Meme as a rhetorical concept for digital media genres
Studies in digital media and rhetoric often focus on fast-moving and constantly changing phenomena, and memes are undoubtedly one of the most mercurial concepts to arise online in recent years. Memes are now a widely recognized online phenomenon, but their definition, particularly the genres they employ, is still a subject for debate. Although many scholars have offered insights into the meme phenomenon, few have articulated the intersections of medium, genre, concept, and symbolism that most memes embody.
Using concept-oriented, genre-based rhetorical discourse analysis, this dissertation analyzes 132 meme artifacts to better understand how meme genres interact with each other and the social purposes they fulfill, including their ideological functions. Analyses of the memes Yo Dawg, Philosoraptor, Lenny Puppet, Pepe the Frog, We Are Number One, and others demonstrate how memes are complex, intertextual artifacts that rely as much on symbolism and cultural knowledge as they do on structure and form in fulfilling their social purposes.
Memes are likely to remain a notable presence in digital media, and this dissertation provides a deeper understanding of how meme creators use them to address a variety of social purposes, ranging from political advocacy to marketing and fundraising. The primary finding here is that memes are not inherently genres, yet memes often rely on genres of digital media and genres are often formed around them. The dissertation also defines the meme concept as a rhetorical device in an effort to help guide future meme studies and establish the phenomenon’s position in digital rhetoric scholarship.