Uncredited Creation: cultural production and appropriation through memes

By Christina Cilento

“One does not simply write about memes.” Indeed, it seems odd to be constructing an academic paper centered on one of the most banal pieces of modern culture, but the study of memes can actually be a fascinating lens through which to examine intellectual property, the generation of new vernacular, and the viral nature of online culture. Memes have become a symbol of millennial life, facilitated by the global network of online social media sites like Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and Facebook that allows content to be shared millions of times within hours. Examining the process through which memes are generated allows insight into the production and appropriation of culture and provides a dynamic addition to, and critique of, literature on intellectual and cultural commons.

In this essay, I will argue that memes represent a contradictory position within commons theories as a type of intellectual commons that at once generates new forms of culture with incredible rapidity and openness, yet often does so through appropriating black culture from black communities where many memes were born. I critique this appropriation, which opens up and distills black culture for consumption by the masses, and explore ways in which meme generators are seeking to take ownership over their content, namely through attempts to monetize their creations. Although the notion of monetizing intellectual property to push back against cultural appropriation may seem logical and necessary to some, I ultimately conclude this solution is too dependent on oppressive capitalist structures, and that attempted enclosure of viral content, even for good intentions, presents a convoluted threat to intellectual property and the generation of new forms of culture that will ultimately only benefit hegemonic corporate structures, and not creators of color.

Is a meme a common?

A meme is difficult to define: it can be a picture, video, gif, Vine, piece of text, a singular word, or nearly any other piece of viral content. Memes embody commons culture in several ways, and can be conceived of in line with both Elinor Ostrom’s (1990) and David Harvey’s (2013) definitions of commons. Ostrom defines commons as subtractable, or able to be reduced with use, and excludable, or able to be limited to a certain set of users (p. 32). If a resource is not excludable, Ostrom defines it as an open access resource, while if it is not subtractable, she conceives of it as closer to a public good than a common. Memes are neither subtractable nor excludable: a meme is not depleted when others consume it, and it is difficult to exclude people from looking at them. Still, I believe memes are a form of commons, although they do not fit soundly into Ostrom’s land- and resource-based definitions. Memes are best conceived of as a kind of intellectual commons that “resists traditional configurations of authorship and intellectual property” (Dean, 2016). Owning a meme is virtually impossible, as is reducing or subtracting a meme through use. In fact, memes are strengthened the more they are used—their main essence is in their viral nature, which can only be achieved when millions of people appropriate them. Because memes are formed through social relations, they are perhaps best considered through David Harvey’s (2013) definition of commons, which requires people engaging in social processes with a given resource or place to transform it into a common (p. 73). For memes, this act of “commoning” includes sharing the meme and generating new versions of it until it goes viral. If this does not happen, then the content does not become a meme.

The social nature of memes includes interaction among users in online communities, much like online collaborative platforms for software developers. This interaction takes place in Facebook groups for meme creators and appreciators, in which content is generated, shared, and made viral. These groups, which can have upwards of 400,000 members, vary in theme, with some specifically for Northwestern content, memes about Bernie Sanders, and others completely unrestricted. Because of their size and a tendency of online users to “troll” others, these meme groups are highly regulated. Many have a dozen or more “mods”, or group moderators, who have the power to add people to—and remove them from—the group, approve posts and comments, and ban users who break the group norms and rules. Rules of operation within the group include mandated content warnings for sensitive topics, such suicide or abuse, as well as a list of posts that warrant banning, such as sexual assault and posts pertaining to Donald Trump. This regulation can cause some controversy within the groups, as some users are angered by content patrolling, desiring a more “open access” community where posts are not overseen. This open access model could pose problems, though, particularly when tens of thousands of individuals from across the world gather in a common group with no expectations for behavior. One group, “Post Aesthetics”, had tens of thousands of members, but struggled with regulating content, with users often posting to criticize the moderators and ask why the content they had posted had been deleted. If the users of the group do not agree to and accept the rules of the group, like was the case with Post Aesthetics, the commons suffers and becomes unmanageable. Post Aesthetics has now been deleted, likely because its size and members got too difficult to govern. Thus, group standards and groups’ understood excludability (meaning the moderators’ ability to remove users from it if they violate the rules) ensure the success of online meme communities and keep them from derailing into a “tragedy” situation with no management, like the scene Garrett Hardin describes in his original tragedy of the commons scenario (1968).

