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Although the term “meme” dates back to Richard Dawkins and his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”, the more commonplace use of the term refers to internet memes. This term, itself a good example of a meme, has come to refer to concepts, ideas and catchphrases that are spread around the web, gaining recognition and popularity as they spread through email, forums, imageboards and however else, becoming a sort of “personal joke”.
One common example to illustrate some key traits of an internet meme is lolcats. The term lolcat (otherwise known as a “cat macro”) refers to an image of a cat with a humorous caption (usually phonetically spelled and grammatically incorrect) that explains what the cat is doing. This internet meme started, as many memes do, in the cankerous depths of imageboard website, 4chan. The images were funny, so they found themselves reposted to other forums and sites. In this case the site “Something Awful” was the main contributor to the viral spread.
The original lolcat image is unknown, but that is not entirely important. As more people viewed them, more people made them, sometimes adding something slightly different. Some included photoshopped elements, others incorporated animals. Over time the idea evolved so radically and vastly that certain more famous lolcat images spawned their own series of imitations, such as tank cat and “I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER”.
This is one of the older internet memes, but it works as an example because of its massive proliferation, rather than being merely the inside joke of a group of some devoted users. For example, my mother gets emails of lolcats from my aunt. This is no underground phenomenon. The majority of internet memes, however, are local to certain communities or at least full time web denizens. It’s impossible to list all, or even close to all, of the memes floating around the web. There are just far too many and there is no threshold level for any concept to be considered a meme (having a personal joke sent via email between two friends is technically a very small internet meme).
An example of a smaller meme that has gained popularity recently in South Africa is “Don’t touch me on my studio!“. This is in reference to an altercation between right-wing AWB secretary general Andre Visagie and political analyst Lebohang Pheko on national TV news broadcaster eNews that went viral on YouTube in April this year.
The video has spawned dozens of dance remixes incorporating snippets of the video, edited video clips and screenshots that appear all over the web. The phrase “Touch me on my studio” has become multi-purpose, with many different, but no particular meaning.
Although this meme gained rapid popularity, it quickly fizzled out. Most memes simply fade from view after a few months. Those that do not, such as lolcats, are the exceptions.
Most of these memes appear to be rather silly. So is it really worth analysing them any further? Is it really worth our time to look more closely at the spread of memes like: “All your base are belong to us!”, the Goatse.cx image, the infectious “Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger etc.” video, or the series of Hitler parody videos? Are these not simply the idle musings of millions of bored desktop slouchers? Well, yes, to a degree they are, but there are two main reasons why these memes — and the way they spread — are important.
Firstly, these bored users that spread memes are the world’s greatest marketing force. Not only are they consumers, but also promoters. This is the basis of internet viral marketing. A meme that endorses a specific product… or promotes a certain behaviour, is one of the most powerful forms of advertising.
For an example of a financially successful internet-meme styled marketing strategy, we can look at Will It Blend? — a marketing campaign by Blendtec, a company that makes blenders. It’s a series of YouTube videos where Blendtec founder Tom Dickson shows off the Blendtec blender by blending an assortment of items, some appropriate for blending, others not. Not only does this provide entertainment to those who watch it, but it also illustrates the power of the blender itself. The videos went viral, and were reposted to social networks across the internet (particularly Digg). On a recent video, Dickson blends the new Apple iPad.
The video has so far received more than seven million views. Millions actively followed the link, loaded the video, and watched it on YouTube. To illustrate this relatively, Smallville (Season 7, 2007) had on average 3,7-million viewers is the US. An advert of equal length to “Will It Blend?” during Smallville, would cost around $291 000. Now, consider that these viewers are actively seeking out and watching the unusual blending video, while Smallville viewers are likely taking a toilet break, fast-forwarding their PVR, or otherwise not paying much attention to their TV. And it costs pretty much nothing to host a video on YouTube.
The second reason why it is important to understand the nature of memes is a reason less commercial and more academic. The original 1976 definition of a meme is far more basic and all inclusive than that of what we know today as an “internet meme”. Memetics is the study of human culture through evolutionary theory, with memes as the hypothetical base units of culture.
Memes, in the internet sense, are simply modern manifestations of ideas that have always traversed society. As genes have constructed our modern bodies, memes have constructed our modern minds. They are the concepts that spread from person-to-person through talking, writing, gestures or any possible form of communication. Concepts have always spread virally in these forms, spreading and evolving until they form the complex patterns of beliefs and behaviours we see today. This is the theory behind memetics. Whether you accept this down to the base building blocks of culture or not, there is no denying there are concepts that travel between people, spreading and growing into something entirely more complex.
On the internet we are watching this happen more accurately than ever before. Whilst previously, historians and academics have had to dig up archives and artefacts to trace the roots of ideas and behaviours, the internet stores information and allows its movements to be tracked. We can understand how memes spread, where from, and how quickly. We can watch their popularity rise and fall, and often trace them back to a particular source. The application of this is vast. Not only can we, for example, trace the success of marketing campaigns, but learn how information travels between people in a way that has never been available before.
Psychologists and sociologists have long studied how negative memes spread — how racism and intolerance takes root in populations, how communities develop prevailing attitudes and beliefs. The internet allows for another, albeit underused, means to follow the development of these kinds of human traits.
As for internet memes, however, most are simply “for the lulz”. They usually drift between grossly inappropriate, cute, funny or simply bizarre (WTF). Even following these trivial memes allows us to understand how information spreads, and what people find interesting — especially in an age where we are no longer being fed information by authorities, but have the capability of sharing exactly what we want to whom we want.
In many ways the creation and distribution of memes illustrate what is probably one of the purest democratic process around. For all intents and purposes, memes have become one of the underground languages of the new world — one of the most accurate representations of the current zeitgeist.