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Metaphors of Internet

Ways of Being in the Age of Ubiquity


Edited By Annette N. Markham and Katrin Tiidenberg

What happens when the internet is absorbed into everyday life? How do we make sense of something that is invisible but still so central? A group of digital culture experts address these questions in Metaphors of Internet: Ways of Being in the Age of Ubiquity.

Twenty years ago, the internet was imagined as standing apart from humans. Metaphorically it was a frontier to explore, a virtual world to experiment in, an ultra-high-speed information superhighway. Many popular metaphors have fallen out of use, while new ones arise all the time. Today we speak of data lakes, clouds and AI. The essays and artwork in this book evoke the mundane, the visceral, and the transformative potential of the internet by exploring the currently dominant metaphors. Together they tell a story of kaleidoscopic diversity of how we experience the internet, offering a richly textured glimpse of how the internet has both disappeared and at the same time, has fundamentally transformed everyday social customs, work, and life, death, politics, and embodiment.

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Chapter Seven: Pinball Machines, Cardboard Cutouts, and Private Parties: Three Metaphors for Conceptualizing Memetic Spread (Whitney Phillips)



Pinball Machines, Cardboard Cutouts, and Private Parties: Three Metaphors for Conceptualizing Memetic Spread

whitney phillips

Once upon a time, a cartoon frog turned into a Nazi.

Understanding this trajectory requires stepping back and considering how memes spread, and what happens to them as they do. Tipping its hat to the usefulness of metaphors when describing the digital, this essay presents three metaphors that aim to add tactile, ricocheting contours to discussions of memes: pinball machines, cardboard standees, and private parties (obviously). These metaphors work against the tendency to describe memes linearly, and/or as singular objects. As these metaphors emphasize, memes are neither linear nor singular. They have been neither linear nor singular for as long as memes have existed.1 Our discussions about memes will be more accurate, and tell us more about the people who share and remix and laugh at them, if we lean into memes’ frenetic, quantum mechanics-like quality.

First though, some background on Pepe, which requires one to gaze longingly to the land before Trump, all the way back to 2006. In that year, cartoonist Matt Furie created Pepe, an anthropomorphic frog character, for his comic series Boy’s Club. The frog’s name is a riff on the relief one experiences when one is able to “go ←59 | 60→Pepe,” that is to say, “pee pee,” as Furie explained in an interview with The Daily Dot (Khan, 2015). Said piss frog took its first fateful turn...

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