One Facebook meme community, "I feel personally attacked by this relatable content", has nearly 40,000 users moderated and regulated by strict rules and standards.

Shared content, grabbed culture

With each click of the “share” button, a meme becomes further and further from its original form. A meme is “a copy of a copy of a copy” that “move[s] in cycles of production, appropriation, consumption, and reappropriation” (Dean, 2016). This is simultaneously the beauty and the downside of viral content like memes. The spread of memes, while generally desired (who wouldn’t want their ideas reposted millions of times?), can also get complicated, particularly when a meme originates in a community of color and then gets shared out to a broader audience. Online communities of black users, like black Twitter and black Tumblr, are hotspots for the creation of memes and new vernacular which then spread for use by a larger population and are often commodified by corporate actors in society. Take phrases like “yas”, “on fleek”, or “bae”, which can all be traced back to black creators, but which are no longer considered to be solely significant to the black community. These words are now integrated into the everyday vernacular of white people and used in branding campaigns by massive companies which are able to profit off of language coined by creators of color, who then reap none of the monetary benefits of companies’ ability to do so. The same goes for the confused Nick Young, Kermit sipping tea, and crying Michael Jordan memes, which the black community was originally responsible for, but which have been broadened to be consumed by a larger audience who, nearly certainly, does not know the origin of the content (Harrison, 2016).

Other memes appropriate black culture by mocking or imitating it. Take, for instance, the recent and incredibly popular “Cash me ousside, how bow dah?” meme. Danielle Bregoli, a white teenager, appeared on Dr. Phil with her mother and angrily yelled at the audience to essentially fight her outside for laughing at the way she spoke. Her dramatic, and nearly incomprehensible, exclamation was an overnight meme, but it was one built on mocking African American vernacular and black tonality, and the humor in the meme largely stemmed from the hyperbolic pronunciation of her words. One wonders if, had a black woman uttered the same phrase on national television, she would have been celebrated and made viral in the same way Bregoli was. Much more likely, viewers might have interpreted the same scenario with a black woman as confirmation of stereotypes of black women as uneducated and overly aggressive, versus seeing the situation as sharable and humorous content. Danielle Bregoli was able to become a meme because of her appropriation of black vernacular while white. She selectively used aspects of another culture where convenient, while escaping the struggles that come with actually living while black. The same mocking of black culture took place with Sweet Brown, a black woman interviewed on a television broadcast in 2012 who infamously claimed “Ain’t nobody got time for dat” in response to a question about escaping a fire in her apartment building. Sweet Brown’s animated interview gave way to the remixing of her catchphrase, which became even more viewed than her original video, and the normalization of “Ain’t nobody got time for dat” in response to any request. Again, this meme was expanded out to the vernacular of an entire populace, but its origins remain in mocking African American vernacular and conceiving of Sweet Brown’s speech as a joke for others’ consumption. Journalist Aria Dean (2016) criticizes white meme users sharing memes of black people, like the one of Sweet Brown, asking, “Are they laughing with or at us? Are they capable of laughing with us?” In the cases of Sweet Brown and Danielle Bregoli, I would argue white users more often laugh at than with, not realizing the condescending and racist nature of the memes they are sharing in the first place.

PJ Vogt, host of the podcast “Reply All”, sought to examine what happens when white people appropriate cultural forms they are not familiar with. He traced the lineage of the word “yas”, ultimately finding it came from gay men of color in the 1980s in ball and vogue culture (Amatulli, 2016). Seeing as the word is now used ubiquitously by white women in the most seemingly trivial of occasions, Vogt asks, “What does it mean to take something from someone and not know it?” (Amatulli, 2016). This question is complex, as it is difficult to hold a person responsible for appropriating black or queer culture if they do not even know they are doing so. Indeed, it is very likely that the vast majority of people using the phrases “yas”, “on fleek”, or “bae” or sharing memes that originated in black or queer communities have no idea where the words’ and memes’ origins lie. Just because meme consumers are unaware of the birthplace of their memes, however, does not excuse blissfully ignorant cultural appropriation. Jenna Amatulli, in a piece on Huffington Post, calls for people to understand the origins of the words they use and make sure the creators are never forgotten -- a task which she says is made all the more complicated in a digital age (Amatulli, 2016). This approach would necessitate critical engagement with content people share, research into where it came from, and reflection on whether it is appropriate for one to continue sharing it, particularly if the humor of the meme stems from tropes of black culture. But is merely acknowledging the source of cultural content, like Amatulli suggests, enough? For many generators of memes and new forms of language, the answer is no.

