I am very proud to announce that a research article resulting from the collaboration between my University of Alberta colleague Axel Perez Trujillo and myself has recently been published by the Space and Culture journal. The paper entitled “Colonizing Pepe: Internet Memes as Cyberplaces” explores the phenomenon of the creation and circulation of internet memes through the notion of spatiality in cyberspace. The concepts developed are explored through the case study of the Pepe the Frog meme controversy around the election 2016 American presidential elections.
One of the takeaways of the paper is the idea of analyzing the spatiality of internet memes through three different layers that each provides different perspectives on the power struggle inherent to meme production and circulation.
We isolate three layers of spatiality in our analysis of Pepe the Frog: (1) the contours of the image-meme, (2) the spatial distribution of the platform it occupies, and (3) the spatial relations the meme-frame sustains in regard to netizens’ commentaries (Figure 1). The following figure is a representation of these differing spatial layers that the meme encompasses:
In the first layer, we represent three image-memes. For example, they could be three different iterations of Pepe the Frog, all of which incorporate significant alterations to the meme, except a particular contour, such as the face of Pepe the Frog. That defining contour is the cohesive component of the meme—what offers its unity and distinguishes from other memes. This first spatial layer is the basis of the meme. In the second layer, we represent the spatial distribution of those image-memes within a single forum. Our study is focused on how Pepe the Frog image-memes are distributed in Twitter under the #savepepe hashtag. Notice how the disposition of image-memes is vertical on the screen. This spatial aspect is central to understanding how Pepe the Frog is a contested site at all three layers. In the third layer, we represent the spatial frame of netizens’ comments and the image-meme within the platform.
While some of the ideas that make this paper were born as part of my Phd research on the spatiality of Japanese arcades, it is my position as primary instructor of the Cyberliterature class at the University of Alberta that truly brought me to look at internet memes as pieces of electronic texts worthy of scholarly attention. I want to express my sincerest thanks to Axel for his invaluable input during the whole writing process and for the great conversation we had on spatiality when thinking the core concepts of this paper. I also want to thanks the student journal The Gateway for reaching out to me for a conversation on the Pepe the Frog controversy in 2017 which truly kindled my curiosity on the matter.