How Do You Research a Meme?

Fabulous CatThose of us in Library Land know how to track down quotes and texts and books and even images to a certain degree.  But when it comes to memes, it’s substantially more challenging.

In some cases other people have already done the work for you, like the awesome people at “Know Your Meme.”  But sometimes there isn’t a catchy moniker for your meme yet, or if there is, it be one that you don’t know yet.

But you start to see these images, and they just keep coming out.  So, lots of people have seen grumpy cat springing up lately.  He’s been telling people No, Bah Humbugging the holidays, refusing to take part in creation, and today someone put a towel on his head to make him look like a certain sci-fi emperor.  As you can see from the link there, we have a full identity and ownership of who has the grumpy cat and takes these pictures of him.

But grumpy cat isn’t my favorite.

My favorite internet cat is this little guy over there on the right.  So far, I don’t think he has an identity or internet history.  I’ve looked through “know your meme” and poked through places where I found this picture, but no dice.  I’m basically just calling him “Fabulous Cat” because this particular two part picture series was the first instance in which I saw him.

Fabulous cat has very distinctive eyes, jowls, and fur coloration on his head.  I can’t even figure out what breed this must be, but god help me he’s just too amazingly cute for me to contain myself.  Especially when he puts on those Jackie O sunglasses.

There are two more two panel memes of this cat that I must share to round out the evidence.

What you can tell from these images is that this is all the same cat. It has the same eyes, jowls, and head coloration with that white stripe down in between the two ginger patches, where the ginger over the right eye goes farther down the face than it does on the left.  There is a unique fade pattern over the left eye as well.

But what we don’t know is where these images are coming from.  The problem with meme research is that everyone and their brother posts these pictures and so tracing the origin point is like trying to trace your way back to the root of a fractal.

A lot of cat pictures have origins on forums like Reddit or 4Chan.  Once the original pictures find their way online the memes just start rolling out from random creators.

This leads to the second problem with researching memes.  These pictures are edited to add macro text.  And in doing so they lose all of the EXIF data.  Whenever you take a digital photo that photo also has a ton of data encoded with it.  So when you upload it to the internet, a lot of that data trail (like the type of camera used, date, time and if available geospatial location where it was taken) just follows the picture into the internet.  And if the picture were in that raw state we could theoretically open it up and take a look at that data.  However, because these photos are edited, and repackaged, all of that important researchable, backtrackable data is wiped out.

So, I don’t really have an answer as to how to do this yet.  I’m going to poke around for a while, try and find more pictures and data on Mr. Fabulous Cat and let you know what happens.  If you have any additional macros of Fabulous Cat, please share them.  Or if you have a lead on where Fabulous Cat may have come from, do let me know.  Because I want to know.  Primarily because I want to see more pictures of Fabulous Cat.
Update: Within one minute of posting this piece, on my Facebook I got a link from a friend who immediately sent me this link to Catsparella, identifying the cat as Snoopy.  So, I guess the answer to finding data about memes is through lazywebs.  Social searching to the rescue.  Thanks John.

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What You Post Online

Captured from my Facebook Stream

Some people say that there are six degrees of separation.  But that was before there was an internet, where everyone actually got to see the connections they had between people.  Scientists at the University of Milan studied Facebook connections and discovered that in reality we are only 4.74 degrees of separation from any given person.  I present as evidence of this fact the Facebook transaction that occurred above. I have scrubbed the names of all of the parties involved because I don’t want anyone to get freaked out that I’m re-re-re-blogging this picture.

1. The photograph in this status update is of a young woman holding a sign at a protest.  It’s clear from the sign that the protest was about rape victimization, because it reads “This is what I was wearing. Tell me I asked for it. I DARE YOU.”  A little bit of researching revealed that this photo was taken by photographer Francesca June at an anti-rape protest called Slutwalk NYC.  This photo has made its way around and around the internet since October of Last Year and has appeared on several meme sites.  So, protestor is person 0, and photographer in NYC is Person 1.  Person 1 gets the photo online and it spreads to various social networking sites.

1.5 As the meme is spreading there are branching trees of people posting and reposting this image all over different sites.  Someone, an unknown link in this chain posts it to Tumblr.  I’m calling this person 1.5, but really there are an unknown number of links between the initial image going online and the step to getting it into the current Facebook chain.

2. The caption underneath the image on Facebook says “Found this image on Tumblr & had to share it.” So, person 2 randomly stumbled across this picture on Tumblr, and, not even knowing who this person was, agreed with this powerful sentiment, copied the picture and posted it to her personal Facebook wall. Person 2 is located in Toronto, and has over 800 Facebook friends.