“That the speed and relative borderlessness of the internet makes cross-platform, global dissemination seem like a consequence of tech is a convenient amnesia. The propensity to share predates the young black creators doing so online. But they ought to claim lineage.” (St. Felix, 2015)

Capitalization of cultural content

To fight cultural appropriation and gain recognition for their intellectual labor, some meme creators have taken a turn toward monetizing their ideas for compensation. This trend is ironic considering that commons conventionally exist in opposition to oppressive and colonial capitalist structures, and that enclosure of intellectual property is most frequently an endeavor undertaken by large companies, not individuals, in an attempt to profit off shared culture (Bollier, p. 69). Harvey (2013) contends that the process of commoning itself necessitates the recognition that commons “shall be both collective and non-commodified -- off-limits to the logic of market exchange and market valuations” (p. 73). The fact that some meme creators are now seeking to reverse the process of commoning is an unexpected direction that, in many ways, goes against the very essence of what a meme is and threatens its common nature.

Despite the somewhat unexpected desire to receive compensation for memes, I can understand the motivation behind this demand. In the same way that land and resources have continually been grabbed from communities of color (Zoomers), so too has culture been grabbed and, often, commodified for appropriation by the masses. Examples like white people doing yoga, listening to rap music, or wearing Native American regalia at Halloween come to mind, as all include a culturally significant practice or product being grabbed by white “mainstream” culture, distorted into something drastically different from its original intent or meaning, and popularized in a way completely separate from the cultural context to which it originally belonged. The transfer of culture across demographic boundaries is not inherently a bad thing; there is positive potential in cultural exchange, when done appropriately. The struggle with the examples I just provided, and with many memes, though, is that these cultural expansions can often result in the troping of the culture in which the item originated, which causes meme creators of color to feel taken advantage of by white culture, as opposed to appreciated. It is therefore not surprising that some of these creators want to take back what was originally theirs in an effort to reverse the dilution and “bleaching” of their content that allowed for mass consumption by white culture.

The corporatization of Newman's phrase

Kayla Newman, the creator of the phrase “on fleek”, which went viral from her Vine channel where she declared her newly plucked eyebrows to be “on fleek”, is one such creator seeking to gain credit for her phrase, which has been used in marketing campaigns, by celebrities and musicians, and on countless printed garments. Newman says she “gave the world a word”, which she did, and that she “feel[s] that [she] should be compensated” for her creative labor (St. Felix, 2015). This year, Newman launched a GoFundMe page to help her propel a cosmetics business. In her campaign description, she acknowledges part of the money will go to to hire lawyers to “mak[e] sure [her] dreams come true as far as this ‘Fleek’ thing.” The page has been up for nearly a month and raised $13,737 out of Newman’s $100,000 goal, a surprisingly low amount given the millions of times Newman’s word has been used. In fact, if Newman received just a third of a cent from each time her Vine was looped, she would already have reached her fundraising goal. Comments on Newman’s GoFundMe campaign from page visitors range from full support, like one visitor equating her campaign to “reparations” because of her word’s appropriation by white culture, to criticisms from others who say “asking random people for money though because you came up with a word is very silly.” These mixed reactions encapsulate the difficulty with seeking credit for cultural production, which is an incredibly messy business.

Newman's GoFundMe page for her cosmetic line, as of March 16, 2017.

