Memes, these Internet products that create a new type of language

Memes, these Internet products that create a new type of language

Could memes, these diverted images or small videos that proliferate on the internet, constitute a new form of language? This is at least the thesis of the linguist Albin Wagener. For this researcher, their ability to instantly transmit complex emotions make them very powerful communication tools.

In its most basic form, an internet meme is a fairly simple idea, most often expressed through an image accompanied by text, intended to comment on, criticize or make fun of a particular topic. They are essentially based on references from popular culture, but also draw heavily on current events.An example of a popular “template”, based on two images from a Hotline Bling music video by rapper Drake in 2015.

These memes proliferate online in the era of social networks and messaging, to such an extent that the linguist and researcher in digital humanities Albin Wagener estimates, in his book “Mèmologie – Théorie postdigitale des memes” to be published by UGA editions, that it is a new form of language.

Asked Tuesday in the program Forum, he recalls their principle: to be as viral as possible. Because of this, they are also characterized by a very short service life. “From the moment they have reached a strong virality, they will then be forgotten fairly quickly,” he believes.

But if memes have a rather short lifespan, this is not the case with their “templates”, these recurring images which constitute the base of the creation of memes. “These are particular images that say things, and which will gradually constitute a form of memetic grammar”, explains Albin Wagener. “There are several types of images that can be used for specific messages, and which will constitute a repertoire from which we will be able to draw.”

Strong psycho-emotional potential

According to him, the strength of these memes lies in their powerful potential for identification. “With a meme, we also transmit mental, affective and cognitive states, which we can then reclaim and divert ourselves.” The emotions conveyed by the image are therefore very important, especially when the image contains a human or humanoid figure.

Bernie Sanders has been Bernie Sanders has been “memmified” because of this photo taken at Joe Biden’s inauguration. [Brendan Smialowski – AFP]The researcher cites the example of the image of US Senator Bernie Sanders, photographed with mittens during the inauguration of Joe Biden in January 2021. “His posture reflects a particular mental state. To describe this image, it would take pages of texts. And there, the simple fact of seeing the image, one can immediately recognize oneself in it and identify oneself”, explains the memologist.

Moreover, even if the Democratic senator from Vermont is originally a political figure, the fact of becoming a meme will eradicate him from the political field to make him a popular character, “a little outside of reality, who look at things from his point of view. “We can easily identify with what he has become in this image, more easily than with Bernie Sanders as a candidate or politician”, notes Albin Wagener.

An evolution of communication

And while some believe that the new forms of communication in the internet era impoverish language, the researcher sees the phenomenon with optimism. “From the linguist’s point of view, new linguistic forms are necessarily a form of creativity, a sign that societies are evolving. It is a new, complementary and extremely powerful language possibility that responds to the codes of the Internet and social networks” , he summarizes. Everyone will then judge whether this development is good or bad.

>> To go further, read Albin Wagener’s scientific article on the subject: Memes, gifs and cognitive-affective communication on the Internet: The emergence of a new human language

Interview by Thibaut Schaller

Web text: Pierrik Jordan

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