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Cultural capital and ironic literacy in the meme economy

Meme Bulletin #6
by Lucie Chateau

Memes do not exist on their own, but within a digital cultural economy where they are shared, liked and retweeted to accrue cultural capital. Cultural capital is the asset of knowingwhat makes a meme successful. It entails understanding societal trends and unique forms of humour and irony, as well as being in tune with the flows of affect that make up circulation in the digital cultural economy. Cultural capital is acquired “through a systemic exposure to sub-cultural variety, especially to cultures that generate significant amount of visible symbols”. (Ravasi and Rindova, 2004) That cultural capital can, in turn, be turned into financial capital when those that post (but not always create) memes can monetise their circulation through the curation of accounts with massive fan followings and sponsored content. (Marcizewski, 2020)

Figure 1. The ‘Memes Bubbles Chart’ posted on r/MemeEconomy.

The above “meme bubbles chart” helps us understand the flows of cultural capital in the so-called “meme economy”. The satirical subreddit /r/MemeEconomy, aptly analysed by IoanaLiterat and Sarah van den Berg, parodies a stock market approach to “investing” in memes, as seen in the language used in this chart (smart money, institutional investors). (2017) Once a meme is produced and starts to gain in popularity (its stealth phase), it is able to breach its “original community”, often a subculture or specific forum, and reach the mainstream. It is during this transitional phase that smart institutional investors will share or repost the meme. However, once the public phase is reached, demise in the form of a Buzzfeed article is imminent. In effect, the financial discourse used by redditors in the forum taps exactly into how a meme emerges and exponentially gains in cultural capital.

Possessing cultural capital is to know when to “invest” in a meme. It shows that you have enough cultural understanding to distribute a meme before it becomes mainstream. Being ironically literate is also a form of cultural capital. As seen in this graph, ironic usage of a meme shows a quite literal off-the-charts potential of acquiring cultural capital by ironically using a meme. This means that, once a meme has undergone its first lifecycle of acquiring popularity and breaching the mainstream, it still contains potential to be used and circulated, but this has to be done ironically. Irony is the very lifeblood of the meme economy because it determines the cultural capital of the meme itself. Therefore, understanding irony is crucial to having cultural capital on the internet. However, it is not within everyone’s reach to be ironically literate.

We should not assume that cultural capital is evenly distributed or that all forms of ironic literacy are the same. Certain identities are cemented in meme culture and can be characterized as “oppressive identity work” in the way that they “contain potent imagery and messaging around race, ethnicity, and gender”. (Jordan and Menking, 2018) As Kate Miltner points out, drawing on Ryan Milner (2013):

“white masculinity is the constructed centrality in many participatory collectives, and as such, quite a few memes engage in problematic representations of women and people of color. This raises the key issue of what subjectivities are baked into these formats: how does that impact what we express and who chooses to participate in this way?” (2014) 

This idea is echoed in Adrienne Massanari’s work on Reddit as a toxic technoculture. (2017) The idea of a homogenous meme culture is laughable. Cultural capital is contingent on continuous identity work that is often at the expense of an outsider, and can be perceived as a gatekeeper to many meme-ing communities online.

Meme of the month: 

The image shows an enlarged, panicked emoji, with wide eyes and sweat on both side of its face. The face is framed by top text and bottom text. The top text reads “Oh God” and the bottom text reads “What if the meme I sent them is weird? What if they don’t get it? What if they think I’m being weird oh god oh fuck”


Eschler, Jordan, and Amanda Menking. ““No Prejudice Here”: Examining Social Identity Work in Starter Pack Memes.” Social Media+ Society 4, no. 2 (2018): 2056305118768811.

Literat, Ioana, and Sarah van den Berg. “Buy memes low, sell memes high: Vernacular criticism and collective negotiations of value on Reddit’s MemeEconomy.” Information, Communication & Society 22, no. 2 (2019): 232-249.

Marciszewski, Mark. “The Problem of Modern Monetization of Memes: How Copyright Law Can Give Protection to Meme Creators.” Pace Intell. Prop. Sports & Ent. LF 9 (2020): lxv.

Massanari, Adrienne. “# Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures.” New media & society 19, no. 3 (2017): 329-346.

Milner, Ryan M. “FCJ-156 Hacking the Social: Internet Memes, Identity Antagonism, and the Logic of Lulz.” The Fibreculture Journal 22 2013: Trolls and The Negative Space of the Internet (2013).

Miltner, Kate M. ““There’s no place for lulz on LOLCats”: The role of genre, gender, and group identity in the interpretation and enjoyment of an Internet meme.” First Monday(2014).

Ravasi, Davide, and Violina Rindova. “Creating symbolic value: a cultural perspective on production and exchange.” SDA Bocconi Research Paper 111/04 (2004).

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