Media Lingua Franca: Fixity, Novelty, and Vernacular Creativity in Internet Memes

Ryan M. Milner


This paper argues internet memes – discursive artifacts spread by mediated cultural participants who remix them along the way – weave ‘fixity’ and ‘novelty’. Memes are a form of ‘vernacular creativity’, which balance the familiar and the foreign, the collective and the individual. In order to assess this balance, I undertook a yearlong multimodal discourse analysis of the networks of mediated cultural participation that house memes. Analyzing memes on sites like 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr, I found they depend upon ‘prepatterning’ from social contexts understood by the collectives creating, reappropriating, and sharing them. While this prepatterning fixes the conversation and restricts participation, it also affords depth and expression. Understanding fixed conversational contexts means novel expression translatable to a receptive audience. In this way, memes are a ‘media lingua franca’, discourses understood by a far reaching collective. Two case studies – ‘Kanye Interrupts’ and ‘Not Bad Obama’ – support this assertion.

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