The semeful sociability of digital memes : visual communication as active and interactive conversation

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Digital visual culture scholars have struggled to find a viewing model that suits the ways in which we communicate visually within participatory culture. Participatory culture suggests that people are visually active participants. However, traditional models of looking such as voyeurism involve a one-way looking practice that includes an active viewer who ‘looks’ at a passive subject. The recent theory of ‘the grab’ (Baym & Senft, 2016) begins to recognise visual interaction as agency and power. However, the action of grabbing remains a one-way transaction. This thesis addresses the complexities of viewing digital communication by asking: ‘How do people communicate using photographic digital memes?’ The research analyses a sample of 66 PGUF (PrettyGirlUglyFace) memes produced by women in a Reddit site community. The PGUF meme consists of a ‘pretty’ selfie juxtaposed with an ‘ugly’ selfie. The data also includes a critical review of media commentaries about selfies collected from 2012 to 2013, online conversations and comments by meme producers, and members of meme communities during selfie workshops in Australia and Canada. The data was collected within an interpretative methodology involving reflective situating (Markham, 2009). Accepting Thomas’s (2007) argument that identity online is performed by self, community and broader public, the 66 photos were analysed for these three dimensions. The aspect of self as an active looking subject was analysed by applying a social semiotic discourse method (Van Leeuwen, 2008), community was mapped with cohesive chains (Tseng, 2013), and the broader public was analysed by approaching the digital memes with theories of proximity (Hall, 1956). The analysis of the 66 PGUF memes shows that ‘viewers’ and ‘subjects’ are both active agents and objects of observation. The performativity and exaggeration in the images suggests that women contributors use humour (the joke) to simultaneously acknowledge and subvert conventional ideas about feminine appearance. The concept of ‘conversation’ is used to theorise how memes help members of online communities communicate as they engage in what I describe as a ‘semeful socialibility’. The findings suggest people communicate through photographic digital memes by use of active semes (signs). Close observation of semes suggests that visual communication involves practices of looking (rather than viewing) that are active, interactive and reactive. Communities of ‘produsers’ of digital memes are involved in an interactive visual conversation. This visual social interaction also reacts to traditional modes of looking that continue to treat certain groups of people (commonly, women) as passive subjects.
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