Yorkshire student writes 8,000-word essay about...memes!

A University of York graduate has gained a top grade for his trailblazing dissertation on the social media phenomenon of '˜memes'.

Memes are virally-transmitted symbols and ideas – generally knowledge, jokes and gossip – that spread rapidly via social media, often changing slightly as they travel from person to person.

Julian Porch’s 8,000-word dissertation, which was awarded a First, takes stock of where we are with memes today and how we got there. It also analyses memes as a form of political discourse, and explores how they are pushing the boundaries of how people communicate and create comedy.

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Despite their popularity and reach, relatively little academic work has been done on memes. This allowed Julian to seize the opportunity to do some really original and up-to-date research and thinking.

Professor Helen Smith, Head of York’s Department of English and Related Literature, said: “It was hugely exciting to have the chance to work with Julian on this cutting-edge project.

“The history of communication -- how people create and convey meaning -- is a central part of literary studies these days, and an area where English at York has real strengths. We study everything from the question of how scribes transformed the works of Chaucer, to how the printing press created new media possibilities.

“So Julian's work draws on a very rich tradition of scholarship and research, and poses important questions about how meaning is constructed on line, how reading communities are created, and how they deliberately exclude those who aren't in the know.”

Julian acknowledges that memes have undergone many transformations since their infancy and identifying exactly when they began is not easy.

He said: “It’s hard to pinpoint ‘the rise of the meme’, but certainly some of the earliest examples of memes as we understand them today are Rage Comics. Characterised by stock photos with an accompanying caption in Impact font, Rage Comics are the grandparents of the multifaceted memes we see today.”

Julian particularly likes ‘post-ironic’ memes – memes which are completely abstract. He said: “Post-ironic memes are often completely absurd images coupled with near-incomprehensible captions which have been deliberately misspelled. And yet a lot of people in online communities find these really funny. That's a real interest of mine - how comedy is being created in these abstract and bizarre ways."

Through his dissertation, Julian identifies both the positives and negatives of memes in terms of political discourse. For example, he believes memes are successfully engaging a generation of younger people in politics and world events.

However, he points out that there is a risk of memes oversimplifying the nuances of specific policies and party politics into simple titbits produced for comedic or entertainment value as opposed to sincere political engagement.

But whether positive or negative, Julian firmly believes memes are much more than a passing fad.

“Memes are absolutely here to stay,” he said. “They have ingrained themselves into the essence of social media consumption and communication via digital media more generally. As long as these platforms exist, so will memes.

“Due to the speed at which social media can absorb and disseminate information, the viral nature of memes enables them to be created and spread and viralised within moments of an event occurring. When responding to significant world events, memes can very simply encapsulate those situations, ideas, thoughts and feelings in an easily consumable medium. They satisfy both a desire for immediacy in an increasingly interconnected world and a wish to have a voice in those conversations.”

Julian graduated from York’s Department of English and Related Literature this summer with a 2:1 honours degree overall and is now working as the academic officer with the University of York Students’ Union.