Newman’s desire to monetize her word is entirely understandable: if companies have profited from using her word in their products, it makes sense that she should share in those profits. And because Newman’s word was “grabbed” from black Vine and transplanted into the larger population, I sympathize with her wanting to get credit where credit is due. But how does credit work with something as undefinable and inexcludable as words? David Bollier (2014) strongly critiques any attempt to define property rights for intellectual commons like Newman’s, calling this trend “a fairly audacious inversion of the history of human culture”, which “has always been about imitating, extending and transforming earlier creative works” (p. 67). Bollier argues that any attempts toward copyrighting or trademarking intellectual commons ultimately end up benefitting large corporations who have the resources to pay for use of given phrases, images, etc. (p. 69). The trend toward claiming ownership over intellectual property has been deemed by James Boyle to be a “Second Enclosure Movement”, with corporations grabbing rights over otherwise common intellectual resources, in the same way that the first enclosure movement took land rights away from commoners in England to be concentrated in the hands of the wealthy state (Bollier, p. 69). While such enclosures may give rights to some meme creators like Newman, who would receive modest royalties, they would result in the most profit for intellectual property lawyers and corporations, not the original creators of now viral content. Of course, this is assuming that cases to gain credit for memes and new vernacular are successful, as language and images are incredibly difficult to enclose, particularly in a digital age where content is continually shared and nearly impossible to regulate (Bollier, pg. 69). Newman and other meme creators have positive intentions in wanting to get legal rights over their content, but the end result of this enclosure may be a “cultural lockdown” where individuals feel constricted in their ability to generate new creative works and the capital benefits of enclosure are concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy corporations, not the “commoners” who most frequently generate and use the culture (Bollier, p. 70).

Perhaps what meme creators want is simply the ability to “claim lineage” for their content (St. Felix, 2015), or receive some compensation without needing to enclose their product to earn it. Several meme creators have enjoyed this benefit, but, as journalist Emma Grey Ellis notes, that privilege has been mainly reserved for white content generators (2017). Bregoli, the “Cash me ousside” girl, has been able to capitalize on her 15 minutes of fame, with advertisement deals from companies like Postmates and FitTea and paid appearances at events earning her tens of thousands of dollars for each gig (Friederich, 2017). At this rate, some predict she might achieve millionaire status by the end of 2017 (Freiderich, 2017).

One of Bregoli's ads, with PostMates

Similarly to Bregoli's story, the two teens behind “Damn, Daniel! Back at it again with the white Vans” were invited on Ellen to talk about their viral videos, leaving with a lifetime supply of white Vans and, later, a modeling offer for Daniel Lara, the teen in the videos. “Damn, Daniel” ended up being used in corporate ads in the same way “on fleek” was, and even though Lara did not receive royalties from this usage, at the very least he appeared on TV and now never has to worry about footwear for the rest of his life.

Like with "on fleek", companies use the "Damn, Daniel!" meme in ad campaigns, but Lara at least benefitted monetarily from his fame, whereas Newman did not.

These are the opportunities so often denied to creators of color, who produce cultural content of the same scale and ubiquity as Lara and Bregoli but reap none of the celebrity or compensation they do. Newman has never been invited on TV shows, commissioned for appearances, or asked to do advertisements, and the same holds true for many other black creators who come up with viral dances, phrases, and memes. The only way to seek out that compensation is by taking matters into one’s own hands through attempting to regain ownership over one’s ideas, in the way Newman has sought to do with “on fleek.” While this strategy may play into oppressive and exploitative capitalist structures, it is also one of the only options for black meme creators who otherwise receive little to no mass recognition for the cultural products they give society.


In this essay I have aimed to show the complicated existence of memes, which push back against trends toward intellectual property enclosure by consistently expanding and regenerating across global social media platforms. While this act of commoning makes memes accessible to virtually all, it often is only possible through the grabbing of culture from black online communities, who have created some of the most well-known memes, and the associated appropriation of black culture for the consumption of the masses. Attempts by meme creators of color to reclaim their content and seek compensation for it complicate our notions of ownership and enclosure: these creators are justified in wanting to claim ownership of ideas which were distilled from their original significance to the black community, yet pursuing compensation for intellectual commons is ultimately a capitalist notion, which is contrary to the very foundation on which commons were created. The study of memes therefore presents dynamic new avenues through which to examine cultural production, and cultural appropriation, that help us understand changing forms of common intellectual property in a digital, social media-driven age.


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