Martz: What’s in a meme?

How memes and national documents lay beside one another in the Library of Congress’ internet archive

Paulina Martz, Staff Columnist

They say that the internet is forever, but a recent New York Times article threw that saying into further relief by exploring the web archive at the Library of Congress. Archivists confessed that the project began “out of a desire to collect and preserve … materials from the web, especially US government content around elections,” but has become a sort of internet database. For instance, they have an entire section of the project now dedicated to archiving the internet’s reaction to the coronavirus. 

What is even more mind-blowing, however, is that the New York Times article links directly to an compilation of websites referencing the Coronavirus. Archive-It, a web archiving service, partners directly with the International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC). The IIPC partners with organizations from more than 45 countries and works in groups to archive the web. On their website is an article about how they plan to archive the internet’s reaction to the coronavirus, which also links to a form where you can send in a website or article discussing the coronavirus to be added to their archive. It seems the Library of Congress is working with these organizations to collect content to be archived. 

The New York Times article then shows memes made by members of the archival team, subtitled “<meme interlude>,” and it is now that I feel like I truly must have lost my marbles. 

There is nothing inherently new about digital archival. The Internet Archive is an archive of digitized materials, including websites, software, games, music and more, that was founded 23 years ago. And it isn’t something that hasn’t been discussed or argued about. ‘The Cobweb’ was an article by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker in 2015 that asked the question: “Can the internet be archived?” Going further, too many publications to count have asked if the internet even should be archived, but it’s undeniable that it, in fact, is. 

To that effect, I think many of us can understand the archival of the internet, and aren’t unaware of it. We’ve all been faced with the greater importance of tweets in an international sense with the election of our current president, for instance. Tweets by celebrities and leaders have become culturally and historically significant enough to deserve to be archived. 

Additionally, I don’t think anyone is going to say that the coronavirus is not a historically significant time. Due to social distancing, much of our global, as well as individual, interactions now take place on the internet, in places where the Library of Congress team might be archiving. In fact, on Wikipedia’s ‘List of Most-Liked Tweets,’ @gnuman1979’s video of a sock puppet appearing to devour cars driving by, captioned “quarantine day 6,” has surpassed Kobe Bryant’s reaction to LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ariana Grande’s tweet after the Manchester Arena bombing and Barack Obama’s birthday wish to his wife to become the third most liked tweet of all time. Three million people liked @gnuman1979’s tweet. I’m sure it is now in the Library of Congress’ archive. 

Here, I think, lies the cognitive dissonance, at least for me. Archiving updates, reports or government reactions to the coronavirus makes sense, but archiving a tweet made by a random 58-year-old man named Jamie to live forever in the archives of our nation seems silly, at first glance.

But there, I think, is a sort of sticking point. There is something fascinating about recording everyday people’s reactions to events of historical significance. There are countless memes on the internet about which meme will be so long-lived that our grandchildren will ask us about them when studying for their high school history tests. And, while that might be a bit of an overstatement, it is clear to see that memes, tweets and internet posts, in general, make up a lot of the world as we see it today. According to the Times article, the Library of Congress has over 2 petabytes of data—and has just broken the surface. 

The archivists have archived components of the internet since the 2000 election and, like many things in this country, a turning point in what they archived came with 9/11. It was there that the reactions of everyday people to huge events became something to archive as well. And slowly that has become less about reactions to huge events, and more and more about the cultural movings of a people. 

But, with the inclusion of things like ‘Confused Math Lady’ or ‘Surprised Pikachu’ in the Library of Congress next to, as the Times article mentions, “the rough draft of the Declaration of Indepence,” it is hard to divide yourself from the ranting of 7th grade history teachers and not just think “those are not the same.” But at the end of the day, I think a historical national archive that ignores the people is one that disservices the people, which is what the archivers hard at work recording tweets from the president, online updates from the Center for Disease Control and memes about Zoom seem to think, too.