Having long been among the ranks of this century’s new household words, the Internet meme has been a long-lasting trend in the digitally connected world around us.
What is a Meme?
The Internet, however, did not birth memes at all. It simply provided a medium for them. The first record of the use of the word “meme” was in 1976, according to Merriam-Webster. The word stems from the Greek “mimema” or “that which is imitated.” Also according to Merriam-Webster, the word can be defined as, “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.”
This definition of what a meme is gives a clear picture of how the Internet could allow them to flourish. The Internet is arguably the strongest connecting force between all members of humanity at this time, and as such, the content created and propagated through its use allows for one individual to create or record something, and have it be imitated by hundreds, thousands, or millions of people more. If a meme is defined as something that can be imitated by others, then we start to see why Internet memes in particular have thrived in the modern technological world.
Why do memes exist? There are a variety of reasons. Strange or unique occurrences serendipitously recorded on video; coincidences that lined up on film; juxtaposition of something the general public feels passionate about and the reaction to it they’ve all wanted to see; memes come in many forms.
Actually, memes take so many shapes and sizes that it can be difficult, outside of a dictionary at least, to define exactly what they are. There are still-images, videos, and lines of text that all take on the title of “meme,” having come to the point where the general public usually knows about them and imitates them frequently.
Let’s look at some examples:
Lolcats (does anyone not know about these?)
Lolcats began to make their major debut in 2007. The idea is so simple and easy to copy that it quickly caught on: find a quirky cat photo, add poorly-grammared text, and publish. Also, the audience is nearly endless. For every person that gets tired of the same old cat memes, there are two more to fill in the ranks. This has given rise to the quip, “The Internet was made for cat photos.”
Cats aren’t the only one. Courage Wolf, Advice Duck, Confession Bear, and others have since joined the animal lolspeak meme community, and more come to take their place every day.
The Most Interesting Man in the World
Imaginative ad campaigns often lead to less-imaginative memes. Dos Equis Beer debuted their “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign in 2007. It was intentionally over the top, and the main character, who goes without name, is shown doing all kinds of adventurous, sophisticated, manly things. The tagline of the ads was always, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, it’s Dos Equis.” The populations of the Internet decided that was worth their attention, and parodies started to appear almost immediately, taking the same image template and adding different text within the same structure as the original tagline.
This has occurred with many advertising campaigns, more notably Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign, and Billy Mays’ many similar television ads.
Kooky behavior, complete with quotable lines and distinct characters, will also often make its way into memedom. Antoine Dodson is an example of this, becoming famous overnight when the local news covered an alleged attempt at rape aimed at his sister.
Dodson became very…articulate…in his description of what had happened. The news chose to air his remarks. Within hours, and the following days, his popularity spread across social media and blog sites dedicated to creating this kind of meme.
Dodson is not the only one who has achieved fame in this way. Videos such as “Double Rainbow” and the “Trololololol” singer have become increasingly common in recent years.
There are too many specific memes to explore every genre of them, but these three provide a very general overview of the different classes of memes circulating in the Internet currently. Most Internet memes are based in humor at this point, although it was not always so.
How Does the Internet Make Memes Possible?
Before the Internet, for a meme to start to be propagated among the general populace, it had to be televised or incredibly common in the advertising of the day. One example of this is Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” sketch, which remains a meme today.
The Internet hasn’t created memes so much as it has given anyone and everyone the ability to distribute and multiply them over a larger audience. The connection the Internet provides means that a new meme can not only be distributed to and imitated by much of the human race, but it can also be modified on.
Another way the Internet has given rise to meme culture is in the occurrence known as “going viral.” Actually, a meme is defined by Internet For Beginners as “A virally transmitted cultural symbol or social idea. A meme (rhymes with ‘team’) behaves like a flu or a cold virus, traveling from person to person quickly, but transmitting an idea instead of a lifeform.”
Memes typically go viral by being published in a public forum, notable examples of which being 4-chan, Tumblr, Imgur, and other image boards for image or text-based memes, and Youtube and Vimeo for video-based memes. These sites have front pages and featured works that are either featured because of their viral nature or featured to help them go viral.
How Do Memes Affect Us?
The effects of these memes on modern society as a whole is surprising. How could pictures of a cat with text influence the way humans communicate? The answer is simple: by causing us to reference the memes frequently.
This is the essence of a meme: we imitate them. Those familiar with memes often quote or act out a meme in the presence of friends who have also seen it. In my own family, first my brother and I, and now my parents as well, can and often do communicate extensively by quoting memes which convey a specific message, nuance, or emotion.
This makes sense when considered in the light that Clay Shirky, an American writer specializing in Internet communication theories, shines on Internet memes, classifying them generally as “communal,” or social creations, meant to build comradery and friendship between individuals or groups through collective humor and entertainment.
In closing, memes are a daily part of life, and often reflect the general tastes and attitudes of our society. What we want as a society will likely determine the memes of tomorrow, just as with any other trend. Understanding the memes that Internet culture celebrates will be an important part of understanding our society’s culture in the years to come.