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How Memes Are Becoming A Mark Of Literacy

Willy Wonka meme. Photo: Screenshot / YouTube

During a recent NCEA literacy exam on reading, one of the questions asked Year 10 students to read four memes and discuss which two had the most similar underlying meaning.

"I love the idea that successful literacy for Kiwi kids now involves analysing memes," sociolinguist Julia de Bres told Nights.

It comes as the government is also pushing for compulsory Shakespeare and grammar lessons for secondary students.

She said she would have failed the exam, but has been looking into memes and how they impact culture.

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What is a meme?

"Memes can be described as items of digital discourse that are designed to be shared. The key thing [is] they spread around," de Bres said.

Often people thought of memes - like the ones that were in the exam - which were referred to as image macro memes, which is a picture with text overlaid over it.

"But there are memes that involve text, image, video, lots on TikTok for instance, and they're quite varied. What they have in common is their circular ability."


Homer Simpson fading into the hedge in an awkward situation was an example of memetics.

"Memetics" came from a biology metaphor, she said. "Originally, that's the source of it, ethnologically. I don't know how it got from there to Homer Simpson. But here we are."

The memes in the exam were on the topic of how AI cannot draw a hand.

"One of them was about AI accepting an award at the Oscars ceremony for drawing hands, and I guess the hand probably had eight fingers or something, and then there were others with four of them. And you had to interpret which ones were most related," de Bres said.

It was "incredible", she said.

"For starters, you need to know what AI means. You need to know that AI can't draw a hand, and that's not common knowledge."

And then it was about interpreting the humour - "you've got to work out what is the point of the meme, because they're often quite opaque".

Visuals everywhere

De Bres said she was a linguist, but much of her research now included visual and linguistic combinations.

"I have written about memes myself, but also just in general, I'll analyse visual images that include texts.

"It's kind of like multimodal analysis of what you get when you analyse the picture plus some texts and they each contribute different bits of meaning, and then the overarching meaning is the combination of those two things that creates a further meaning."

In sociolinguistics, more time was spent analysing visuals alongside language because online communication was mostly visual.

"We live in what's being referred to as a visual culture now, and it's quite hard to find natural occurring instances of language that doesn't to some degree include visuals."

A new way of viewing literacy

There was a "new kind of digital literacy or media literacy that all of us need to be able to understand now", she said.

It was a new way of viewing literacy, she said, compared to the traditional sense of literacy that was still taught in many schools.

Traditional literacy, she said could be mastered by acquiring certain skills, like knowing grammar and spelling.

"The current use of literacy goes beyond the skill-based concept to see literacy more as a social practice," de Bres said.

"You don't have to be perfect in reading or writing," but it could be used to describe life.

"Our everyday life involves so much internet communication and if you scroll through someone's feed on any kind of social media site that's going to be packed with memes.

"Being able to read memes is really useful for young people."

"It tends to be easier I think for the younger ones, you've seen millennials may be able to read memes because they've grown up with them and they learn them by sharing," de Bres said.

As a GenXer, she "mostly" understood what was going on in a meme.

"Boomers often find it absolutely impossible to understand a meme."

Competing with Shakespeare and Chaucer

In May, the government announced compulsory Shakespeare and grammar lessons would feature in a new-look secondary English curriculum that ranged from contemporary New Zealand authors to Chaucer and Beowulf.

"This kind of more traditional view of literacy is more aligned with that idea of saying you need to read."

Referring to Dante's Inferno, she said the text was from a long time ago, "we don't use that type of language now. It's part of our literary history".

"Being able to read memes is just as important as being able to read Shakespeare for kids of our day.

"There is this idea that there's this kind of quality to those kinds of literary genres, that means that our young people need to learn to understand and appreciate them etc.

"I'm not saying people can't do both, but I think that there's actually a lot of complexity, value and learning to read these texts - I'm not going to go so far as saying as there are complex as Shakespeare, but they are quite complex to read and interpret."

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