by Kurtis Doering
Have you ever been surfing the Internet and stumbled upon a picture of a cat with a broken, misspelled caption underneath it?
If so, then you have witnessed the building blocks of Internet culture; you have participated in a meme.
A meme (pronounced to rhyme with “cream”) is a unit of cultural transmission or imitation. The term was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene”. In the case of the Internet, a meme is any form of online phenomenon that has spread like wildfire via email, message boards, or social networking sites.
The endless series of captioned cat pictures populating the web are known as “LOLcats”. A smiling grey cat asks “I can has cheezburger?” in one of the best-known “LOLcat” images.
Chris Menning an Internet meme researcher for Knowyourmeme.com . “A certain image may become very popular, and be re-posted over and over, but it becomes a meme when people begin to create their own versions of it,” he explained.
One of the longest-running memes is the phrase “All your base are belong to us”: a quote from the laughably-translated Japanese video game Zero Wing. The Internet community took this phrase and ran with it, creating flash animations, T-shirts, and even Iraq war parody road signs.
Menning says that the most popular and widespread memes have two characteristics: they must evoke emotion, (be it laughter, annoyance, or even anger,) and they must have what Menning calls “exploitability.” That is, the ease by which someone can participate in the meme.
“LOLcats” for example, have inspired the creation of online meme generators which make it easy for anyone to create their own. As a result, the meme is no longer limited to people with skills in Photoshop, making “LOLcats” one of the most popular memes on the Internet.
Recently, rapper Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards spawned a barrage of imitations on online forums. Variations like "Yo Locke, I'm real happy for you and Imma let you finish, but Hobbes had one of the best theories on social contracts of all time” have made the incident a legitimate Internet meme.
4chan.org, and its founder “moot”, (whose real identity has never been confirmed by the media,) is widely credited with popularizing memes such as “LOLcats” and “Rickrolling”. For his efforts, the 21-year-old “moot” was honoured as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2009. Exposure like that has led 4chan.org to boast that it is “helping (to) define internet culture as you know it.”
Advertisers and marketing professionals are trying to capitalize on the idea of memes and Internet culture. Marketers behind Dos Equis beer have invited consumers to submit their own online quips about the company’s “most interesting man in the world” spokesman. Also, in advance of Weezer’s new album release “Raditude”, fans are being encouraged to exploit and alter a pre-release album cover using Photoshop. The best version will win the creator an LP-sized print of their creation signed by the band.
But Menning points out creating a meme is a hard proposition for marketers. “The Internet at large seems to prefer being in control of deciding what they value, not being told what they value” he says. Depending on the demographics of a particular Internet community, one group “might react negatively to the idea of a company that keeps tabs on what's going on in their ‘secret clubhouse’” while another “might be comprised of a significant number of people who are industry professionals themselves.”
British computer scientist Garry Marshall has studied the relationship between memes Internet culture. In his paper entitled “The Internet and Memetics”, he writes that online communities are defined by the memes they choose to carry on. If memes are selected on the basis of simplicity, (a Darwinistic “survival of the catchiest” model,) then these Internet cultures will be narrow and unstable. “Their precarious nature is re-enforced” he writes, “by the favouring of infectious memes over memes that might bring greater benefits in the long term”.
Whatever memes may bring to Internet culture, Chris Menning thinks they are more than just a passing fad. Memes, he says, will always “manifest themselves in whatever means we use for communication.
“I would venture to say that as long as we don't suffer some catastrophic social disaster that causes people to stop interacting, memes are here to stay.”