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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Wikipedia and Knowledge

Last week an article came out in the New York Times discussing the western research bias of Wikipedia.  Let me summarize.

The western tradition of knowledge is based on a chain of source material upon which further scholarship can build and grow.  Primary source material is something that is wholly original, such as personal papers, video and audio from events, direct scientific experimentation, and other sorts of realia.  Secondary source material is a step removed, where a scientist, historian, or other type of commentator discusses the primary source material and its meaning. Tertiary sources are compilations of primary and secondary source material, things like textbooks and encyclopedias.

Wikipedia operates under a similar modus operandi as traditional encyclopedias, which requires citation of documented sources.  Unlike traditional encyclopedias it doesn’t require that the contributor be an expert in the topic in order to contribute, only that the contributor document the origin of the claim.  The documentation doesn’t have to be available online, but that does help when verifying the accuracy of the statement.

However, there are untold multitudes of information which are undocumented, especially in countries which don’t follow Western academic traditions.  This undocumented life is trying to find its way onto Wikipedia, specifically in their indigenous language variants.  But Wikipedia, holding the line on being a tertiary source.  As a matter of policy Wikipedia doesn’t want people to contribute original research.  The argument is that this policy is culturally biased, and that Wikipedia will be forever incomplete because of this.

But there are ways to make this work, without going direct to Wikipedia to explain these things.

The first thing that came to my mind in this was the story of the woman who taught the reporter how to make this indigenous drink.  Say there is a video of her brewing.  Why can’t this video get posted onto Wikimedia or the Internet Archive?  Along with say, three videos of different other women from other parts of the country where this drink is made?  That would compile a list of sources from different places that could provide an objective viewpoint into the brewing of this drink.  The sources would be housed at Wikimedia or Archive.org, and the article on Wikipedia could reference back to those videos as the context for the piece.  Yes it is original research, but the resulting follow up from the community could expand from there.

In the context of the children’s game from India, the problem is that this is a game that everyone knows about but no one has written about.  Again, Wikipedia doesn’t have to be the first step.  India is a very tech savvy country.  Someone could encourage people across the country to blog about the game and their experiences as children playing the game.  There could be video footage of children playing saved in various places.  This could create a body of work for the Wikipedia community to build from.

Yes, these are both end-run arguments that continue to operate in the context of textual citation.  The alternative is to have Wikipedia change its policy to allow original research to happen directly on the site.  Wikipedia doesn’t want that to happen, and it has good reason.

The word that has been going through all of this is “verify.”  The reason why Wikipedia does not want to have original research presented directly on the site is because original research is impossible to verify, and this deems the material untrustworthy.  Wikipedia wants to be a resource that is seen as trustworthy.  Someplace you can go and see what something is about, and have a degree of confidence that what you’re seeing has been verified by a number of people, and that you can check because it lists all of its sources.

This is why academic journals go through a peer review process.  If someone is making a new claim, there needs to be a degree of confidence among people within that field that the research was done in a sound way, that the claims can be verified against the method and sources used, and that the community can respect.  This is also why the scientific community abhors people who try to do an end run around the peer review process by holding a press conference.  You probably don’t have the think back to far to remember the Arsenic-based life story, and the resulting backlash that came from the scientific community.

Bold claims from original research can be extremely challenging, and sometimes those claims are flat out wrong.  This is not something on which you would want to stake the reputation of an entire encyclopedia.

But if you look back at the history of famous encyclopedias, they are often riddled with bias and the spurious claims of the day.  Often too filled with original research from experts in the field who believed they were correct.  Take for instance the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1910-1911.  It’s in the public domain now, so you can just go and take a gander at it all over the internet.  But the content is so grossly outdated that even Wikipedia points it out.

This edition of the encyclopedia is now in the public domain, but the outdated nature of some of its content makes its use as a source for modern scholarship problematic. Some articles have special value and interest to modern scholars as cultural artifacts of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yup.  And this is where Wikipedia is valuable.  Articles don’t have to suffer because they were written incorrectly a century ago and scholarship has moved on.  The content of the article can change as new scholarship comes out and the piece as a whole can be modified indefinitely, subject to citation.

