Meme audiences: beyond content, circulation, and comments

Special issue of Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture


Guest editors: Dr. Joanna Doona and Dr. Martin Lundqvist at the Department of Communication and Media, Lund University, Sweden

Memes have emerged as one of the dominant modes of interaction in contemporary digital spheres, constituting its own communication genre with distinct rules and conventions for how to properly ‘meme’ (Wiggins 2019; Wiggins & Bower 2015). Memes are, as defined by Shifman (2013): ‘a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which were created with awareness of each other, and were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users’ (p. 41). Considering their vast popularity — grounded in participatory digital culture — memes have been studied from a myriad of different angles, where their discursive potential (Denisova 2019; Milner 2013); their formative role in online community-building (Baishya 2021; Ooryad 2023), and their curious blend of humour and social commentary/critique (Shifman 2013, Mortensen & Neumayer 2021) have been highlighted as distinctive traits. As such, meme studies has emerged as a burgeoning sub-field of media, communication, and cultural studies, with new studies seemingly sprouting on the daily.

When it comes to meme audiences, however, research is still lagging considerably, as we know little about how memes engage us. Previous studies of memes have mostly centred on their textual-discursive or technical properties. Indeed, as noted by Trilló and Shifman (2021) almost a decade after Shifman’s seminal work on memes in digital culture (2013), we still lack a ‘deeper understanding of how photo-based memes […] are perceived by potential audiences’ (2496-2497). Likewise, Gonzàlez-Aguilar and Makhortykh (2022) stress that future research on memes should explore ‘how actual users perceive these representations’ (1326). This lacuna is especially apparent in qualitative in-depth studies of meme audiences. So far, meme audiences have primarily been approached (a) as ‘imagined audiences’ driven by memes’ ideological directionality (e.g. Wiggins 2019; Wiggins 2016); (b) through narrowly focused surveys (Halversen & Weeks 2023; Johann 2022), or (c) in studies that reduce them to the textual interactions found in digital platforms’ comment sections (Arda & Bas 2023; Skjulstad 2021). While certainly important and informative studies, such foci align with the common tendency in research on emerging media phenomena, to overlook audience and user diversity. The current understanding of meme audiences thus lacks qualitative nuance and depth, which is key to preventing reductive assumptions about audiences’ motivation, passivity, and vulnerability, related to issues of media power and user agency (Hermes 2024).

To gain a more comprehensive analytical, conceptual, and empirically anchored understanding of the attraction and popularity of memes; how they are meaningful; and what the potential consequences of meme engagement are; meme audiences require contextualized in-depth approaches. Here, platform logics and cultures, including the current trend of content centralization wherein especially younger people seem less prone to posting content of their own (Pew 2024; Internetstiftelsen 2023) calls for a problematization of the idea of digital users’ activity and agency, potentially reintroducing ‘audiences’ as a more fitting term. Thus, we invite abstracts that employ explorative approaches and address meme audiences in all their qualitative complexity, going beyond the limitations of previous research.

We particularly welcome contributions which address

  • The conceptual messiness of meme audiences: from users to audiences, lurkers, prod-users and/or prosumers? Including but not limited to addressing ‘meme’-as-verb and meme practices: from using to reading, sharing, interpreting, engaging and/or participating.
  • Research methodology and methods to develop the discussion of what in-depth qualitative approaches to meme audiences enable; including but not limited to ethnographic methods inside and outside of digital contexts.
  • The wide variety of meme audience practices and forms of engagement, including their affective engagement with memes and meme-makers.
  • Different meme audience contexts: including but not limited to cultural, social, and political settings, groups and spaces not yet previously explored in the meme studies literature.
  • Meme audience agency and power; including but not limited to user agency within and related to various technical and commercial infrastructures, tools, and platforms.
  • The identity and group-related work/processes of meme audiences; including but not limited to boundary maintenance, othering, cultural and/or political citizenship.
  • Meme audiences’ digital literacies, genre work and/or technical/analytical skills.

Such contributions, we believe, will help theorize meme audiences as a distinctly qualitative, in-depth, phenomenon – thus making a vital contribution to meme studies literature.

Submission and timeline

Please send an abstract of a maximum of 300 words accompanied by an author biography of a maximum of 100 words to the guest editors: joanna.doonakom.luse and martin.lundqvistkom.luse by September 15, 2024. Please write ‘Meme audiences SI’ in the title. We will review the abstracts and send out notifications of acceptance/rejection by November 1, 2024. Please note that the acceptance of abstracts does not guarantee publication since all articles will undergo double-blind peer review. Full papers should be submitted to the journal via their ScholarOne submission system by March 1, 2025, and the revised/final drafts are to be submitted no later than September 1, 2025. Accepted papers will be published in issue 1 2026. In the meantime, you are most welcome to contact the guest editors if you have any questions.

Joanna Doona is an associate senior lecturer at the Department of Communication and Media at Lund University, Sweden. Her research interests lie in the intersection between civic culture, audience studies and political humour. Her work has been published in journals such as the International Journal of Cultural Studies and Javnost-The Public, as well as in edited collections. Her most recent work focuses on memes and civic pandemic engagement.

Martin Lundqvist is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Communication and Media at Lund University, Sweden. He is currently researching the politics and audiences of internet memes in the context of Northern Ireland. His previous work has been published in journals, such as Media, Culture & Society, International Journal of Communication, and International Journal of Cultural Studies.


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