The omnipresence of the internet in the twenty-first century has brought with it an explosion of new forms of vernacular culture, the most significant of which is the internet meme. Meme culture is participatory, ephemeral, and anonymous, yet it offers important new opportunities for aesthetic expression. This talk focuses on the ethical significance of meme culture. In particular, I'll argue that a chief value of internet memes lies in their ability to facilitate the formation and expression of communities with shared values; memes are the cultural glue that binds our internet communities together. At the same time, memes' ability to go viral—and to quickly spread beyond the communities in which they originated—raises some difficult ethical questions: Who owns a meme? What should we do about memes that turn racist, or memes which encourage hate? Can meme culture be the subject of problematic cultural appropriation? Along the way, I'll also discuss the nature and ontology of memes, the recent development of NFT sales of memes, and the relationships between meme culture and more traditional forms of vernacular culture.
Anthony Cross is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Texas State University. His primary research interests are in aesthetics and ethics; his published research focuses on the normative significance of relationships with artworks and other cultural objects. He has written about the aesthetics of internet culture for Aesthetics for Birds, and has recently authored a chapter on the ethics of internet culture and new media for the Oxford Handbook of Ethics and Art.