Analysis on Internet Memes using Semiotics

Background of Study 

Memes provide a powerful new way to combine few things such as, creativity, art, message, and humor in the internet culture. Public relations, advertising, and marketing professionals have effectively used Internet memes as a form of viral marketing to create marketing “hype” for their product or service. Internet memes are considered as cost effective and sometimes become a trend. The practice of using memes to market products or services is known as memetic marketing.[1]

Example of an internet meme
Memes are also used in education. Scott Stillar, who teaches English at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, thinks that one type of Internet memes, the Rage comics, are a great way to teach the English language. Rage comics themselves are cartoons using an ever-growing set of internet memes. He feels that Rage comics are special because they consist of well known faces and expressions–anger, shock, defeat, surprise, pleasure, success, or horror, which therefore meant to show universal feelings or emotions of varying degrees under a variety of conditions.[2] Rage comics are used as vehicles for sharing experiences with humor.[3]

A meme itself is a behavioral or cultural trait that is passed on by other than genetic means, e.g by imitation. The term is first coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, as an example of replicator, information copied in evolutionary process. Examples are habits, skills, stories, or games passed on by imitation. Range from valuable inventions, scientific theories, art creations, to ‘viruses of the mind’, such as chain letters or false beliefs.[4]

A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.[5]

According to, the term Internet meme itself can be existed in the form of an image, video, story or joke that is voluntarily passed from one Internet user to another via e-mail, blogs and social networking sites. Considered a form of art, Internet memes are created to promote individuals, groups, movies, art, music and products, as well as to perpetrate a hoax or just be funny. They can disappear in days or last for years.[6]

The writers intend to analyze these memes related to semiotics and mythologies, as well as their role as a dominant part of popular cyber-culture. This paper will also serve as an understanding of teaching students of how images, texts, and art relate with each other to become another way of communication and at the same time, create meanings or messages.

The writers found the urgency of this research as a way to keep up with the internet culture, show an alternative of communication, a cost-effective way of mass advertising, to improve students’ media literacy the study of signs/symbols, philosophy, how images and text relate with each other and therefore create a new meaning. These memes contain humor, universal emotions, social message, cultural message, political message, and many more. From the background study above, it also shows how effective it is in teaching language. Every meme has its own theme, therefore allowing the user to always come up with newer and more creative ideas in delivering its message.
Literary Study

According to Chris Sinha, semiotics is rooted from a classic and scholastic study of the arts of logic, rhetoric, and poetic. It is derived from the word ‘semion’, which seemed to be originated from hipocratic medicine or asklepiadik that focuses on symptomatology and inferential diagnostic. Umberto Eco also said that, Aristotle was also familiar with this concept of signification. Modern semiotics analysis are said to be popularized by two figures, Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguistic expert from Switzerland (1858-1913) and Charles Sanders Pierce, an American philosopher (1839-1914). Saussure divided a sign into two elements: signifier (sound-image) and signified (concept). While Pierce focused on three elements of signs, which are iconic dimension, indexes and symbols.[7]

Stuart Hall said that, semiotics provides a method to analyze how visual representations deliver its meanings. In the works of Roland Barthes in 1960, linguistic models of Saussure was improved/extended through its application on areas of signs and a variety of broad representations (advertising, photography, popular culture, travel, fashion, etc.)[8]

In a discussion on signs, Barthes started with Saussure’s statement; Signified and signifier … are the components of signs. According to Saussure, signs always consisted of three faces: the sign itself, material aspect (letter, image, shape, motion, etc.) from signs that serve function to signify or the one produced by the material aspect (signifier), and the conceptual aspect that is pointed by the material aspect (signified). While signification, is ‘something that points’ signifier to signified. But Barthes did not choose to use the word signification in this. He prefer to use a more neutral, ‘binds’ (not signifies) or ‘act’. He did not emphasize on the active aspect of signifier in pointing signified, but the active connection from both of them. In semiotic analysis, this concept of signification is important to be remembered because in searching the functioning of systems of signification, sometimes we have to find signified, because signifier is known while the signified is not yet clear, and vice versa.[9]

Signs, according to Peirce, are “something[s] that represent something[s]” or “refer to a particular meaning”.  If the meaning is based on a particular agreement or social convention, that sign is called symbols. So, every phenomenon that exists in the society, whether it is an object, behavior, even a thought, is seen as symbols that ‘represent’ or ‘refer to’ a particular meaning outside/beyond the sign itself.[10]

