Like most great ideas, the impetus for this paper came to me while watching cat videos online. And though perhaps not the best use of time, cat videos, cat gifs, and other cat and kitten themed content are emblematic of an acute global cultural cohesion. More than ever before, people around the world are watching, listening to, and consuming the same media. The internet has allowed for the rise of a diffusive and chimeric international culture. Now, what has this to do with family? Well, what is family but a collection of people from whom we learn social etiquette and custom, and with whom we share a common cultural heritage? We have already established in class that family is not limited to biological determinates. And while people on the internet making cat memes are strangers, they do undeniably family-like things. In an age of smart phones, many people spend more time online than they do with their biological families. Subsequently, the internet family has subsumed much of the responsibility to raise and educate our youth—to indoctrinate and inculcate. Online strangers entertain and impart knowledge of social decorum. They look at our vacation photos, no matter how boring. Even if our definition of family requires cohabitation, every locale is contiguous within the framework of the internet.
And, like any familial entity, the internet community shares a communicative and symbolic language. Internet memes are semantically rich. They possess abstract meaning beyond what is superficially expressed, which is culturally significant to Interpretive Anthropologists. From “Trollface,” to iconic photos of Neil De Grasse Tyson, and everything in between, memes connote a learned and communal meaning. Like other symbolic systems, memes order the world and contextualize individual experience. When someone witnesses an event or experiences an emotion, symbolic language allows the transmission of that experience to others, creating an unbroken and symmetrical chain of human experience. So when someone is feeling sad, they might convey this using a “forever alone” picture. Symbolic systems, like memes, not only define what people can feel and know, but how they can communicate what they feel and know. Forming the basis of this shared familial culture is coded language and a normative system of interpretation.
If we accept the internet community as a quasi-kinship group, we must recognize its strangeness. It is a system unparalleled by any other contemporary or antiquated society. Structural-functionalists typically describe social systems as an elaboration of a dominance hierarchy. From this perspective, internet culture is unique. Unlike traditional social systems the internet family has no center—no chief or “father” or caste system around which meaning and cultural institutions are fixed. Instead, it is an egalitarian amalgam—a collective in the truest sense of the word. Meaning and position within the system is endlessly dynamic and iterative. The internet community is an amorphous, nebulous organism without demarcations or distinctions, in which each equal and anonymous individual, merely by interacting online, contributes to the continuation of the all encompassing cultural being.
— Sawyer I.