Doctoral researcher and meme enthusiast Arran Rees discusses the cultural heritage value of social media content, and some of the complications museums might face in trying to preserve them.
Not a single faux pas goes by on the social media news cycle today without a cascade of gifs and memes in response. But what are museums and other cultural institutions doing to try and preserve these pervasive forms of communication? And what makes social media content worthy of being considered cultural heritage in the first place?
To answer these questions, we must first acknowledge that what is considered “cultural heritage” is vast and diverse — ranging from old Marmite jars in the Museum of Brands in London (don’t worry, I am a Vegemite convert since my stint in Melbourne) and the tradition of kimchi-making in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to the Indigenous art collections at National Gallery Victoria and the “Old Masters” in European city museums.
Memes as cultural heritage
You could be forgiven for dismissing memes created and shared via social media as fads, but a deeper look at their history and the degree to which they have permeated throughout society tells us that they are much more. In fact, memes were recently described by journalism lecturer Anastasia Denisova as “cherished communication artefacts of our time”.
Media scholars Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner trace the history of memes back to the 1970s with “Xeroxlore” (also known as faxlore or photocopylore) — the act of distributing “mock letters, farcical office memos and parodies of songs … from photocopier to photocopier, office to office, as participants created, circulated and transformed” them. Well-documented examples include the “blue star tattoo legend” which was a bad quality photocopied poster warning parents that blue starred temporary tattoos are being laced with LSD and handed out to children; a rumour not based on any factual evidence. Other examples have address gender inequality in the workplace or made jokes about deadlines and the boss.
Internet memes are described by Phillips and Milner as a form of folklore — a way to express ourselves, our humour, our values and our understanding of the world. In my view, memes are contemporary cultural artefacts of direct relevance to museums and cultural collections of objects. If we don’t start preserving them now, we are at risk of losing some of the early examples of contemporary digital culture. Can we really expect to be able to tell the history of the Information age authentically without including Doge or mentioning Ermahgerd?
Preserving social media content
We know from past experiences that our digital culture is not safe from deletion just because it is online. GeoCities, an early epicentre of online creativity, was shut down by Yahoo! in 2009. Only through the efforts of the Archive Team — a group of self-described ‘rouge archivists’ — did any content get saved. It is now housed within the Internet Archive and is a well-used resource for researchers. Just last year, pioneering social media platform MySpace lost all content uploaded between 2003–15 in a server migration error. We’re talking millions of songs, photos and videos from the days before most people knew much about backups, now lost forever …
Viewing social media content as potential cultural artefacts is the easy bit. Understanding how to collect and preserve them is the real challenge. Museums and their collecting and preservation practices revolve around notions of materiality and tangibility. In other words, objects have nearly always been physical things and the processes museums follow are designed on that basis. How do we go about applying those traditional practices effectively to cultural artefacts created and shared online?
Advancements have been made in the way cultural institutions deal with born-digital materials — ACMI has for some time now been collecting and preserving these materials using well-established digital preservation models – but there is something about the nature of social media content that resists being contained and preserved.
Several issues pop up when attempting to preserve social media content in a museum context, such as ownership, cataloguing and access. How do items like memes fit within existing museum classification systems? And how is a Twitter thread supposed to be accessed by researchers or displayed in a gallery?
Who owns a social media post?
Regarding ownership, there is a complex set of interrelated rights associated with content posted on social media. Let’s say I create a meme and post it on Twitter. ACMI sees the meme and thinks — ‘wow that is iconic; we must have it for the collection!’ Where would the ownership over the meme sit? The image I used to create the meme will have been protected by Copyright unless released under certain Creative Commons licences (CC BY, BY-SA, BY-NC,BY,NC-SA) — but many, the European Union included, argue that the creation of a meme is protected by parody or pastiche exceptions in Copyright laws. So, in this case, the meme I have created is not breaking the original Copyright. However, who owns that meme is still ambiguous. Do I own it now? Am I able to donate that to ACMI? I can certainly post it on my Twitter. Many commentators have highlighted how memes can’t really be owned and that authorship and ownership are de-emphasised in favour of who posted or shared it.
Speaking of posting and sharing — what further complications arise when I upload my meme onto Twitter. Does it make it harder for ACMI to collect it? The Twitter Terms of Service explicitly note that you retain the rights to any content you post on the platform. That means Twitter does not own any of the content you post on it. However, the terms also note that in using the service you grant Twitter rights to use your content. In fact, you are granting Twitter a:
"worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods now known or later developed (for clarity, these rights include, for example, curating, transforming, and translating)."
So where does that leave us? Technically, I am still able to donate my meme to ACMI (if I even had the right to do so in the beginning), but Twitter will have all the same rights as ACMI and will be able to essentially do as they please with it.
The future of social media preservation
Museums are used to having some degree of control over the items in their collection. However, items born within digital cultures cannot be collected in the traditional sense — the same object ‘collected’ will continue to be remixed, evolve and thrive outside the control of the museum. Letting go of the notion of control in collecting social media will be a big conceptual leap for many cultural institutions across the world; but they are going to have to make it soon if they are going to collect from digital culture.
My advice would be to …
Arran Rees is a doctoral researcher in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. His research interests are in museum collections management procedures, digital collecting, social media and memes. His Twitter is @arranjrees.