Look at Us, We Have Anxiety: Youth, Memes, and the Power of Online Cultural Politics

  • Julian Burton
Keywords: youth political participation; media remix culture; cultural politics; memes

Abstract

Childhood is often defined by social marginalization— by a denial of access to public space and voice, and the circumscription of what interests, issues, and discourses are open to young people. The internet, as a space of expression that has lowered barriers to entry and confounded attempts at social control, is one of the primary spaces in which 21st-century youth are able to resist adult efforts to regulate their agency and expression. However, it is not only the technological tools of the online world that help them to resist marginalization from public discourse in these spaces, but also its symbolic and cultural resources—shared ideas, practices, and vocabularies particular to online communities. As part of larger projects on teens’ and young adults’ use of online communities to engage with cultural politics, I have been investigating the use of memes—patterns of formulaic content that rise and fall in popularity in short periods of time—in social critique, ideological discourse, community building, and identity representation. This paper examines the impact of memes on cultural discourse and, indirectly, on institutional politics, exploring their potential as an empowering channel of expression as well as their ongoing use as a tool of manipulation by larger political forces. I argue that understanding the cultural power of memes and other aspects of online remix culture is vital to theorizing contemporary politics, to analyzing the experiences and identities of contemporary youth, and to preventing the worst eventualities the increasing significance of online cultural politics may enable.

Published
2019-09-19
Section
Articles from Research