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They’re the same picture: Collecting memes at the Alexander Turnbull Library

June 17th, 2021 By Valerie Love

Senior Digital Archivist Valerie Love on developing the library's meme collection — including many unique to New Zealand — and the challenges of digital preservation of ephemera.

Documenting Aotearoa online

The Alexander Turnbull Library has been actively archiving websites about Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific since 1999. There are now over 9,000 unique website titles and over 40,000 web instances in the archive, including many sites which are no longer online.

The New Zealand Web Archive offers a visual history of how websites have changed over the past twenty years and shows the wide range of topics that New Zealanders have been posting about online.

New Zealand Web Archive

These archived web instances are preserved in the National Digital Heritage Archive (NDHA), which ensures that they will be viewable for generations to come, even if the website no longer appears online. The example below shows the New Zealand Elections website from 1999, in comparison to what it looks like today, over 20 years later.

Electon website 1999

Screenshot showing a basic looking website front page with some text on a red background and an orange banner arcross the top with the word 'Elections'.
Elections NZ website from 1999, harvested by the National Library of New Zealand on: Oct 20 1999 at 11:00:00. See archived copy.

Election website 2021

A screenshot of a front page of a website with bright colours and a smiling, orange character holding a puppy and putting a friendly face on the Electoral Commission homepage.
The Electoral Commission website as it currently appears online, June 2021.

Collecting social media

In recent years, however, many organisations and businesses have moved away from traditional websites, and are sharing an increasing amount of information online via social media platforms.

Individuals, communities, and even government departments are also using social media to share information and document what is occurring in their lives and the world around them.

In light of this, the Library has been actively collecting social media material for the last five years relating to significant events in Aotearoa New Zealand, beginning with the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake, and continuing right through to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much of the Library’s COVID-19 collecting has been an extension of our regular work to acquire material to support the documentary heritage of Aotearoa New Zealand, in both physical and digital form. With in-person communication extremely limited during lockdown, New Zealanders took to social media to stay connected with each other.

As our web archivists and digital collecting specialists quickly discovered, the period leading up to, and during, the COVID-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown beginning in March 2020, resulted in an explosion of online content.

But unlike previous events of national significance that the Library had documented, one of the most prevalent forms of communication on social media during the initial lockdown period was through memes.

A meme with two images one above the other, in the first a person holds out two blank sheets of paper that appear identical and represent 'me staying at home during lockdown' and 'me staying at home because I'm broke'. In the bottom image a woman answers that 'they're the same picture'.
‘They’re the same picture’ meme, featuring the character Pam from the American version of the workplace sitcom, The Office. Meme collected by the Alexander Turnbull Library in April 2020. Ref: EPHDL-0435.

What exactly is a ‘meme’?

In her book, Internet Memes and Society Social, Cultural, and Political Contexts, Anastasia Denisova describes memes as “cherished communication artefacts of our time”.

Memes are images, videos, and/or text, usually humorous, that use cultural references to provide commentary about what is going on in the world around us. These are often posted to social media or direct messaging apps and regularly remixed and repurposed to respond to current events.

There was a surge of memes relating to COVID-19, including on topics such as social distancing, working from home, handwashing, and more, which provided much needed comic relief and distraction during a challenging and uncertain time.

Online meme generators, Imgflip is one example, allow users to create meme content without needing photo editing software, meaning that memes are easier than ever to create and share.

Meme with an image of cat with half-closed eyes appearing to look quite mean followed by the words, "New study confirms cats can't spread COVID-19, but would if given option".
Meme collected by the Alexander Turnbull Library, October 2020, Creator unknown. Ref: EPHDL-0441.

Studying memes

In recent years, memes have received increasing attention in the news media, as well as in academic study. Memes are often satire, but some blur the lines into misinformation/disinformation, and show the changing ways in which people share political viewpoints.

We know that memes and other digital ephemera will no doubt be of interest to future researchers to understand both contemporary internet culture and the unique circumstances and experiences of lockdown. There is already scholarship emerging internationally about memes and their impact on communication surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some meme content existed in the Library’s Twitter harvests and the ATL100 Facebook archive project, and the New Zealand Cartoon and Comics Archive holds digital content that is similar to memes, but the Library hasn’t previously collected memes in their own right.

Collecting memes

During the Library’s initial rapid response online COVID-19 collecting, we discovered nearly 500 different Coronavirus-related memes shared by New Zealanders on social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit, just in March and April 2020. Many of the memes collected were New Zealand-specific, and sometimes the same meme was adapted into both English and in te reo Māori.

At first, we downloaded these manually, and later developed harvesting tools to allow us to automate the collection of these digital files. By December 2020, we had collected over 1,000 memes, with peaks in the numbers of memes being created and posted during each of the COVID-19 alert level changes, and smaller increases around the general election campaign period.