The color, red, for instance; independently does not mean anything, except the color itself. But, if the color takes part as in culture, for example, is used in traffic lights (representative), then it will also represent “prohibition” (object) in human cognition. For its use in traffic lights, as a representative, the color red is related with ‘prohibition’ (object) is a result of social convention and even international convention.[11]

            Those who don’t understand the social conventions will not see the color ‘red’ that represents the meaning of ‘prohibition’. In Medan, Indonesia, a red flag means that ‘someone died’ (object). While in other places, a sign that represents a similar meaning is a yellow flag in Jakarta, and a white flag in Center Java. Those examples show how signs are cultural phenomenons that are bound to particular social conventions.[12]

            In relation to all, all natural and biological phenomenons can be seen as symbols. To those who believe, in a particular social convention, natural disasters (representative) are seen as symbols that refer to a meaning that says ‘God’s Wrath’ (object). A twitch on someone’s palm (representative) would mean symbols meaning he or she ‘is about to receive fortune’ (object). Some symbols and their meanings in Javanese Primbon that are usually taken from daily activities, or taken because a respected figure does or believe a certain value, are based on social conventions. Our society even calls it as a sign (either good or a bad sign). Meaning, all examples above are social and cultural phenomenon. [13]

            Those who do not participate in the social conventions and are not included in the related cultural environment, would not be able to understand of what was represented by a particular cultural or natural phenomenon. In other words, they will not be able to understand the meaning that exist on the phenomenon, or understand it along with the convention that it follows.[14]

            According to Peirce, signs exist because of a process that he called semiosis. This process starts with the insertion of an element of sign that exists on ‘outside’ into human’s senses, which is representative or ground, that might be compared Saussure’s signifier. If the process using our senses has already happened, then the next process inside human cognition process is a referencing of what is called object, which is a matter (meaning) that is represented by representative. For example, when we see a red light, because we already know the valid convention, the red light is considered to refer to a meaning ‘prohibition’ (object), which we may compare it to Saussure’s signified.[15]

            The next process is called interpretant, which when we create an interpretation related with the situation that we are in right now. If the red light is located on the streets as  a road sign while we’re driving a car, we will interpret it as a law obligation to stop and then we will interpret it as a permission to proceed by law if the light changes into green. Interpretan affects our behavior during a particular situation.[16]

            The process of interpreting a sign’s meaning from representative, objects and interpretan that is called ‘semiosis’ happens really fast inside our mind. Because of what actually sensed is representative, often times representative is called a sign. It is interesting that Peirce saw the semiosis as a never-ending continous process (unlimited process). He thought that interpretans can be received by our mind and seen as a new sign, or a new representamen. Meaning, a red light that has been interpreted by human’s cognition is extended into a new representamen, for instance it becomes a ‘prohibition’ sign that refer as ‘sanctions for violators’ which then creates an interpretan as a law/prohibition that must not be violated.[17]

            Then, the new interpretan transforms into even newer representamen, for example becoming ‘a heavy financial sanction’ that creates another interpretan a sanction that would make us not afford to pay. This is how semiosis continous without an end.[18]

            Eco quoted Peirce “A sign is something by knowing which we know something more”, said that a sign (he called it texts) is an opera aperta (an open work). This means that every sign, which is a part of a culture to a particular society, is always open to experience an unlimited semiotical process. A sign can be understood and interpreted differently by everyone within different places and different time, or even within the same person in different times and places.[19]

            It has been discussed that we think of culture as a system of signs. One of the theories about sign was coined by Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) which said that a sign consists of two inseparable elements, that is as signifiant that has a meaning and absorbed within human’s cognition (penanda), and signifie (‘meaning’ or the content of the sign).[20]

            Barthes developed Saussure’s theory by telling that a characteristic of a sign is based on a relation of two aspects; a form (signifier that he called as expression) and content (a signified that he called as contenu).[21]

            This theory is depicted with an E-R-C formula (expression-relation-contenu), which is a relation between expression (form) and content (meaning). He called it as a primary system, for example, a name for a housing complex Pondok Indah (Elegant Hut). In the primary system, the name only means as a housing complex. But according to Barthes, the relation between the name and the meaning, which is a housing complex, can be extended. It can be considered as a, for instance, a housing complex that is located in the South of Jakarta, very spacious, has big houses and big lawns, has luxurious shopping district, and so on. This is called a secondary system which characteristic is meta-language.[22]

            The secondary system can also be extended toward its content. So, it’s not about giving an explanation on what Pondok Indah is, but instead of what image that is obtained from the housing complex. This image is called connotation. A connotation of the housing complex is based on how society views/thinks about Pondok Indah. The society’s perspective is depended upon the culture that lives within the society.[23]

