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Tuesday, July 12 • 14:46 - 16:15
When does the narwhal bacon? Internet memes as markers of online group identity

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Location: PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - 305, 
Goldsmiths, University of London, Building 2
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  • Yimin Chen, UWO, Canada
  • Andrew Nevin, University of Toronto, Canada


In day to day life, people signal their membership in social groups in many different ways. Whether consciously or unconsciously, individuals shape and communicate their social identities through their interactions with others (Mead, 1934). While face to face interactions feature an abundance of identity cues, including speech, clothing, and gesture, in online environments, where text dominates, many of these cues are absent. Furthermore, there is an element of anonymity, or at least pseudonymity, built into most information and communications technologies (ICT) that exacerbates identity issues (Donath, 2007).

In this paper, we argue that self-references and inside jokes in the form of internet memes – “discursive artifacts spread by mediated cultural participants” (Milner, 2013) – are used by some online communities to signal and enhance group identity. These memes can function as a sort of online secret handshake, marking those who respond appropriately as “members of a subculture [who] share a common language” (Hebdige, 1979, p.122). In addition, by sharing, mixing, and remixing memes, participants engage in a form of mediated ritual communication, whereby group identity is co-created and maintained (Miller, 2015). As the subject of research, memes may also be able to provide insight into the character of an online community. Are the most popular memes positive or negative? Do the memes reference particular domains of media or culture? How has the memetic signature of the community changed over time?

In this exploratory study, we examine the character of the Reddit community, as revealed through its use of internet memes. Reddit was initially conceived as a social news-sharing site, but has grown into “one of the most populated spaces for digital sociality on the web today” (Miller, 2015, p.2) and has proved to be fertile ground for research (Bogers & Wernersen, 2014; Tan & Lee, 2015; Singer, et al, 2014). In analyzing the “Redditor” identity memetically, we aim to develop a new approach to the study of online communities.


This work-in-progress seeks to compile a “memetic canon” of the Reddit community by documenting its most notable memes. Specifically, we intend to gather data on which memes Reddit users (“Redditors”) consider to be most important in defining themselves as a community and how the popularity of these memes change over time.


Reddit, as a community, loves to talk about itself. Discussion threads where Redditors analyze the site and each other are commonplace, as are threads aimed at explaining jokes to new users or collecting “best-of” postings. From these meta-Reddit threads, we can identify notable memes within the Reddit community. Once identified, we can track past and future references to these memes in comments posted, describe trends, and analyze Redditor responses.



Future Work: 

As a follow up to this study, we intend to conduct surveys and interviews of the Reddit users to determine how closely the image actual Redditors have of themselves matches our derived portrait. In addition, we would like to investigate sub-groups within the “Redditor” group identity and community interactions between subreddits.


Bogers, T. & Wernersen, R. (2014). How ‘social' are social news sites? Exploring the motivations for using Reddit.com. iConference 2014 Proceedings, 329 – 344.

Donath, J. (2007). Signals in social supernets. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication13(1), 231-251.

Hebdife, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. New York: Methuen.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago, 173-175.

Miller, C. (2015). Life in the new media landscape. gnovis, 16(2), 1-15.

Milner, R. M. (2013). Media lingua franca: Fixity, novelty, and vernacular creativity in internet memes. Selected Papers of Internet Research, 14, 1-5.

Singer, P., Flöck, F., Meinhart, C., Zeitfogel, E., & Strohmaier, M. (2014, April). Evolution of Reddit: From the front page of the internet to a self-referential community? Proceedings of the companion publication of the 23rd international conference on World wide web companion, 517-522.

Tan, C., & Lee, L. (2015, May). All who wander: On the prevalence and characteristics of multi-community engagement. Proceedings of the 24th International Conference on World Wide Web, 1056-1066.

Tuesday July 12, 2016 14:46 - 16:15 UTC
PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - 305 Goldsmiths University, Building 2