The poster as a meme represents a new kind of democratic creation and raises many questions about how we collect an object that is embedded in a networked environment where meaning is created through an aggregate of iterations and interactions. Posters have always drawn on a shared visual language to communicate effectively, but within social media, the process through which an image gains traction and meaning is accelerated and can be witnessed unfolding in real time. This prompts us to explore methods for collecting the digital posters ‘in situ’, and for treating the ‘graphic event’ itself as the object, rather than isolating its individual manifestations.
Examining the essential qualities of the poster as an internet meme, we see how these both disrupt traditional collecting practices and provide new opportunities for the curator and archivist.
A defining characteristics of the graphic meme is that it is based on participation through processes of appropriation and re-presentation. In the past, a physical poster could be graffitied or painstakingly re-worked through techniques such as photo-montage, but the innate mutability of a digital poster — the way in which it travels through many different adaptations, very quickly — represents a new dynamic. Moreover, the opportunities for manipulating graphic images are becoming ever more accessible. Social media used to be an arena for circulation with the actual graphic production happening elsewhere. Now they have embedded graphic design tools: filters, captions, emojis, stickers etc. They have become spaces for graphic creation and are giving people the ability to make things happen with images. We are all being initiated into the process of combining text and image that was once the province of the poster artist and graphic designer. For those interested in the mechanisms of visual culture, this is a significant development. While appropriation was once an avant-garde tactic to challenge power within the arts, it is now happening every day as part of mass culture.
The graphic meme emerges through collective activity within the interlinked and conversational structures of social media. Propelled by newsfeeds and hashtags, each new iteration feeds back into the conversation or ‘event’ which often takes on a game-like quality. The concept of an internet meme implies a piece of media in action — something that spreads from person to person evolving as it travels. These qualities of participation, collective creation and live interaction challenge the traditional idea of the museum object as something discreet, static and individually authored.
In addition to presenting us with a new kind of creation, the format of the internet meme offers unparalleled opportunities for tracing the reception and impact a graphic image. Traditionally, curators have struggled to find first-hand, inscribed evidence of the encounter between poster and viewer. Occasionally traces adhere to the poster itself through acts defacement or graffiti. The Mass Observation surveys in the 1930s-50s sometimes recorded people’s immediate reactions to posters in the street, but this kind of ‘listening in’ was unique. The online graphic meme, by contrast, is embedded with a vast array of metadata recording responses, from comments threads to tallies of views, likes and shares. It is possible to observe how people align themselves with a graphic image by re-posting it or setting it as their profile picture in an online equivalent to wearing a badge or ribbon (a practice that has become a common means of expressing sentiments of solidarity in reaction to global atrocities).
This traceable interactivity raises new possibilities for documenting the agency of a graphic, but can also be considered an inherent part of the functionality of the work itself. The creation of a graphic meme is participatory, but also the way in which we encounter and re-distribute it. The object absorbs metadata as it develops.
To download one iteration or even a cache of j-pegs would create an unsatisfactory representation, one that fails to reveal the networked environment on which the meme depends. We would lose the very aspect of the work that makes it most interesting.
Given that the meme and the platforms through which it operates are inherently interwoven, we are tasked with collecting the digital poster together with part of its environment (something that the paper poster refused: we couldn’t collect the street with the poster). Since complex, dynamic content on social media requires direct interaction (such scrolling to load, or clicking-to-play), it has proved an obstacle to the automated crawlers used in traditional methods of web archiving. Webrecorder (described above) however, makes it possible to capture the active object by enacting those interactions which stimulate or reveal functionality. It invites intuitive following of links and instinctive hops across the thresholds of websites, to capture elements of a meme which are distributed across platforms. When using Webrecorder, then, it is a curator, not a crawler — who determines the entry-point, direction, and the reach of the material collected. It is interesting and important to note that, as a result, the curator or archivist gains a more active presence within the material collected. During a webrecording session the collector makes decisions about which components, contexts and traces represent a reasonable whole. Discussing the challenges of translating the archival idea of appraisal to web content, Ed Summers of Documenting the Now describes how the onus on the collector shifts:
With the web it is different: boxes don’t arrive on our doorstep, for us to decide — these are the things we’re going to keep, and these are the things we’re going to throw away. With Webrecorder, for example, we can actually just go out and get it. We can point Webrecorder at the website and start collecting. So the collection that’s being appraised is the entire thing… It’s like, ‘Oh! the web arrived on my doorstep and I have to decide what’s in or out’.1
Furthermore, webrecording reflects the vantage point of the collector as an active web user who captures the graphic event as they see it. The subjectivity of the collector is embedded in the process, not only through the decisions she makes, but by the fact that who you are when you are when you are interacting on the web is defined by your past behaviours, your settings, all these things conspire to shape what you see. In a sense nothing exists on the web until you look at it and this renders the role of the collector creative. As Dragan Espenschied, one of the people involved in developing Webrecorder explains:
As a curator, or an archivist — I am also part of the creation process. Using a webarchiving tool such as Webrecorder, I am creating a physical representation of that ‘graphic event’ by going around the web and picking the posters where I find them. Only because I create this record of my activity, can this object be acquired for the collection. So, in a sense, I can say ‘I created it’, because I set in motion all of these complicated processes that made these images pop up on my browser and recorded them in the web archive.2
An object collected from the web is shaped by the perspective of the person who collected it within the technical system through which it was accessed. The online persona of the collector, the functionality of the platform and the substructure of algorithms that analyse and target data all leave traces within the online object. An important consideration, then, in collecting the graphic meme is the question of whose perspective it is collected from and whose perspective we, thereby, preserve within the collection.
1. This quotation is drawn from a Roundtable discussion convened as part of the Collecting and Curating Digital Posters project. The full text will be available in: Iskin, R., Salsbury, B., Collecting Prints, Posters and Ephemera: Perspectives in a Globalized World, London: Bloomsbury (2018, forthcoming) ↩
2. Ibid. ↩