3. Now, along comes person 3, my Facebook friend, who shares this photo from the Facebook chain, because he also thinks that this is a powerful statement and wants his readers to see it too.  You can see in the surcap that it says “____ shared ____’s photo.”  Person 3 is someone I follow who publishes news of note for alternative religions.  So he’s kind of a semi-public figure, with a fairly large, but niche readership. Person 3 is in San Francisco and has over 3,000 Facebook friends.

4. Now, go down and look at the second person in the comments. This person, who I will call person 4, says “OMFG. THAT’S MY FRIEND ______!!!!!!!!!  :O  She never told me about this! 😦  I’m calling her as soon as I calm down right now.  WTF!!???”  Person 4 lives in South Carolina, and his number of Facebook friends is not publicly available, but definitely includes person 3, but not person 2 or 1, and yet he knows person 0 directly, because he has her phone number.

That is exactly how small the world is.  What you post online may fly through the tiniest chain of people, people you don’t even know and may have absolutely no connection to you, and land right in the lap of a friend.  It really makes you think about what you do in public, what goes online, and how closely held secrets can be revealed without your ever knowing about them.  Honestly more than anything I hope that these two people, persons 4 and 0 will be okay.

Thoughts on Google+

Thanks to my husband I’ve been able to join the ranks of the elite using Google+ (abb. G+) in the beta trials. And I’ve been sending them a lot of feedback about some of the features that I think still require a little tweaking (or sometimes a lot of tweaking). But I’ve been thinking mostly about the way that this functions vs Facebook and the strategic method behind how one shares information on it, and how it will be changing the way we use the internet together.

As a piece of background context I want to share this very important slideshow that goes straight to the heart of the functionality of Google+. Paul Adams is a former Google User Experience guy, and in his presentation Bridging the Gap Between Our Online and Offline Social Network he looks at the sociological research regarding how people group themselves, the bonds they form, and the different social categories into which we divide the people that we know.  This is critically important, because this is the exact structure that Google+ is utilizing.  Go watch that presentation in full screen so you can read the tiny little notes and then come back and look at this commentary to see where it meets and fails to meet these expectations of social interaction.

Now, here’s my experience.

Circles

The core of the interactive relationships on G+ focus on “Circles.”  These are the people with whom you interact in the different spheres of your life.  G+ begins you off with Friends, Family, Acquaintances, and Following.  That gives you a core of preliminary space to play with, and on top of that you can drag and drop people into a blank circle and create a name for it.  In my case I created circles of people that I know through the bear community, radical faeries, librarians (being cool librarians I don’t directly work with), Pagans who I know and read online, and staff (who I work with directly). These are radically disparate groups.  I still haven’t created separate circles for folks from grad school, undergrad, back home, etc. Maybe later.

Snapshot of my circles in Google+

Snapshot of my circles in Google+, names removed to protect the innocent

The great thing about this is that I can share among these different groups different kinds of information that I find relevant to their lives.  If I know I’m going out to bear happy hour I can share that with the bear circle, while the librarians, staff, and faeries are not given that info.  This helps avoid the drama of sharing provocative photos, misconstrued status updates, and not oversharing with everyone in your life.  Though what Facebook has done to my online sharing habits is opened up information sharing to people I wouldn’t have expected would be interested in reading my comments.  Where I would have put someone in the “faeries” circle here in G+, on Facebook they see all of my updates, including my incredibly wonky library stuff, and sometimes they really dig it.  So one of the habits I may take up with G+ is putting a lot of things onto my “public” posts, and just seeing where they land.  There is also a very important “block” feature for those people who you may still have in your Gmail contacts list, but with whom you never wish to interact again.  I have already blocked a few unsavory folks, and I’m glad that’s an option.

One of the current flaws in the Circles feature though goes directly to the intended purpose of Circles, which is understanding the complexity of the relationships between people.  Right now under the “find and invite” page you’re given a list of names and photos of people and it says “people who you may know on Google+”.  What it doesn’t say is HOW I would know those people.  One of the good things about Facebook is that you can instantly see the network of people who are connected to that person and you can instantly recognize to which group they belong.  You just take one glance at the mutual friends list and blam, you know.  If it’s a matter of privacy about who is connected to whom, G+ should just say that this person may go in this circle.  It knows who’s in there, and it’s clear that that’s where it’s drawing from.  So why not give me a hover over and light up a circle?  I’ve sent this as a recommendation.

One of the big drawbacks at this stage of the trial is that your social connections are very low.  There aren’t that many people in the trial, and so it lacks the robustness of the stream that you get from Facebook.  This is just a matter of time to be sure.  But with a dearth of updates, it makes it less useful as a means of connection.  Rather than opening up invitations to only cut them off again, they should have instead turned to their sociological research and given people a limited number of invitations, say 10, and then those users would have sent those invites strategically to their closest friends.  This would have made for a more productive beta, as it would have scaled a little more slowly and capitalized on strong ties.  As it stands I only have my husband, a few librarians I read online, and the staff at BoingBoing among my active stream.  I know that this will change, but it makes it a little boring at the start.

