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LOLCats and Libraries: A Conversation with Internet Librarian Amanda Brennan

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Amanda Brennan, former resident librarian of Know Your Meme and current content associate at Tumblr.

The following is a guest post from Julia Fernandez, this year’s NDIIPP Junior Fellow. Julia has a background in American studies and working with folklife institutions and is working on a range of projects leading up to CurateCamp Digital Culture in July. This is part of an ongoing series of interviews Julia is conducting to better understand the kinds of born-digital primary sources folklorists and others interested in studying digital culture are making use of for their scholarship.

What do a grumpy cat, a puffin who spouts unpopular opinions and Beyoncé Knowles have in common? Amanda Brennan has studied the inception and evolution of each as they spread virally throughout the web. In this installment of the NDSA’s Insights interview series I talk with Brennan, an internet librarian who specializes in researching the history of image macros, memes and other viral content throughout the web. After working to catalog and organize information about memes for Know Your Meme, she is now on the Content & Community team at Tumblr where she explores and evaluates trends throughout the network.

Julia: Let’s start with the most basic question. For those who might not be familiar, what is a “meme”? Where does the term come from?

Amanda: The term meme was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. His definition describes a meme as a unit of cultural information that spreads from person to person, often mutating along the way. Online, the term “meme” is often associated with image macros or catchy YouTube videos, but really it includes so much more than that, like language behaviors or hashtag use. Dawkins himself noted in 2013 the major difference between his original idea and an internet meme is that internet memes evolve out of deliberate human creativity, whereas he theorized memes to act more like genes with sudden and unintentional changes.

Julia: Many memes are ephemeral, often popular for only a few days or weeks.  Why are memes worth cataloguing, collecting and researching? Why do you think it will be important to have them around in the future? Further, what are some things researchers should keep in mind when studying memes?

An example of a image macro, now broadly referred to as a meme. Lolcat by user cadsonline on Flickr.
An example of an image macro, now broadly referred to as a meme. Lolcat shared by user alexnoguera on Flickr.

Amanda: Even though some memes will only last a short time, they are reflective of their time and that specific moment in internet culture. Yes, there are dozens upon dozens of Advice Animal-style image macros, some of which are so flash in the pan no one will remember them nor will they have an effect on larger internet culture (Small Fact Frog? Skateboarding Professor?), but they all play a role in how people reacted to different areas of their life online. Recording these smaller moments are like recording local history, tiny bits that make up a whole that would have been incomplete in the future. They’re also representative of how current culture reacts to life, which will be important to understand how this era thought about the world.

As for what researchers should keep in mind when studying memes, it’s key to remember that so much gets lost in the ether. There are dozens of phrases, acronyms and even those whose sources are long gone and untraceable. As much as we’d like it to be, the internet was never a permanent place. Websites and photo hosts get deleted or forgotten. Uploaded photos from the early 2000s have taken on lives on their own so far removed from their original creators. Back then, people separated themselves from their content, they uploaded their cat photos without seeking a notoriety complete with cat food partnerships and book tours. We will probably never confirm the owners of Happy Cat or Limecat, but that doesn’t devalue their place in internet history.

Julia: In a recent Insights interview Jason Eppnik compared reaction gifs to slang like the word “okay,” saying “historians are trying to track down who originally spoke those two syllables, but the more significant story is that a slang word caught on because enough people started repeating it, and now it’s an indispensable part of our vocabulary.” Do you agree? How does knowing the origin of a particular meme contribute to understanding that meme?

Amanda: I agree that for older memes and images created when the internet was less focused on sharing content, the fact that they bubbled up to widespread internet culture somehow is the most important part of the story. However, knowing the origin of a meme or the amplifier that made it go viral adds a deeper level of understanding. Websites all have very specific types of communities and users, a meme that originates on an anonymous message board like 4chan will likely be different than one that originates on a network of personal friends and acquaintances like Facebook because the atmosphere is different. The meme is reflective of the community a website attracts, and knowing what community something is borne out of is interesting in the grand scheme of its spread across the web or into mainstream culture.

Julia: You used to work as Know Your Meme’s resident librarian. (Incidentally, the American Folklife Center recently announced they will be archiving the site). Library archives and museums are often concerned with the rarity of a particular object. Acknowledging that memes are not (usually) physical objects, does the concept of rarity exist in the meme archiving world?

