Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Conducting a Memeography (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Ailin (Zhi Wen) Li

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

A red dot appears by the Facebook app on my phone. I open it to check the notification: a user has posted in U of T Memes for Edgy Teens, then a preview of the caption. After this happens a dozen times in a day, I turn off notifications for new posts in this group. With over 21,000 members (as December 2018), the U of T Memes for Edgy Teens (UTMET) meme group is ripe with activity. As a student and lover of memes, the endless content provides constant entertainment if I am ever to take a break from studying. As a researcher and “netnographer,” though, this amount of data was overwhelming.

To begin my research project, I focused on one day in this group, September 19, 2018, and the 14 posts made on this day. This cursory glance hinted that I may be in over my head with analysis. From this handful of posts, I identified six broad categories of posts (a list of which can be found in the Appendix of my article) and about nine different categories of comments. As the weeks went by, these categories branched into subcategories, and I narrowed my focus. While I would have liked to capture every post and interaction made on every day, I understood that this was an unrealistic goal.

After experiencing a brief moment of data FOMO (the “fear of missing out”), I realized that no ethnographer can be held to such a standard. That is, even the most thorough participant observation will never capture every single interaction made and experienced in a field. My research would have to carry on with whatever data I was able to gather. This led me to a new problem: unlike the ethnographer in a physical field, I felt that the challenge of objectivity was exacerbated in my scenario. Even though I attempted to sample as randomly as possible so as to avoid selection biases, I could not help the tendency to orient my attention towards the group when an interesting event or post occurred, as opposed to capturing the mundane or in-between.

Throughout the analytical process, I cycled back and forth between several different frameworks and interpretations, but I kept with the original theme assigned in the course: politics. In my article, I explain the theoretical applications for my decision to use the politics of the everyday as a framing for my project. On a more practical level, though, I found that this direction guided me away from attempting to read more meaning into the interviews and the memes than was appropriate. Beyond the line between truth and falsehood, funny or offensive, I realized that seeing memes as a political act allowed for more nuanced understandings of how exaggeration and reality are not easily disentangled.

In a group where so many different kinds of interactions were occurring, considering memes as a practice in the politics of the everyday allowed me to gain insight into just some of the functions of memes and interactions between students in a meme group. Having this focus reminded me that it is not my job to provide an exhaustive expose on my chosen field of observation. It also reassured me that not viewing every meme was not detrimental to my project, as a theory of politics can only be applied to so many memes. The end result, what I have presented in my final paper, then, provides what I believe to be valuable insights in the study of online memes.

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