Sparks

Snapshot of my Sparks page.

Snapshot of my Sparks page.

The Sparks feature I haven’t used much.  I like it conceptually, because it does what Google does best, but in a more random kind of way.  You can basically subscribe to thematic topics, and have those just sitting around for when you’re bored.  Unlike Google Reader, there is absolutely no pressure to sit down and scroll through thousands of blog posts.  It just pulls a chunk of news from various different sites around the web and pops them in there.  You can also put a URL into your sparks list, and it will sort of pull like a feed reader, but it doesn’t work so well that way.  My guess is that it’s only pulling articles from those sites based on activity and the floating rank that ebbs and flows based on the algorithms of what is being regularly shared and accessed from those sites at any given moment.

The problem with the Sparks page is mostly cosmetic.  At this time you can’t rearrange your sparks in the side bar, and you can’t swap out the “featured” sparks in the fancy windows in the middle of the page.  I would like a widget to make a new “featured” sparks screen icon, like these pretty ones here for what my interests actually are.  I don’t mind having featured things, but they should align to my actual interests.  I don’t care about soccer or sports cars, but I do care about libraries and GLBT news.  I’m sure that this will also change and I’ve sent feedback about this too.

Hangout

Hangout is super cool and is only going to get cooler.  Hangout allows you to do multi-user live video chat where people can pop in and out based on the settings that you allow for the video chat room.  I spent a few good hours talking with my colleague Andy Woodworth who writes Agnostic, Maybe here on WordPress, just to test drive it.  You should see his comments about the 10 person video chat that he had going.  That was awesome just reading about it.  Yesterday I also had a hangout session during a party, where friends on the west coast joined friends on the east coast over Google Hangout.  That was very cool, and I think they’ve got something really great there.  One of the other features that makes Google Hangout interesting is that you can also play YouTube videos in there, share them with the group and talk about them together.  And with the talk of Google acquiring Hulu, you may soon be able to watch your favorite television shows together with your friends.  If there was a way to share content from your computer directly through here it would be even more killer, because then I could play music for a virtual party or share personal films with a select group of people without having to upload them to some place online.  Screen sharing basically.  It could also make tutoring even more effective because you could connect with one of your teachers directly.  Say a teacher has a student in a circle and they go into hangout together to talk about the homework.  That’s awesome.

While I didn’t record my experiences with Hangout, the good folks at BoingBoing did, so take a gander at this:

Photos

Snapshot of my Photos on Google+

Snapshot of my Photos on Google+

The photos feature nearly freaked me out completely yesterday.  See, I installed the G+ mobile app on my phone and I wasn’t sure about this “instant upload” feature.  So I said “yes” to instant upload. Then I started taking pictures of an art book that I wanted to share on here, which after the fact I decided against.  But as I was taking the pictures with my phone they automatically loaded into G+!  I nearly had a heart attack, because some of the pictures featured erotic imagery from Danish bookplates, and they were instantly uploaded to my G+ account.  Thankfully it doesn’t publicly state that those pictures are available for everyone to look at instantly.  You have to choose from among your mobile uploads which will be visible and to whom.  So crisis averted, no heart attack required.

I spent a lot of time thinking about why anyone would want to do that, especially given the prevalence of sexting these days.  I came up with two good reasons: 1) Live Events.  One of the things that has always been the case is that concert venues hate it when fans take pictures.  It’s inscrutable to me why this is the case, but it is.  I was at a show last year to see Amanda Palmer at the 9:30 Club and I was trying to get a stage picture when a guard came up and threatened to take my phone away from me.  Some folks actually did have their phones confiscated.  Later on in the evening Amanda and Jason Webley got up and said something along the lines of take a picture of this URL so you can sign up for concert information.  Some folks said they had their phones taken away and she was pissed.  Photos were allowed at her show.  So she told the venue to give them back.  Under other circumstances these folks may not have gotten their phones back, or have been made to delete the photos before they would be given the device back.  But if they were using instant upload, the photos would have been online anyway, ready to share with their friends.

And then I thought of something even more important: 2) Police Actions. One of the things that people are constantly dealing with on a global scale are police who threaten people who take video or photographs of brutality to be used against them.  In May a Rochester woman was arrested because she videotaped a police officer in her front yard.  The video made it onto the internet and it became a huge news story.  The same can be said about the photographs and videos arising from the Arab Spring.  The images of people in Tahrir Square became internationally recognized, and subsequent movements in other countries flowed onto the internet as well.  With a feature like instant upload these pictures get from phones to the web faster, and can get out to the public from there.  So in this case it is expediting the publishing of photos as evidence, to heighten public scrutiny.  Brilliant.

