nonsense literature was the tendency to underestimate the intellectual value of playing around with logic and ideas. So I wanted to think about how young people’s engagement with internet memes might actually represent their critical and creative thinking,” explains Tulloch.

Behind internet memes

A meme can be about anything: a person, an event, or a phrase taken from a specific situation and applied to new contexts. Online, memes can be easily shared, imitated and remixed; they take the form of images that are captioned or they can take other forms, such as tweets, hashtags, a YouTube or TikTok video, etc.

In a meme, there is often ambiguity surrounding humor. | Photo by Bonnie Tulloch

For example, in Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, last March, Oprah’s reactions to shocking stories went viral online and became an internet meme. People quickly added texts or captions to the screenshot and started using them in a variety of contexts.

Tulloch seeks to understand the reasons and motivations for why youth have decided to use and engage with specific kinds of memes, and whether or not they would want to be associated with a meme, or whether they think there are certain ethical consequences to posting a meme.

Digital citizenship included in the curriculum

The B.C. Ministry of Education, says Tulloch, has introduced a revised curriculum that expands what was traditionally referred to as “English” to comprise multiple selections, including a “New Media” course option for grades 10-12. Digital citizenship, or how you communicate and behave online, is a key topic taught in the classroom.

In a meme, there is often ambiguity surrounding humor which might raise concerns related to hate speech or cyberbullying. As a meme spreads and goes viral, the question of privacy and authorship becomes complicated.

“A lot of internet memes are created because somebody snaps a picture of a person in a moment. That person might not actually be aware that the picture has been taken, but it’s uploaded online and suddenly it goes all over the world,” says Tulloch.

In addition, the longevity of an internet meme and the context in which it is used is also worth investigating.

“I think there are some concerns right now about whether or not something we post can follow us forever. It’s an issue we need to reflect on as a society. Accountability is important, but so is the grace to make mistakes and learn from them – especially for youth,” suggests Tulloch.

Research within the research

The research has an important participatory aspect: Tulloch has been collaborating with three classes from Langley Secondary School and co-designing a course unit with their teacher, Aaron Rowe. She asked participating students to look at their own meme engagement from a research perspective and come up with their own research projects.

“I really wanted to figure out how I could help support teachers to create content for this revised curriculum, and to support the development of course materials that would address things young people are doing in their everyday lives. And I wanted to provide students with an opportunity to shape how and what they’re taught in school,” she says.

Tulloch is currently at the data analysis stage of her research and will have specific findings to share next year.

To discover more about internet memes, please visit www. knowyourmeme.com