Are Memes Art? Ask the Algorithm.

a rant on art and tech and memes

The question of what can be considered art is an eternal question, long before the time of the Internet and the digital. Forms of expression that may not have appealed to the wealthy funding class, you know the kind that they wouldn’t necessarily want to be patrons of, were often not considered art. In contemporary times the only thing that defined something as “art” was that it was being “shown” in a literal gallery. In pandemic 2020 no galleries are showing art except for those who are putting on “digital” gallery shows, for the purpose of reaching a wider and more global audience. There is an irony in this, as digital art has often been taken less seriously than art that takes up physical space, but now that all art has moved online digital artists may have a step up on artists whose work required being physically present to appreciate it in full capacity (like a gorgeous and incredibly detailed sculpture for example). Memes have been a major part of this debate, even pre-pandemic, with one response being having physical gallery shows dedicated to memes.

There certainly is something to be said about how memes have fallen into this weird realm where they are rooted completely online. Their birth, their history, and their entire existence just wouldn’t exist in the same way. I remember the first time I ever “spotted a meme” in public, it was at a cursed pizza shop in Heredia, Costa Rica. It felt so odd to be eating kind of subpar pizza in a restaurant that had wall decals of all the classic memes such as Cereal Guy. This was 2014, an odd time to be alive and I had barely even begun my relationship with memes. It felt odd seeing them outside of a screen, just as decorative aspects to a kooky space. Technically, it has become the norm for a “meme” to just take place for the word “image macro” while it actually means an idea that repeats. For example, that’s why meme format makes sense technically while saying “here is my meme” when really you mean “image macro". However, we like to have fun here so we will continue to freewheel the use of the term meme as we like.

It’s important to differentiate this because I feel like the moment people started making meme pages that were all OC - original content - there was a cultural shift in our understanding of memes. Memes before were like a little inside Internet joke that everyone could get in on, if you weren’t in on it you simply weren’t. In some ways, they still are an inside joke but now everyone is online. Before memes felt a part of an “in Internet culture” that existed on forums that maybe your parents wouldn’t understand. Now even parents have memes! My favorite example of memes going beyond like “what we expect” and having fun with that is Cropped Boomer Images (or Memes according to the subreddit or Facebook page), which just takes memes that are popular among Boomers and crop them to make them even funnier and more absurd.

But going back, how we understood “memes” changed drastically with the popularization of meme pages. Facebook and Instagram really took this to the next level, where all of a sudden there were memes that may not have followed typical meme formatting (even though some pages to play along with the variety of popular formats that come around every few weeks) but still were able to capture something that felt simultaneously specific and universal. All of a sudden people were “content creators” or “new media artists” and had Patreons! Not all meme pages obviously followed this original content model, as there were also meme pages that existed for the purpose of reposting anything funny they found online, from funny tweets to other memes and sometimes even other people’s memes.

This is where it gets tricky, right? What happens when a page that has over one hundred thousand followers and posts your meme without credit? You can always try to message them and be like “hey can you repost with credit?” but they can always ignore you, which they usually do. This doesn’t just happen with the big RP (repost) meme pages such as infamous FuckJerry of Fyre Fest fame, this also happens just generally which is why many pages that have Original Content started watermarking their memes. I started putting watermarks on my memes after Chloe Sevigny shared one of my memes on her story with someone else @ed on the image. I messaged her and she ignored me and just turned off her story for a day. I’m not mad about it anymore, but it definitely taught me that I should always watermark. It is her in the image, after all, so it’s like yeah RP but would love a shout/out lol. Original Content memes tend to be personal or images that you’ve taken a lot of time making, they’re not just some viral reformatting, even though that has its time and place. This is why people watermark their memes, which often leads to some odd capitalist critique (if you’re a leftist, why do you watermark your memes lol ha ha ha) when in reality if you had that level of exposure you would be watermarking your memes too.

I suppose the question of if memes count as art is tricky. If we are talking about original memes that existed on the Internet in the repeatable image that just gets shared everywhere, before the idea of direct “content creation” in a digital sphere took place, maybe they’re not art. Maybe they are an inside joke. Do they still represent something that is fascinating and important about human society and culture? Yes. Now if you were to ask me if I consider memes made by people with their own pages, all OC, art? I’d say yes because it simply is. It’s definitely a form of art practice and expression that can reach more of an audience than most artists that exclusively show in galleries could ever dream of. There’s nothing wrong with showing work in galleries or even wanting to have some sort of art goal, right? But at the same time, we are living in a digital world and if you don’t have a digital platform as an artist it will impact your career. Writers have Twitter, visual artists have Instagram, etc etc.

That being said, having an audience and “likes” that pages can build their worth around doesn’t necessarily mean the work they’re creating is “good,” right? Which if memes are art, it begs the question of what is a good meme? Can a meme only be considered art if it is a “good meme”? It’s hard to say because obviously there really isn’t enough critical writing on memes to have a standard. Maybe the beauty of memes is there isn’t a standard of what is “good” or “bad.” Memes simply are! There comes the problem of the algorithm, shadowbanning, and deplatforming when you discuss meme pages. Community Guidelines and moderators serve as makeshift curators who enforce not an aesthetic standard but a moral one. If the algorithm determines what you see, it simply isn’t the same as when you walk through a gallery which has been carefully planned out for you to experience. With the algorithm, the experience forms around you dictated by your data.

This is both good and bad, this is why the question of if memes count as art isn’t a simple yes. If memes are art and platforms effectively act as public space and gallery, how do we eventually then free ourselves from both platforms and the algorithm? Almost every creative I know on Instagram who isn’t white, cishet, civilian, or skinny have dealt with shadowbanning and many with deplatforming. Is their art not good simply because the algorithm doesn’t favor it? Simply because it does not fit into the ever-changing community guidelines that target nudity and sexual expression? Meme pages that have focused on mental illness often are also targeted and lose their platforms, which I’ve discussed a bit in my Bitch piece last July. How do we critically view art as memes when the algorithm automatically limits what we see? I’m not entirely sure.

Memes are certainly an expression of art and many are art, it really can’t and shouldn’t be debated. Memes are also simultaneously forever an inside joke online, which isn’t going to change simply because there are people doing really cool things with memes currently. All that being said, for the memes that have been created and serve as a form of an artistic process, how do we judge them honestly as we dive deeper into dependence on the algorithm? Only time will tell.