Huddle

I don’t have anything to say about huddle yet, because I don’t have enough of my strong tie contacts in G+ to make use of it.  I can see the value of it though and I am really looking forward to being able to make use of it.

Conclusions

Google+ is kind of languishing in a little wasteland right now due to the limited connections that people can actually have with people. Thankfully, Google is taking their time to iron out the kinks, which is necessary, and good. Though, until there is a massive influx of users, the ability to use the site is not that great.  But once the site starts to gain a critical mass it will be a glorious cascade of awesomeness.  Many of the features are very good, and need just a little bit of tweaking to make them even better.  The best part is that it respects the fact that users come from different backgrounds and socialize in different groups, and that not everyone needs to know about your wild drinking party or the work you do in with elementary school children, or especially that you do both at different points in your life.  Lives are complex and our social networks need to understand that.  I think Google+ is really a step in the right direction.  It’s taking us in new directions in sharing of content online, both with our friends and with the world.  And that just makes things even more fun.

The Stories We Tell

People love telling stories.  We’ve built a centuries old industry on it.  But this week I’ve been struck by the stories I’ve heard where things are unclear, someone puts a spin on it, and that becomes the story that everyone runs with.

The biggest one that’s been running around the last few days was the photograph of “The Kissing Couple.”  For those unfamiliar, Vancouver, British Columbia, broke out in riots a few days ago after the loss of the Stanley Cup.  People were burning, looting, pillaging and just basically going batshit crazy. This kind of blows my mind because Vancouver is like ultra-laid back. But hockey can make people lose their minds.  So among the rioting, the police came out, as did the news crews and one intrepid photographer took a picture that has been blowing up the internet.

The Vancouver Kissing Couple, from Getty Images

In the picture you see a riot cop with his baton and shield, a line of other folks in the far background, and smack in the middle is a man on the ground, holding a woman lying there.  The photographer didn’t realize what all was transpiring around him.  He just shot everything he could find and took the pics back to the paper to look at them with for the following morning’s print run.  It was there in the editing room that the photographer and the editor talked about what they both were looking at in the picture.  The photographer at first thought that the woman had been injured, but the editor said that they were kissing.

“I just saw these two people and I thought they were hurt … I didn’t really know what I got until the editor pointed it out,” he said.

And that’s where everything went haywire.  See, news editors know that everyone loves a good story.  That’s their job.  So they spun a story of the “kissing couple” photograph and it hit the internet.  And then EVERYONE saw it. Including other people who were there, and eventually the couple themselves.  As it turns out there may have actually been a kiss, but the woman was in fact on the ground because she was injured in the riot.

I love Kat Hannaford’s take on it at Gizmodo entitled “How Photos Lie.” But the problem with that title is that it’s not the photo that’s lying, it’s the story that was told based on the interpretation of the evidence second or third hand.  And is it a lie, per se?  I believe that this editor truly believed that he had some weird gem and that the story he was telling about the picture made sense to him.  He probably totally believed that this couple was just making out right there among the shields and the tear gas.

We tell ourselves these sorts of stories all the time when we don’t understand things objectively.  The story fills a need to explain the unexplainable. To wrap a narrative into something devoid of narrative brings it to life.  And we have told ourselves these sorts of stories for as long as stories have been told.  Constellations are stars that have nothing more in common with each other than their brightness and visual proximity to each other.  But we crafted shapes in the stars and told stories about these shapes as heroes and demigods.  When we first had a telescope powerful enough to see to Mars the observers noted lines on the surface of the planet.  So a narrative was crafted of “canals”, which to some signified that civilization existed on Mars.  This led to all sorts of speculative fiction of what race of creatures may live on Mars and would they militantly try to destroy us?

I don’t think that telling stories is a bad thing.  Stories are an inextricable part of us.  We need them to put things into perspective.  Objective data can only go so far, and sometimes we need to feel the data in a way that resonates with us as humans.  The problem comes when we need to reconcile objective reality with the story we have created.  As the photographer and his editor are finding out, reality is harsh for story tellers. Especially now when the story and the data hit the entire world at once, and can be disputed, contemplated, juxtaposed and verified in less than 24 hours.

And in honor of some delicious story telling, though in this case some total bald-faced lies, I leave you with a link to one of the most hilarious trademark dispute trials I have ever read about (though admittedly I have read probably only a few).  Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (a video game blog) they have the story of trademark litigant Tim Langdell who has been working this tired old dog of a case through the courts in England claiming that he owns the patent trademark on the use of the word “Edge” in video games forever.  The story of his pile of lies and manufactured evidence is so egregious that it deserves being read.