On “(Me)me, Myself, and I: The Power and Politics of Digital Remix Culture and Online Inequalities”

I always knew that when I had the opportunity to design a module from start to finish I wanted the module to be one that included a focus on aspects of digital culture that are often trivialised and written off as “just” for laughs, yet can reveal much about contemporary social and political matters. More specifically, I knew that I wanted the module to deal with some of the different ways that memes are made, remixed, and are ascribed myriad meanings.

How do “we” make sense of memes in what is often flippantly referred to as this “particular moment”? Speaking of moments, in what ways do memes mark a sense of time, situatedness, and forms of memory-making (“re-meme-bering”)? While my new module addresses different questions to do with memes, more broadly the module explores the concept of digital remix culture and digitally mediated experiences of identity and inequality.

I’ve been personally interested in digital culture since moving from the days of dial-up internet to the wonders of Wi-Fi as a teen. There’s a long list of specific elements of digital culture and experiences that fascinate me, and in no particular order here are a few that I’m often thinking and writing about:

  • The socio-cultural significance of Limewire and Xanga, and how both shaped music cultures/pop culture consumption experiences.
  • Digitally remixed depictions and discourses of famous men and celebrity masculinities (e.g. the construction of “the internet’s boyfriend” – forthcoming paper and ongoing project on this).
  • The evolution of the digital presence of Fueled by Ramen and how digital developments impacted the direction of emo music/fandom communities (I’m currently enjoying reading From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society by Taylor Markarian).
  • The digital experiences of Black women in Britain and how they are shaped by the specifics of digital technology, social media, and geo-cultural contexts (local, national, and transnational) (my book on The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020).
  • The rise of Black and racialised virtual influencers (forthcoming paper on this and the wider phenomenon they are part of).
  • “Woke-washing” and how brands attempt to tap into “DIY” digital culture as part of shallow equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) efforts (ongoing project on this and my 2019 European Journal of Marketing paper on “woke-washing” can be accessed here).

In short, I’m interested in all things digital, but especially topics and issues that relate to identities, ideologies, and intersecting inequalities.

My new module, (Me)me, Myself, and I: The Power and Politics of Digital Remix Culture and Online Inequalities, has been designed to hopefully help students to develop critical understanding of major issues regarding “digital remix culture”—briefly and broadly defined = the digital remixing and repurposing of existing media to create new intertextual content that communicates different socio-political messages.

The module introduces students to critical discussions and debates surrounding the rise of user-generated content (UGC) and the use of GIFs and memes as part of how people (re)present themselves and communicate online. From understanding the societal significance of digital popular culture, to reflecting on how inequalities impact people’s online experiences and offline lives, this module is intended to provide students with tools to theorise the internet and critically analyse how digital culture influences contemporary societies across the globe.

This module examines the changing nature of the internet, digital trends, online inequalities, and forms of communication, by focusing on the development of “digital remix culture” and its connection to contemporary politics and people’s everyday lives. Topics covered on the module include structural oppression and ideologies online, digital subcultures, meaning-making involved in creating and sharing memes, the social significance of YouTubers, and how influencers are impacting consumer culture.

I can’t quite believe that it’s already week 5 of the first semester of the 2020/21 academic year (time—what a concept, eh!). At the start of this module I told myself that I’d post at least three blog pieces during it. I plan to stick to this and hopefully do some more posts.

The first few weeks of the module have focused on the following interrelated themes:

  • Introduction: A Brief History of Digital Remix Culture
  • Theorising the Internet: Analysing Digital Culture and Visual Language (this week drew from ideas discussed during the Critical Visual Dialogues course that I co-led with Daniel Lynds (Davidson College) during Digital Pedagogy Lab in 2020).
  • Digital People: Online Identities and Inequalities
  • Digital Pop Culture: From TV to Remixing Content on and for Mobile Screens
  • Digital Influencers: The Rise of YouTubers and (Micro)celebrities *guest lecture by Zoë Glatt (London School of Economics and Political Science)

The great discussions that I’ve had with students have covered a broader range of topics, including those included in the following list. I’m making a note of such topics here partly as a way for me to engage in an iterative reflexive practice during the module, and also partly to share what the module is about with people who may be interested in it:

  • What is the relationship between people’s social media experiences and their sense of self?
  • Is participation in social media solely a source of external validation for people (seeking the approval and “likes” of others)?
  • What sort of demographic do you think this campaign (an army recruitment campaign that directly refers to the perceived fleetingness/fragility of confidence acquired through participation in social media and digital contexts) is aimed at?
  • What does “digital remix culture” mean to you? Is this a useful term? If so or not, why? To me, digital remix culture involves people combining, reusing, and (re)presenting existing media and content to create “new” material that communicates specific socio-political perspectives which may reveal something about the person involved in the creation process. 
  • Different perceptions of digital remix culture: 1) The ability to be able to take things from different places and put them together to make different meanings that don’t necessarily root from the thing that you’re taking them from. 2) It can involve communicating political perspectives, both dominant and dissenting points of view. 3) Digital remix culture is a place for people to make connections without needing to know much about the other person. 4) Digital remix culture involves the repurposing of old content for new political messages. Many current movements in political communicating involve new forms of media and messaging that draw on memes.
  • How do you feel identities are experienced online, and why? 5) Soundbite culture surrounds digital remix culture. The brevity of memes and digitally remixed content may mean that some people are more likely to engage with political discourse that way, rather than reading a long political manifesto or engaging with more traditional forms of political communication that don’t account for people’s short attention spans.
  • How do you feel meme culture has developed and changed?
  • In what way does digital remix culture shape society, or does society shape digital remix culture?
  • What are examples of critical visual dialogues?
  • How can inequalities online be addressed and whose responsibility is it to address them?
  • Do you feel there are particular digital spaces and places that are “safer” than others, and if so, why and what are they?
  • Do you think of television content as being different to digital content? If so, why? If not, why?
  • How has digital culture affected how people seek out, create, and share pop culture content? Do the affordances of different platforms and devices influence how pop culture moves through and is morphed by digital culture?
  • What are examples of digital pop culture that have stood out for you and why?
  • Can we think of screens and digital spaces as some sort of a mirror? If so, why do you think that what people do online and how they represent themselves is reflective of who they are? Or do you think that it’s [people’s online self-representation] not a mirror? Rather, it’s a photoshopped portrait that doesn’t accurately represent people?
  • Does a person’s online representation tell you more about how they want others to perceive them than what it tells you about who they are?
  • What platforms are commonly used in certain geo-cultural contexts?
  • How do the cultural norms concerning messaging differ in various countries and continents (e.g. people adding “x” at the end of messages in Britain)?
  • How are issues to do with privacy and security considered by different demographics, and why?
  • Does the way that you write/the tone of your messages vary depending on the platform you’re using or the digital space that you’re participating in?
  • How have brands been attempting to humanise themselves with the use of memes and digital remix culture? What brands are you thinking of?
  • How would you describe what a digital influencer is?
  • Do you think that influencer culture has become mainstreamed to the point that we cannot separate “mainstream” media and celebrities from online influencers and social media content?
  • What elements of digital influencer culture interest you or do not, and why? How is digital influencer culture connected to social and political issues?
  • What is the relationship between algorithms and individuals’ “curation” of timelines and newsfeeds?
  • (What) are the(re) differences between the notions of participation, spectatorship, and consumption?
  • (What) are the(re) differences between the notions of digital traces, digital footprints, and forms of digital presence?

During my years as an undergraduate student in the late noughties, and thanks to wonderful educators such as Dr. Maddie Breeze, I got the chance to explore creative and self-reflexive methods which helped me to realise that knowledge production, research, and writing does not require the performance of an artificial distance between the person penning such work and the subject that they’re approaching, as well as how they are approaching it.

In other words, one of the most enriching parts of my experience as an undergraduate student was the opportunity to learn about creative methods such as drawing and forms of self-reflection, including autoethnographic methods. My hope is that through my new module students get to examine critical, creative, and self-reflexive approaches, such as when doing a reflective analysis of their own digital experiences and habits.

For anyone who is interested, the key readings/recordings that we’ve focused on so far include:

  • Benjamin, R. (2019) Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Bishop, S. (2018) “Anxiety, panic and self-optimization: Inequalities and the YouTube algorithm”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 24(1): 69-84.
  • Brock, A. (2018) “Critical technocultural discourse analysis”, New Media & Society 20(3): 1012-130.
  • Glatt, Z. and Banet-Weiser, S. (2021) “Productive ambivalence, economies of visibility and the political potential of feminist YouTubers” in Cunningham, S. and Craig, D. (eds.) Creator Culture: Studying the Social Media Entertainment Industry. New York, USA: NYU Press.
  • Gray, J. Sandvoss, C. & Harrington, C. L. (eds.) (2017) Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2nd ed.). New York: NYU Press.
  • Ibrahim, Y. (2018) Production of the “Self” in the Digital Age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Kanai, A. (2016) “Sociality and classification: Reading gender, race, and class in a humorous meme”, Social Media + Society October – December 2016: 1–12.
  • Memes to Movements, An Xiao Mina. Available at: https://datasociety.net/library/an-xiao-mina-memes-tomovements
  • Mina, A.X. (2017) “Memes and visuals come to the fore” [Online] NiemanLab. Available at: https://www.niemanlab.org/2017/12/memes-and-visuals-come-to-the-fore/
  • Noble, S.U. (2018) Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.
  • Ruha Benjamin | Digital Pedagogy Lab 2019 | A New Jim Code? Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJPhN4mucCQ
  • Sobande, F. (2019) “Memes, digital remix culture and (re)mediating British politics and public life”, IPPR Progressive Review 26(2): 151 -160.
  • Sobande, F. (2020) “From local to global visual culture”. Available at: https://visual.dpl.online/from-local-to-global-visual-culture/

Digital remix culture can be both playful and sincere, as well as a source of joy and a serious challenge. Just as digital remix culture can involve humour as well as powerful political messages, this module will hopefully offer the chance for students to creatively consider and communicate their thoughts on digital remix culture in a way that involves critical thinking and analysis of societal issues and inequalities