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Thinking Critically About the ‘Texts’ of the Internet

Senior Jonathan Santos spent a lot of time looking at memes on the internet last summer. But while most internet users spend a couple of seconds interacting with a meme, Santos studied how race can influence certain memes.

“It solidified my belief that the internet and memes and what we’re sharing can be very important,” Santos said. “People are starting to take this more seriously and starting to think about it in more of a scholarly sense rather than just writing it off as a trend or a fad that we’re going through. The internet is obviously sticking around.”

Santos, an English major with a writing emphasis, had the idea for this project while in assistant professor Chris Santiago’s Creative Writing in the Media class, which covered all sorts of “hybrid” texts and considered how a digital component to any text can change the reader’s experience. While memes weren’t a focus for the class, Santos said they kept coming up during digressions.

“It was really interesting that it can just come up now, and it’s such a normal topic of conversation,” Santos said.

His interest piqued, he applied for the Excel! Research Scholars Program, which prepares undergraduates who are first-generation college students, military veterans or are of an underrepresented race for graduate school. A key portion of that is research alongside a mentor – a selection that was easy for Santos: He approached Santiago.

“He’s very proactive, so the project was fully formed by him,” Santiago said.

Santos began by reviewing scholarly literature about memes. Because much of the research around memes is qualitative, Santos decided he wanted to challenge himself and go for a quantitative approach: He selected a certain type of meme to see what common characteristics he could draw.

He went with stock character memes, which are stock images that have humorous text at the top and the bottom. They are often animals, but for the purpose of his study, Santos worked with images of humans only.

Typically these memes are created on a website such as Reddit or 4chan and then are shared on social media websites, such as Facebook. Because the demographics of the websites that memes originate from tend to skew white, Santos hypothesized the memes would reinforce white centrality (or looking at the world from a white point of view) and seeing individuals of color as somehow “other.”

Just reaching this point in his research presented unique challenges to Santos, who had to define what is considered a meme (his definition: “digital content that is shared and transformed by many users on the internet”) and because many of the websites sourcing the origins of stock character memes weren’t scholarly, he had to cross-reference different meme databases.

He ended up looking at 360 different memes, and examined them based off the character’s name and if race was referenced; the character’s caption and if race was referenced; if the character’s race was identifiable in the image; and if the character was a notable celebrity or public figure.

What he found is that 89.5 percent of the time race is referenced, it’s in regard to a non-white person. Often, these stock character memes also are playing off racialized stereotypes.

“Although I looked at a very specialized subsection of memes and of the internet itself, I think it still is representative of the internet as a whole and the way that we are handling race,” Santos said. “In some ways, just through the sharing of these memes and the fact that they can go so viral and that they so often are assuming that people on the internet are white and have a white point of view, I think that reflects something bigger on the internet. I think [it] is just a good reminder … that you can second guess what you’re looking at when someone shares something or if you’re about to share something. It can often be very, very subtle notions of stereotyping or white centrality.”

Santiago said he was proud to support Santos’ work, particularly because he was willing to do “a lot of crunching numbers” for the quantitative work.

“It’s not something we usually do in literary studies,” Santiago said. “But he thought that needed to be done.”

One area for further research Santos is intrigued by is gender representation in memes and how race comes into conversations for photo-sharing applications, such as Snapchat.

Santos presented his research in early fall at St. Thomas alongside the other Excel! scholars. Santos and Santiago currently are looking for other opportunities for Santos to present his research, and Santos also is applying for MFA graduate programs. He said, overall, he was pleased that he had the opportunity to grow his research and writing skills together.

“This has opened me up to the idea that research can go into the creative writing portion as much into formal writing,” Santos said. “They say write what you know. … If you don’t know anything, you’ve got to do some research first.”