Memes as Tropes


The difficulty in discussing memes as tropes can be attributed to the fact that they are, by definition, a representation of an idea that cannot easily be articulated through other means. Online memes evolve out of a culture that requires a reduction in ideas. Parsing out the rhetorical function of an online meme requires knowledge of the culture they operate in, as well as a foundational education in the types of information they are trying to communicate. In the paper I wrote about the rhetorical tasks (visit this page of the wiki to see a list of rhetorical appeals) of memes in an online atheist community. The use of memes to create a sense of ethos or mutual validation can be a compelling subject. However, I failed to grasp the essential utility of memes in that community. For this wiki article, I will attempt to deconstruct a few memes and tropes in order to further the work of Paper #2.

Understanding tropes

One of the keys to understanding tropes is to think about them as cliches that have not yet lost their rhetorical power. However, using the word cliche to describe a trope often has a negative connotation or a judgmental quality, tropes on the other hand are similar only in their ability to convey information. To understand this better we will look at a trope that may be on its way to becoming a cliche.

The drumming, chanting, and poetic singing trope is often used in film to give a certain profundity to a scene or characters (if not the entire film). If we look at several examples of this device, we can see that this is used to signify a moment in a film where the viewer is expected to ready themselves for a subject that embodies qualities of distance and far-off places where the people are exotic and distinct from Western culture. For example, the use of African chants signifies that the characters and messages will somehow be connected to cultural aspects of Africa, including a connection to the natural world and a mysterious, enigmatic cultural heritage. The use of the poetic singer is similar in the fact that it is used to ready the viewer for a cultural distance as well as setting up a reverent moment.

For instance, the poetic singing in Gladiator highlights the distance between our world and the world of the Roman empire. The scene in which Maximus, Russell Crowe's character, is walking through the fields of grain gives the connection to nature that the music anticipates. This music usually is used to mark moments when he is remembering his family and home in the country.

For the film Avatar, the music is used to create a sense of a culture that is much different than ourselves. Western films often utilizes tropes such as hand drums and ululating vocals to signify "otherness."

In the following video from The Lion King the creators use African and world music to ready the viewer for a cultural difference, as well as setting them up for a moment of significance. Here we can see the use of African chant in addition to natural imagery to create a tone that both sets it apart from Western culture and allows for the rhetorical purpose, to introduce the setting for the film.

One of the markers of when a trope begins to become a cliche is when it is used to create humorous situations. In this next video we can see how this works in a "Who's line is it anyway?" sketch titled "African Chant." The performers play on the trope and apply it to something mundane, such as the job of someone in the audience.

This series of videos brings us to Peter Gabriel, well-known for bringing African and world music (African drums and singing style) influences into mainstream American pop-culture. If you skip to 2:31, you will see the dancers performing the cliche African dancing that Whose line is mimicking.

Although tropes and cliches are not synonymous, many tropes are used in cliche ways. Likewise, if memes can be considered tropes, as the title of this page suggests, then they can become cliche as well. Next I will give a brief definition of memes in order to show more clearly a point in which a meme was used to exhaustion on the atheist subreddit, and how they conveyed this sentiment rhetorically.


Richard Dawkins defines memes (see also the memes definition on the tropes page) in his book The Selfish Gene, as a cultural transmission that mimics genes in that they evolve and change. Dawkins uses examples such as "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches." These examples he states are much like a parasite implanted in our thoughts, they propagate through one person transmitting them to another. A "good" meme has a higher rate of transmission, just like "good" genes are passed down from human to human.

The internet is a perfect catalyst for the transmission of memes. The internet is a conglomerate ideas and information. In this vast setting, internet memes are used to transmit ideas in the most efficient method possible. When the purpose centers around propagation, such as an advertisements, memes provide an able vehicle for spreading information. A good example of this is "sharing," articles, pictures, and ideas through Facebook. In this link you can find the most shared articles on Facebook for 2011. No doubt, these articles or memes have been part of most people's online experience this year. Every article on this list was, in a way voted on as something worthwhile. The articles on this list were successful memes, and each one defines the ethos of Facebook and the internet.

To shift gears from Facebook to Reddit, the posts that make it to the top are voted on as being the most significant, relevant, funny, or deserving of praise in some way. The most notable difference between Reddit and Facebook is that posts on Reddit are able to be voted on and top posts rise to the top of the forum. The top posts and comments are the most successful meme of the day. Each post on Reddit can also be categorized through subreddits, forums that adhere to a certain topic or type of post.

For Paper #2, I attempted to use a memes to show group movement toward a certain ethos. Here, I will specifically discuss a moment when a trope on this site starts to become a cliche and how the members react. The issue in this case begins, interestingly with Facebook. Members of the subreddit r/atheism will often post conversations they have had with their friends on Facebook (Link to r/atheism FAQ page -- Brief discussion of how to post Facebook conversations, under "Overdone submissions, heading.), often arguing with them about their beliefs. There is a significant portion of r/atheism who believe that these posts are detrimental to the site and others believe that they are necessary to the central purpose of the site.
Some on r/atheism view this activity as bashing religion, or having a conversation on the terms of theism. In a recent post titled "Why is r/atheism about bashing religion and atheist persecution and not about… atheism?" user sirixamo asks the question —

I'm agnostic, but I have to say, having the front page full of 30% nothing but bashing on religion is getting old (yes, I know the remedies, but I am more interested in understanding the problem). I was excited when atheism was added to the default subreddits, I thought I would get to hear well argued, sound reasoning for atheist beliefs and interesting discussion. How naive I truly was!
I realize to the new, young atheist, you want to lash out at all the religion around you, but I just don't see how that is promoting atheism. Atheism is not about hating theism, it should be about celebrating a world without God. That is, a world where you celebrate the achievements of man exactly as they are. You have nothing to prove to the community at large, and you would do far, far better spreading the word of atheism by showing what amazing feats human beings can accomplish even when not practicing religion than you would lashing out against Christians of all flavors in at least 20 of the top 25 posts. The other 5 are about atheist persecution. We need an r/atheismsuffering and an r/ihatereligion .

Sirixamo makes the case to the subreddit that they may be going to far into the territory of bashing theism instead of focusing on itself. Needless to say, the opposite side of the spectrum came out in full force against it. Many going so far as to berate the original poster. View the full conversation here.

On the other hand, some view arguing an Atheist point of view on Facebook in this way. Here is another example with this point of view In the latter, the poster uses the rage comic meme to make his point.

And finally, we can see in the rage comic below that some are entirely through with this argument, and would rather the conversation change to something more original. This post clearly points out that the conversation and the methods of arguing are becoming cliche to a portion of the audience. (It is important to note that the comments on this post are quick to mention the irony in using a meme to point out how the meme has become cliche.)

Facebook Rage NT5V5.png


In these examples, memes are used rhetorically in an attempt to change the ethos of the site. Whether or not the attempts are successful often times depends upon how successful the meme is. However, there is always the danger of using an irrelevant rhetorical method by using something that has crossed over into cliche territory. This should highlight the ways in which tropes and cliches are similar and the ways in which memes are like tropes and often can become cliche in the same way.