Negotiating ludic normativity in Facebook meme pages

Ondrej Prochazka

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Title: Negotiating ludic normativity in Facebook meme pages
Author: Ondřej Procházka
Affiliation: Department of Culture Studies, Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences

This thesis explores the capacity of Internet memes to inflect social realities in the communities organized around them on social media, particularly Facebook. Memes are not mere playful ‘jokes’ or ‘parodies’ spreading virally on the Internet in countless variations, they are also powerful tools for political investment aimed to sway public attention and opinions. Memes have been increasingly documented as a vital component in the unprecedented spread and ‘normalization’ of hateful sentiments and ideologies characterized by ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ politics appealing to emotions rather than ‘facts’ in the digital mainstream. Based on author’s more than five-year observation of communities around Countryball memes, this work argues that much of the socio-cultural and communicative dynamics involving memes can be understood in terms of ludic play.
The object of the study – Countryballs memes – are simple meme-comics featuring ball-shaped creatures in colors denoting nation-states while satirically reinventing international ‘drama’ through the prism of socio-cultural and linguistic stereotypes. Having become a household name among memes, Countryballs offer communicative resources to playfully engage not only with wider socio-political issues, but also to with the linguistic, semiotic and ideological boundaries of our communicative norms shaped by the affordances of social media. The present work demonstrates how play can be used as a useful concept for understanding not only how matters of public attention are packed, framed and transmitted in the digital culture via (Countryball) memes, but more importantly how such matters are in fact interpreted by those who engage with them. More specifically, it shows how play enables alternative modes of expression and meaning making with different normative patterns and preferences which stand outside ‘standard’, ‘rational’ or ‘civil’ expectations. And it is precisely ludic play that fosters different types of communication and sociality which are often done ‘just for fun’, however serious or offensive their effects may be.
To identify these effects and their implications in the contemporary digital age, the thesis employs a discourse-analytical methodology informed by current advances in digital ethnography and sociolinguistics. It focuses on negotiations among participants in memetic communities about what counts as ‘appropriate’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘correct’ in their socio-communicative behavior. Together in four case studies, the present work provides a comprehensive account of how participants articulate, police, break and re-construct ludic normativity in connection with recent socio-political issues and digital culture at large. This includes the role of memes in the newly emerging forms of communication, in the rise of populism and nationalism, algorithmic manipulation and exploitation, curating digital content and more. The concept of play is continually revisited throughout the discussion against the developments in the scholarship on Internet memes and their ludic genealogy. In doing so, the thesis also revisits some of the traditional concepts such as the notion of ‘community’ and ‘communicative competence’ to arrive at more precise accounts of the concrete processes of globalization and digitalization in our societies and their effects.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Tilburg University
  • Blommaert, Jan, Promotor
  • Backus, Albert, Promotor
  • Varis, Piia, Co-promotor
  • Georgakopoulou, A., Member PhD commission, External person
  • Jaworski, A., Member PhD commission, External person
  • Swanenberg, Jos, Member PhD commission
  • Moore, R., Member PhD commission, External person
  • Van Hout, T., Member PhD commission, External person
Award date7 Dec 2020
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789464163070
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


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