Memes collected per month

A bar graph showing the varying number of memes collected by month, with April being the greatest number at over 300 and February and December the lowest with just a few.

Meme themes

Most of the memes related to the Covid-19 global pandemic, the Covid-19 Alert Levels and lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The meme collection also documents pop culture, New Zealand politics and politicians, particularly in the leadup to the 2020 General Election. American politics, as well as the Forest and Bird ‘Bird of the Year’ election also featured heavily in November 2020.

The number of memes that appeared on Aotearoa New Zealand social media was significant in the months in which there were national or regional lockdowns and alert level changes, with the greatest number of memes being collected in April 2020, as shown in the graph above. Many people shared memes as a welcome source of levity and distraction during this time.

In terms of meme templates, the most common meme designs in the Library’s collection are the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme, and the Drake ‘Hotline Bling’ meme, both with 23 unique instances.

The ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme template

The 'distracted boyfriend meme' template with "memes" being ogled by "the public" while "traditional political communication" looks on incredulously.
Example of the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme template, based on a 2015 stock image by Spanish photographer Antonio Guillem.

Bird of the Year memes

Bird of the Year memes, using the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme template. Creators unknown. Memes collected by the Alexander Turnbull Library, November 2020. Ref: EPHDL-0436.

The distracted boyfriend meme template with "Whio" being admired by "voters" while "all the basic forest birds" looks on incredulously.
The distracted boyfriend meme template with "Bird of the year" being admired by "NZ" while "USA election" looks on incredulously.
Bird of the Year memes. Creators unknown. Memes collected by the Alexander Turnbull Library, November 2020. Ref: EPHDL-0442.

Drake ‘Hotline Bling’ meme

As shown below, the Drake meme features two juxtaposed stills from the Canadian rapper’s Hotline Bling music video, in which he expresses an aversion to one thing and satisfaction with another.

The Drake meme based on his Hotline Bling music video, in this case he expresses an aversion to the Tinder dating app icon, and satisfaction with the yellow and black Covid Tracer app icon.
Example of the Drake meme in which he shuns the Tinder online dating app, in favour of the NZ Covid Tracer app. Meme creator unknown. Memes posted in May 2020, Ref: EPHDL-0436.

Preserving digital ephemera

Collecting memes is a challenge. Memes are ephemeral, meaning that they were created in a specific moment, for a specific short-term purpose, and not necessarily meant to last. Many of them contain niche cultural references that may not be apparent to others. Because they are generally created anonymously, then shared and adapted by other internet users, they defy the usual archival principles that information about their creator is key to building a collection.

A person who posts a meme may or may not be the person who created it, and they may have numerous and often unknown contributors. Furthermore, with the proliferation of online meme generators with set templates, anyone can create a meme, and there is often a significant overlap of content to the point where it becomes impossible to identify the original creator or other rightsholders.

A screenshot showing the unpublished catalogue Tiaki with rows of records and small thumbnail images representing different memes.
Screenshot of some of the meme collection on Tiaki, the Library’s catalogue for archival and unpublished collections, tiaki.natlib.govt.nz.

Accessing the collection

The meme collection is available online at ATL-Group-00546 and contains memes collected by the Alexander Turnbull Library from February 2020 onward.

The Library has described the memes in groups by creator where known, and in monthly sets where the creator is unknown. Where memes have been published by a public New Zealand-based meme account on social media, the Library has identified them as such.

The meme collection is not meant to be comprehensive. But it contains what we hope to be a representative sample of memes published online in Aotearoa New Zealand. The memes in the collection represent a range of viewpoints and topics. Some of them are meant to be uplifting, express solidarity, or just make someone laugh. Some of them are intentionally offensive or inflammatory or contain coarse language. However, this wide array of meme content helps document the weird and wonderful (or even outright unpleasant) expression of contemporary life online.

Further reading

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2 July 2021 3:33pm

Such an awesome initiative! Is there a possibility to contribute to this? I have thousands of memes saved spanning from 2013-ish to now :)

National Library
7 July 2021 4:28pm

Thanks for the support, Nadia! If you'd like to contribute the best thing to do would be contacting us via Ask-a-Librarian with details of the kinds of memes you have – we are mainly interested in Aotearoa NZ-specific content at this stage. Here's a link to the webform: https://natlib.govt.nz/questions/new
Thank you!

29 June 2021 3:50pm

what are the harvesting tools to allow [u] to automate the collection of these digital files?

National Library
7 July 2021 9:38am

Thanks Paul, initially we used the in-browser capability for saving websites and website files, and our technologists on staff built a harvesting tool to make the process a bit more efficient.

Ruth MacEachern
19 June 2021 8:43am

Excellent article Valerie! (As usual) Stay well.

18 June 2021 1:00pm

Wow - amazing to see these memes together in one place. Great work!