Could Wikipedia be a venue for original research and documenting the undocumented history of the world?  Yes, it could be that place.  Does it have to be that place?  No.  There are many other venues that can provide a place for original research, and Wikipedia can remain the tertiary source that it wishes to be.

Meme Buster

Maybe I’m just a jerk, but when people post these memes to social network sites that make factual claims, I actually go and research them and respond back.  I know it’s like spitting in the wind, because memes travel faster than actual truth.  But I feel like its sometimes necessary to correct someone if I feel like what they’re saying is bogus.

The Foreign Aid Meme

In America – The Homeless go without eating.
In America – The Elderly go without needed medicines.
In America – The Mentally ill go without treatment.
In America – Our Troops go without proper equipment.
In America – Our Veterans go without benefits they were promised.
Yet we donate billions to other countries before helping our own first.
Have the guts to re-post this. 1% will re-post, 99% won’t.

The Point: Why are we spending so much in foreign aid when we’re not accomplishing what we need to back home.

The Reality:   The amount we spend on foreign aid pales in comparison to what we’re spending on entitlement programs that directly address the issues at play in this meme.   This NY Times infographic shows you visually the amount spent in the federal budget in 2011 and where it was going.  The highlights:

Social Security – 738 billion
Medicare – 498 billion
Health Initiatives – 381 billion
National Defense – 738 billion
Veterans Benefits – 251 billion

Total = $2 Trillion & $606 Billion

Compare that to: International affairs – 65.32 billion

That number includes not only all the money spent in foreign aid, but also the entire budget of the State Department, which operates our embassies in nearly every country of the world and maintains diplomatic relations with those nations.  The money spent abroad pales in comparison to what is spent at home.  So before we go complaining that we’re just “giving away the farm” to foreign countries, let’s back it up and ask why all the trillions of dollars we’re spending here isn’t quite cutting it.

The Heat vs. War Meme

Ok folks I am seeing the most complaints about the heat coming from individuals that have A/C. Get over yourselves, stop watching the thermometer and acknowledge the fact it is hot out and that after a point you really can’t tell the difference between 95 or a 105, because it’s all hot. And remember there are those who are not as fortunate as you who don’t have A/C, and remember 1.) It isn’t 109 degrees; 2.) I’m not 5,700 miles from home; 3.) I’m not dressed in a full BDU uniform and helmet and carrying 70+ lbs.; and 4.) There is very little chance that anyone will shoot at me or that I might drive over a bomb in the road today! Thanks to all who serve., so quit cher bichen.

The Point: Complaining about the heat is nothing compared to being in a war, and we don’t have air conditioning either.

The Reality: This meme implies that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have no air conditioning at all.  In fact, the U.S. military is spending $20.2 billion a year on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan annually.  Yes, war is hell, and when you’re out in the field it’s hot as blazes.  But that’s not all the time, and we’re spending an absolute fortune in air conditioning to keep our troops from dying of the heat over there.  And for the record, you can tell the difference between 95 and 105.  When the external temperature rises above 100 degrees Fahrenheit more people develop hyperthermia, especially those who are more vulnerable like children and seniors. This is why cities declare heat emergencies and direct people to cool off shelters to prevent death.

Both of these memes are playing on emotional situations: the heartbreak of poverty, the horror of war.  But the facts are grossly distorted to make a point, which in a moment of critical thinking and research one could easily refute.  But again, that’s beside the point memes are the chain letters of our era.  With every refutation there comes another onslaught of reshares.

So how do you bust a meme?  You can’t really.  It’s already probably flown around the world twice before you could blink an eye.  But what you can do is:

  • explain the facts to your friends who post memes, which may discourage them from resharing in the future.
  • write a corrected version of the meme which provides a link to the facts.
  • OR, and best of all, don’t share memes yourself, especially if you haven’t verified their accuracy

Remember kids: Friends don’t let friends share memes.