Semiotics of spreadability: A systematic approach to Internet memes and virality

Gabriele Marino

Punctum, 1(1): 43-66, 2015
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2015.0004


The paper proposes a semiotic approach to Internet memes, a discursive domain that, although it represents a key and growing form of literacy, has so far been largely ignored by semiotics. Since the early 2000s, ‘Internet meme’ has referred to a wide range of culturally shared pieces of media circulating over the Internet, such as catchphrases, funny captioned pictures, and so-called ‘viral’ videos. Internet memes are ‘spreadable’—they are effective, dismountable, customizable, and replicable. From a semiotic perspective, they are different kinds of texts that circulate thanks to a hypertextual dissemination; namely, through a process of transformation (samples, remixes) and imitation (remakes). Their syntax displays structures that mirror their creators’ different operations of manipulation (bricolage) and that serve as a hook to users’ agency, inviting them in turn to spread, modify or re-create the text. At the semantic level, despite the variety of themes and figures they carry, they all feature a striking element (punctum), usually a playful one (an incongruity, a ‘mistake’), which serves as a hook to users’ engagement.

KEYWORDS: Hypertexts; Internet memes; Semiotics; Spreadable media; Viral videos
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