Before I begin my musings on Meme Culture—particularly Internet Meme Culture—I ask that you please take a look at a short video I recorded. It is an undercover video of our professor, Tony, talking about memes. Click here for an interesting exposé.
If you are unfamiliar with memes, you might be asking, what just happened and where is the video of Tony? Actually, you have been rickrolled and the video does not exist. Rickrolling is an Internet meme that is essentially a bait-and-switch model where the user is clicks on a link that is a seemingly relevant topic and is instead directed to the 1987 music video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The user might think that they are clicking on a link to see the trailer for the newest Twilight movie, but instead they are treated to something more bearable…Rick Astley. The first known use of the rickroll was on 4chan’s videogame page when the trailer for the videogame Grand Theft Auto IV came out and sites were bogged down with heavy traffic. Rickrolling reached its peak in 2008 when many websites over the world used it as an April Fool’s Day joke in some form or another. Also in 2008, several political blogs unwittingly posted what they thought was a video of Michelle Obama going on a tirade full of racist diatribes full of “Whitey this” and “Whitey that.” These bloggers never clicked on their own link because they would’ve been sent to Astley’s video.
What is a meme?
The word meme is derived from the Greek root mimeme meaning “Imitated thing” with allusions to memory and mime. It is also similar to the French word meme, which means “the same”. Richard Dawkins in The Seflish Gene (1976) coined the word as a concept to discuss the spread of cultural concepts similar along the lines of evolution. Yes, rickrolling is a cultural concept and the video to date has over 62 million hits. This is not an insignificant number, which is why Internet Memes deserve to be studied further.
In Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, a meme is defined as “any idea, behavior, or skill that can be transferred from one person to another by imitation: stories, fashions, inventions, recipes, songs, ways of plowing a field or throwing a baseball or making a sculpture.” This could include a dance, an image, a phrase, religious beliefs, proverbs, urban myths, concepts, nursery rhymes, or other cultural concepts that get passed on. A definition of an Internet meme would be a virtually transmitted cultural symbol or social idea. Internet memes are often images, hyperlinks, videos, pictures, websites, hashtags, intentional misspellings, etc. Internet memes are multimodal and rely on social participation through sharing re-mixing, reposting, and user-generated content.
Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video, dramatic prairie dog, David after the dentist, Numa Numa dance, keyboard cat, planking, LOLcats, Chuck Norris facts, incredibly photogenic runner, planking, ermagherd, honey badger don’t’ care, double rainbow, binders full women—these are all recent popular Internet memes and the list goes on. Odds are you have heard some of the memes before but there is an indeterminable amount of Internet memes left off this short list and the list grows daily.
An interesting differentiation between the memes Blackmore identified and Internet memes are the “templatability” of online memes. This means that an Internet meme can be altered or even created following templates of previous memes. One of the earliest forms of the online meme is called the macro. An image macro is a picture with superimposed text. The combination creates a type of cultural meaning. Images are usually representations of an emotion or action—often in the form of a human or an object or animal that has been personified. The text of the caption is usually in a large point size. The first acknowledged use of the macro was for the 2001 O RLY snowy owl. It was used in forums to respond to a doubtful statement. It was a hyperlink that had to be expanded to see the comment. The expansion code is called a macro, hence the name.
Macros are the most prevalent meme on the Internet and are created by various Internet cultures and spread on sites like 4chan, Reddit, Imgur, and many others including Facebook. Below are some of the most famous of the macros:
Below is a poorly made example of a meme that has been created using a template:
A perfect example of how social participation and templatability plays a role in meme culture is when a Buzzfeed community contributor wanted to propose to his longtime girlfriend (and DePaul NMS grad) Katie Holland. He wanted to do it in a unique way—through a meme. He took the common format of a macro meme and remixed it to fit his purpose and created his proposal. It gained some traction and made it to the main page of Buzzfeed.
Birth of a meme
I will share with you an example of how a meme is born and spread through a community. The image below was shared on ihatethisluzsong’s Tumblr page. User kitchikishangout left a comment to a “What is your Werewolf Name?” generator (a meme within itself). He found out that by entering the first letter of his first name and the last letter of his last name and looking at the corresponding lists, his generated werewolf name was Moon Moon. See his comments below.
Soon after his comment about his name was released, images began to pour in about Moon Moon on Imgur, Reddit, 4chan, and others. They used common macro templates and a meme was born:
You can Google “moon moon” to find out more. Please don’t bing it. Moon moon is a smaller meme within a smaller community. You most likely won’t see it posted on someone’s Facebook page. What makes one meme viral and the other moon moon?
The Science of Memes
Getting back to the creator of the moniker meme, there really is a science to memes and it is based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is important for marketers, business owners, and communicators to understand how these memes flow through culture if they want to use it to their advantage. Dawkins offers a definitive set of characteristics that successful memes have. All successful possess some sort of fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. Fidelity refers to the qualities of a meme so that it can be easily passed from mind to mind as a valid concept. Fecundity is the term used to describe how quickly a meme permeates a culture. One that spreads quickly is more likely to be successful than a “Good Guy Tony” for instance. Longevity obviously is a key characteristic of memes. The longer they are in play, the more successful the transfer on cultural information will be.
But how do they spread? There’s a lot of studies linking memes to human genes. Scientists are studying whether they can pass cultural information much in the same way that a gene passes biological information. But that is a topic for another day. Perhaps Friday.