How Snapchat’s Dancing Hot Dog Meme Augmented Reality

Since you’re reading this story, I will assume you’re familiar with the recent meme craze centering around Snapchat’s dancing hot dog filter. One of Snapchat’s first forays into the world of mobile augmented reality, the dancing hot dog is a phenomenon the Internet has embraced wholeheartedly.

This meme isn’t much different from other memes inspired by widely publicized anthropomorphized characters, such as the beloved Left Shark or Dat Boi. What I find most fascinating about the dancing hot dog meme is not its content, but its medium.

Virtual reality and its tamer cousin augmented reality have been causing quite the stir for a while now. Now that some headsets, such as the Samsung Gear VR, are affordable enough for the general population, VR is more thoroughly weaving its way into our daily lives.

Augmented reality, too, is becoming a powerful player in the tech scene. Niantic’s inclusion of (somewhat clunky) AR in Pokémon Go delighted some players, especially those who spotted Pokémon on their toilets. Snapchat’s experimentation with AR brought us the infamous dancing hot dog, and we continue to see silly, crass, and disturbing iterations of the meme to this day.

In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of this meme sociologically is the collective assignment of certain character traits to an imaginary figure. We seem to have agreed that the dancing hot dog can and will steal your girl without hesitation. In addition, the dancing hot dog is enviably suave and possesses divine power. Memers worldwide have come to a collective agreement about the personality of this hot dog, and to assign traits to it that deviate from this agreement would result in confusing, misguided memes.

The popularity of the dancing hot dog also marks a shift in Snapchat filters’ appeal; most popular filters involve the front-facing camera, but this filter turns the focus away from the Snapchat cinematographer and onto the outside world. I can’t resist making the observation that Snapchat’s dancing hot dog filter flies in the face of many concerned thinkpieces that condemn milennials’ love of selfies. The dancing hot dog refocuses the energy from milennials’ supposed egotism to a new kind of cultural obsession — an obsession with the unreal becoming real.

Stay with me here. I’m going to take a quick detour into the world of semiotics — the world of signs, symbols, and their distribution. Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction makes the argument that the ability to mass reproduce a piece of art degrades its “aura.” In Benjamin’s opinion, this is a good thing — reducing high art’s metaphysical power represents a democratization of art as a whole.

Now, let’s think about Walter Benjamin’s argument as it applies to Snapchat’s dancing hot dog meme (never dreamed I would write that sentence). I’d like to make the suggestion that this meme doesn’t only contradict Benjamin’s claims, it redefines the idea of “aura” and artist entirely. Benjamin was basically stating that an artist created a work of art by representing something else and, in so doing, imbuing that representation with an intangible “aura.” He was writing about painters and sculptors, not Snapchat users, but the same principle of creation and distribution applies to the hot dog meme; mass reproduction allowed for mass printing of copies of paintings, just as the combination of Snapchat and the wider Internet allows for mass distribution and redistribution of the dancing hot dog.

Here’s where it gets interesting. While Benjamin points out that mass reproduction diminishes a piece of art’s aura, I think that in the case of the dancing hot dog, the art’s aura would not exist without mass reproduction. Rather than thinking of Snapchat as the Creator of the meme, we must consider Snapchat users’ photos and videos as the collective creations of the meme — the paradoxical creation of the original only through its reproduction.

Now, you might be thinking, “But Snapchat created the hot dog filter in the first place.” Maybe so, but Snapchat did not create the meme. Snapchat provided, let’s say, the means of production, but it is the users who collectively crafted the true character — the aura — of the hot dog image.

Let’s go back to our discussion of augmented reality. I think it’s important to consider that the dancing hot dog is somewhat unique in that it inhabits the Snapchat user’s surroundings. The dancing hot dog requires augmented reality to exist as we know it. This means that, obviously, the Snapchat user has the power to introduce the dancing hot dog into their environment at any given time.

Augmented reality introduces some confusion to the concept of artistic representation. Many sculptures exist as representations of something real. Snapchat’s hot dog meme, however, does not seem to be a representation of anything that existed prior. In the usual process of artistic representation, an artist creates a representation of something real. In augmented reality, an artist introduces an empty representation into the real world, giving that representation a subject through its context. The image of the dancing hot dog has no significance without context.

What I’m trying to say is that the dancing hot dog meme is an indication of a massive shift in the very means of representation. Whereas the traditional process of representation involves taking the real and making it unreal (representing a human figure with a sculpture), this new process involves taking the unreal and making it real. The hot dog meme is not a case of virtual reality — it does not exist in its own imagined realm. Rather, it is a case of augmented reality where its introduction into the “real” landscape augments that landscape entirely. I put the word “real” in quotes because, of course, the dancing hot dog only exists in our world through Snapchat: through film.

Or does it?

When people think about things that have the power to alter reality as we know it, I doubt that the dancing hot dog qualifies. As ridiculous as it seems to say, though…shouldn’t it? Who is to say that the reality we can touch supersedes the reality we can film? And when representation starts with the representation and ends with that which it represents, who can really say where representation ends and real begins?