[…] the meme critiques the (mono)authoritarian, or dictatorial functioning of a visual communication, by integrating inherent sabotage linked to mass diffusion. Therefore, between a graphic communication (e.g. logo, advertising,…) and the meme, there is a fundamental difference – the critical aspect.

Automatic gestures are an integral part of our user life – we mechanically hold and swipe at our smartphones – we lock the door by turning the key to a specify direction, not to an other, the same for the knobs inside our shower. Are these surrounding design choices logical? Let’s look around us… how did our gestures, our ways of doing things, the tools we use every day are guided, shown, as it is universally accepted? When reflections of product design are raised, the element of “friendly” is very often central in the concept and use of products. However, how to interpret this « friendliness »? An element that guides our behavior in a neutral way? Or a dispositive that makes us prisoners of a single use? How does design produce automated practice by the user?

Let us focus for a moment on the importance of visual information – the written word and the image. How does it invoke a way of thinking, acting and functioning? When faced with a designed product, shouldn’t we ask ourself – how was it designed, manufactured, by whom or with what aims, what is the meaning connected to users behavior?

So that it appears original, the orientation of an action leads by images or words enforces a logic which must or base its communication on references, whether cultural and/or political. In brief, to be meaningful, it must talk to people you are trying to convince. Thus, this contextualization allow us to recognize a standardized logic and orientation to act. Recurrence, by using “devices” of repetitive and anodyne gestures also makes possible to communicate so that the information seems so normal and fully integrated and normalized into a daily lifestyle. When we develop a critical eye to the visual elements surrounding us, it becomes relevant that injunctions by audio and visual (word and image) inhabit our entire environment – logos – taglines – which aim to create an idea, a memorable concept summarizing the dogmas about the product. This language is therefore totally dedicated to a commercial and advertising purpose, in order to guide and manipulated a way of living, consuming, using, being…

On this point, it seems essential to focus on a phenomenon that is picking up exactly this mode of communication – diffusion / orientation / positioning of an archetype – without being intended for commercial purposes: the meme. At first, if this sociological phenomenon was defined as a reproduction of a visual element by imitation. The “Internet meme” integrates the notion of iteration through the subjectivity of each protagonist. Indeed, while the diffusion happens on the Internet, the visual element which often mixing texts and images, is reinterpreted and most of the time modified by the user who – through local image retouching/integration software – will define a new identity to an existing meme. Like advertising or commercial visual communication, the meme integrates cultural and political elements to be understood and integrated by users. What differs is that these referents can be manipulated through a single person, while sometimes keeping the same visual and textual aspects.

Here the notion of collage is therefore very important, since it allows for personal re-appropriation of a message, an existing ideology, in order to make her/his own. Thus, the meme critiques the (mono)authoritarian, or dictatorial functioning of a visual communication, by integrating inherent sabotage linked to mass diffusion. Therefore, between a graphic communication (e.g. logo, advertising,…) and the meme, there is a fundamental difference – the critical aspect. However, this mode remains a complex entity, since it always depends on the referent… who criticizes whom and for what purpose? Defining the referent as an object concretely represented in a speech, i.e. the thing we are talking about; we understand that in the case of graphic design and the meme, both have an existence in a language of mass communication through diffusion, and both require a contextual political and/or cultural knowledge related to our life learning process, our way of define the world, in order to decode its audio/visual information. If only the notion of “critical” can be used to oppose these two aspects, are they so different or do we need to think more about the ambivalence of this relationship?

On this issue, a contemporary political context seems to allow us to observe the ambiguity of the meme, as a form of communication through the Internet, by which the meaning changes through each new user, thus leading to a fundamental change in regard to the original meaning. The “2019 Hong Kong protests” highlights the use of a particularly known meme in digital folklore for its political claims – Pepe the Frog. Created in 2005, this anthropomorphic character with a frog face is coming from comics and embodying an uninhibited youth. It is also interesting to notice that in an Euro-American social media context it became a hate symbol since 2016, after a single image from the comic was decontextualized and distorted for a racist purpose. Zhi-fang Li reminds us that it is essential to consider that the original meaning of the image is distorted without its knowledge, as this character finds a great popularity in a Chinese context in the same time. Embodying under the moniker of shangxin quingwa, or Sad Frog, a youth which wants to subjectively position itself before its environment. From that point, this meme became, for the movement “2019 Hong Kong protests”, a real means of dissemination for its own protest. Then as Zhi-fang Li points out, it is interesting to note how this meme was “de-code(d) in the intertextual vocabulary of memetics”, because the opposing group has interest to used the same figure to turn it against the protest group.

This is why we can see that memes have specific code, and that we need a method to understand and decrypt the inherent message. And it is because memes have such a non-homogeneous, non-hegemonic way of creation, where the message is so multiple that they embody – for Erin Demastes – “a critique of design visuals and elitism/privilege.”

So how can we position ourselves within this phenomenon – this mass diffusion – this alteration of meaning, so that we have control as user and diffuser of memes? Indeed, if everyone is able to create a meme with its own meaning – does this subjectivity only reach our own convictions, or – as it is the case for Pepe the Frog – does the surrounding political structure (Euro-American / Hong-Kong / China) influence us significantly?
Which are our own choices and which are imposed?

It is essential to consider that the aspect of repetition has an impact on this reflection. In such case, this form of communication is based on the implementation of a system guiding a daily life leaded by automatic, totally anodyne, generic and unreflective gestures. Do we often think about these repetitive gestures, those repost we do on the Internet, for whom? As we already pointed out, if the aspect of “friendly” is often linked to our daily actions, does it not influence a choice rather than another, a manner to consume rather than another, a way to use rather than another?
How friendly are our contemporary uses?
Can we called this “friendly” or “oriented”?

As users, what are our tools within this consumption and dissemination of audio/visual informations? How can we reflect in a critical way on daily uses? Erin Demastes talks to us about “Behavioral design” as a “form of protest”. If, some design devices are collectively considered to be correctly used, it is because there is a “way” of doing/using things, that has become a common practice. So, isn’t this a way of protesting to use, consume, position ourself differently from what seems to be correct and collectively accepted?

Original Researches by Erin Demastes and Zhi-fang Li
Text and research-development by Valérie Félix