            It is often that the society does not only have one perspective, instead they have different views depend on every social group’s experience regarding the matter. Pondok Indah could possibly have connotation meanings such as ‘rich people residents’, ‘elite district’, ‘high class district’, ‘new rich people yet corrupted district’, ‘pleasant housing complex’, or ‘luxurious sector’. Connotation often times does not have a relation with its primary system, or its original meaning. Connotation creates new relation between the form, and content (meaning) that is given by a social group towards a sign. Connotation is formed because of its experience of a social group in relation to a particular sign. Based on that experience, a social group or the society creates the connotation.[24]

            We can conclude that signs as a cultural element; is open to a variety of interpretation. Whatever theories that we use everyday, the meaning is no longer inherent to the sign, instead it is given by the society who believes it.[25]

            According to Peirce, in its meanings, signs experience an unlimited semiotic process. Eco saw that signs are open to interpretation, which is as an open creation, while Barthes saw it further, which is a sign as a continuous cultural element that earns connotation. Therefore, the relation of shape, meanings, content, signifier and signified, or between representamen and object, is determined from the outside, by those who perceive them and called as sign users. This process happens in the cognition of the sign users that perceive them. What is interesting is, the relation can be made up or modified, in any way they can.[26]

Internet memes serves as a humorous way to have fun with context, words, images, meaning, symbols, culture, popular culture, etc. The fact that it only needs an image of something or someone accompanied with a caption/text can generate different meanings. It can be interpreted and customized anyway the user wants it. Take Good Guy Greg meme for example, it is only picture a young Caucasian man smiling around a homemade cigarette which is then called as Good Guy Greg, while in reality we do not really know if the guy’s name is Greg, and if he is a good person. Even if it was, it would take a research to find the truth that he really is a ‘good guy Greg’.

Internet memes allow users to produce meanings according to the theme of a picture; it also contains language formula as shown in The Most Interesting Man in the World meme. Sometimes users also write/generate meanings while not following the formulas/themes, just to have fun with it. Internet memes require users to be creative in producing meanings in respect to symbols, words, and contexts. It is similar on how advertisements in the form of images works; an image + word[s] = meanings. Internet memes are examples of how images, texts, art, language, creativity, myths, and popular culture relate with each other, which then is open for multi-interpretation regarding its user. These memes contain humor, as well as reflecting universal emotions, social message, cultural message and many more.


Barthes, R. (2009). Mitologi. Yogyakarta: Kreasi Wacana.

Floor, N. (2000, December 11). Web Business Engineering. Retrieved January 29, 2012, from INFORMIT:

Gordon, G. (2002). Genes: a Phylosophical Inquiry. New York: Routledge.

Hoed, B. H. (2011). Semiotik dan Dinamika Sosial Budaya. Depok: Komunitas Bambu.

Hoevel, A. (2011, October 11). The know your memes team gets all scientific on teh intarwebs. Retrieved January 29, 2012, from Geekout

PC Magazine . (n.d.). Encyclopedia term. Retrieved January 29, 2012, from,2542,t=Internet+meme&i=59911,00.asp

Totona, S. (2010). Miskin itu Menjual: Representasi Kemiskinan sebagai Komodifikasi Tontonan. Yogyakarta: RESIST Book.

Wolford, J. (2011, November 2). Webpronews. Retrieved January 29, 2012, from Webpronews:

[4] Penguin English Dictionary. Penguin Group, London. Page 866.
[5] Graham, Gordon (2002), Genes: a philosophical inquiry, New York: Routledge, p. 196, ISBN 0-415-25257-1
[7] Saiful Totona, 2010,  Miskin Itu Menjual: Representasi Kemiskinan sebagai Komodifikasi Tontonan, Yogyakarta: RESIST Book. Page 22
[8] Ibid, page 22-23
[9] Ibid, page 25-27
[10] Benny, H. Hoed. 2009. Semiotik dan Dinamika Sosial Budaya. Depok: Komunitas Bambu. Page 241-242
[11] Ibid. page 242
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid
[14] Ibid
[15] Ibid, page 243
[16] Ibid
[17] Ibid, page 243-244
[18] Ibid, page 244
[19] Ibid
[20] Ibid
[21] Ibid, page 245
[22] Ibid
[23] Ibid
[24] Ibid
[25] Ibid, page 245-246
[26] Ibid, page 246
[27] Roland Barthes. Mitologi. 2009. Yogyakarta: Kreasi Wacana. Page 164
[28] Totona, Op. Cit, page 22
[29] Ibid, page 24-25
Research conducted by Mr Abdul Aziz Turhan Kariko, S.S., M.Hum.

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