Amanda: Rarity exists, but it is not valued in the same way. In the case of image macros, people will often recycle or rephrase captions making it hard to tell which one is unique or even what was made first. The most similar comparison to a rare book would be a post that has been deleted, for example a 4chan thread that only exists in screenshots or a Tumblr post that only lives on in reblogs. While posters may not know it will become a historical thread before it disappears, if something happens and the post does go on to become a meme, that memory of being there when everything was happening plays a role in how they will relate to it later on.

Another example of a Lolcat image macro or meme. In this case, relevant to filing and organization. lolcats
Another example of a Lolcat image macro or meme. In this case, relevant to filing and organization. lolcats by user Suw Charman-Anderson on Flickr.

Julia: What are some of the challenges of researching memes? Is there a way to organize/streamline the process of gathering viral content from the internet?

Amanda: One of the biggest challenges is tracking down something that’s been deleted. There have been times in my work where I’ve found links to a specific page but that page itself no longer existed, especially with content from the early- to mid-2000s. The Wayback Machine and the many Geocities archives are so helpful, but unfortunately they do not have every page.

The second challenge, which is equally hard, is sifting through content after something has gone viral to find an original source. After an image has hit Reddit or We Heart It, it just becomes oversaturated and the source becomes a needle in a very vast haystack. There are some tools for this also, like Google Reverse Image Search and the Reddit-specific reverse image search Karma Decay, but they aren’t always perfect.

I don’t know if there is an easy way to streamline the process. For me personally, digging is the fun part. Google Trends is the best jumping off point if you don’t know when something went big, and then it’s just a lot of sifting and being knowledgeable about your sources. This another spot where knowing the different nuances of communities and post formatting is helpful – for example, these screenshots were recently shared on Imgur but the content is clearly a series of screenshots from a Tumblr dashboard.

Julia: You now work as a member of Tumblr’s Content and Community Team. What about Tumblr’s infrastructure makes it a useful context to spread (and study) memes?

Amanda: The #1 reason is the reblog. Memes evolve quickly as people reblog the post and add their own commentary. One example is the earlier linked post about taking off one’s shirt in two different ways. While the initial post was just a bit of text waxing poetic on clothing removal, the community seized the opportunity and began posting GIFs of themselves attempting both versions.  As the post circulated through the community, more and more people began interacting with it and sharing their own attempts. These kinds of posts are really unique to Tumblr because the whole thread comes along with your post and your readers get to see the history of that branch of the meme. This is also a useful tool for research, since the reblog tree allows researchers to find the source of a post easily.

Julia: You call yourself an “internet librarian” what does that mean for you? Given that you have formal training in library science, but have worked for two web companies, what role do you think that librarians can and should play in these kinds of organizations?

Amanda: When I entered library school, I knew I didn’t want to work in a traditional library. I’ve always loved information and internet culture and I wanted to build a bridge between those things. I love doing internet reference and try to do it whenever I can for people – I love when I’m able to dig deep and find something someone has had a hard time finding.

As for working in web companies, I hope that I can bring a fresh perspective to tech. Librarians can offer so much to the internet as we understand the connections that need to be made with information on a deep level. As the world becomes much more digital, it’s equally important for librarians to bring the tech back home and make sure they are accessible online, especially on mobile.

Julia: Based on your work, what kinds of sites and materials do you think libraries, archives and museums should be getting involved in collecting? Further, what kinds of approaches do you think they should be taking to do so?

Amanda: Each collection should focus on different parts. Libraries should try to archive a vast bucket – especially local information. Stuff like Foursquare checkins and local websites can be temporal, but having that type of information backed up to serve a local community would be really helpful.

Archives should focus on backing up the pillars of web culture, places like Reddit and other internet forums. A great example of this is the Archive Team’s Fire Drill list of sites that would be devastating to lose. Sites like fan art repositories Pixiv and deviantART, music statistics tool and knowledge hub Wikia are all on this list. Backing up sites like these is imperative as a snapshot of our culture and will be so necessary in the future.

As for museums, I hope we move toward some sort of model where brick and mortar museums can offer an online collection component for born-digital works. The SF MoMA has a great feature on their Tumblr called Submission Friday where artists can submit their work directly to the blog. Each week, a handful of posts are selected by the staff and shared with their followers. This online collection allows up-and-coming artists to not only have a direct line of communication with an established museum but also to give their work a brand new audience. The empowerment that comes from having your work shared by a museum is unparalleled.

Comments (2)

  1. yaaaaassssssss, love this!

  2. Very inspiring!

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