More to Memes Than Meets the Eye
Even if they're just LOLcats or Rebecca Black, memes have more impact than you think.
Ever get forwarded a funny video or spend time clicking through silly images from friends and co-workers? You've probably had plenty of contact with Internet memes just from casual Web browsing, but may not know who starts these fads -- or if anyone can stop them.
Most people have encountered memes online, and they're becoming an integral part of pop culture, often more widely viewed than popular TV shows and films, giving them a powerful impact that belies their sometimes throwaway nature.
There's more to memes than meets the eye, and as the Internet and technology become an essential, integral part of everyday life, we're just now starting to understand their power and impact.
What's in a Meme?
Richard Dawkins coined the term meme, pronounced "meem," in 1976 to describe the spread of ideas -- "a unit of cultural transmission." The reference gained traction on the Internet in the 2000s, with viral videos and images spreading swiftly with help from Internet forums 4Chan and Reddit.
Memes are contagious -- someone sees something funny, say, a picture of a dog wearing a ballerina costume, and sends it to friends. The picture continues to tickle friends and acquaintances, and its audience grows exponentially, at a rapid pace, powered by the Internet and now mobile technology.
Meet the Human Memes
Some memes are photos or illustrations of famous people, but others prominently feature regular folks who end up achieving Internet fame or notoriety. Who doesn't remember the groggy kid slurring his way through a conversation with his parent on the ride home from the dentist? This clip shows how videos posted by amused parents are catapulted to the national consciousness, seen by millions when the parents intended them only for a few dozen family friends.
Meme survivors recently convened at a panel meeting at MIT, featuring Paul "Double Rainbow" Vasquez and Nate Dern, the Redditor-turned- "Huh?" guy. ROFLCon gathers these online celebrities together to discuss the impact of memes on popular culture.
Over the past five years, the subjects of memetic viral videos have reached significant levels of fame. For instance, Rebecca Black, a teenager whose parents paid for her to record a vanity music video, "Friday", became a national punchline. The video's amateur production values and lyrics, coupled with Black's earnest delivery, amused Internet commentators, who circulated the clip on forums and blogs.
By the time the major news outlets picked up the story, "Friday" had already been seen by 30 million people on YouTube, been subject to countless remixes, and made Black a household name. Since YouTube generates revenue, Black wound up making a decent chunk of change on her video, though she became a laughingstock doing so.
Black courted fame by paying for and releasing a music video. Even if she did not expect the reaction, she set out to evoke some sort of public response. But many human memes have little control over how they shoot to fame, inadvertently feeling the glare of the spotlight.
Antoine Dodson found himself on the radio and national news after being interviewed for a local news team after the attempted rape of his sister. Although the situation was no laughing matter, Dodson gave a spirited interview, and a team of Internet jokesters called "Remix the News" turned the clip of Dodson explaining what happened into "Bed Intruder", a catchy song. Dodson made enough money from iTunes and donations from fans to move out of the housing projects, showcasing how savvy Internet stars can parlay their fame into fortune.
More recently, the Internet exploded with chatter about "Ridiculously Photogenic Guy," a man snapped looking utterly put together while running an intense race. Like Dodson, the man in the picture did not court fame -- it just sort of fell into his lap.
"Ridiculously Photogenic Guy," a.k.a Zeddie Little, spoke with reporters about the incident, and took his new-found fame in stride. Dodson also enjoyed the perks of his newfound notoriety, landing a reality TV show. So even though these two had no control over their success as memes, they ended up enjoying the fruits of the experience even more than Rebecca Black, who put herself out there but ended up being treated with derision instead of amusement.
Sometimes memes take a turn for the out-and-out nasty, and end up hurting the feelings of an innocent person. This is especially clear in the case of Heidi Crowter, whose childhood picture went out without her permission or knowledge and people mocked her for her perceived lack of intelligence.
Crowter, who has Down's Syndrome, only recently discovered the cruel images, and her family and friends are fighting to get them taken down by petitioning Facebook and other sites where people shared the images. But they have an uphill battle ahead of them, as the meme spread quickly, leaving a long trail to clean up.
A photo posted to a site supporting people with disabilities was snatched by vicious pranksters and taken totally out of context, which demonstrates just how out of control memes can get.
The problem with memes, though, is it is incredibly difficult to trace them back to their origin point, and even harder to find all the pockets of the Internet they've reached.
How Do They Spread?
With an astonishing array of content available on the Internet, how do certain moments, images and clips shoot to fame while others stay anonymous?
Zachary M. Seward at the Nieman Journalism Lab highlighted the similarity between memetic spread and biological processes, explaining "memes in political reporting can be tracked with methods drawn from bioinformatics and genetic sequence analysis." Videos go "viral" because the way they spread is reminiscent of viruses, and the research Seward discusses indicates memes are so similar to biological dissemination they get tracked in a related fashion.
Some say memes spread because of their inherent value, but this conclusion is too simple and does not take into account how certain power-wielding people manipulate the flow of information to push certain memes to the forefront of Internet culture.
If an image or idea gets picked up by bigger news sources, moving from Tumblr to the Huffington Post, for example, its chances of going viral skyrocket. Sometimes notable bloggers push memes into the spotlight, like when Perez Hilton or Videogum's Gabe Delahaye choose to write about them. Determining what makes a surefire viral video is almost as impossible as controlling the spread of a successful one.
Meme researcher Susan Blackmore calls Internet memes "temes", or ideas spread through technology. She also compares their spread to opening Pandora's box -- once a meme takes hold, it is impossible to squelch.
What Does This Mean?
Memes can impact the lives of people, as detailed above, but they also affect society at large, spreading ideas and information rapidly. The Obama administration jumps on opportunities to use social networking because of its ability spread information quickly, and to the desirable 18-to-34 demographic.
Meanwhile, politicians like Hillary Clinton have discovered it's best to go along with it when you find yourself caught in a meme. She gamely submitted her own entry to "Texts from Hilary," a blog celebrating her cool-headed persona. Of course, Clinton's meme portrayed her in a positive light, so it was likely easier to go along with than it would have been if the meme tried to insult her.
The stickiness and persistence of memes may demand some new digital citizenship skills to keep meme-making a humorous, positive experience. As people understand the origins of these images, they could be better informed, and as a result, better able to refrain from memes that poke fun at innocent people.
Users can tap Facebook and social networks to help curb the spread of offensive memes, if users report them. No single person can quell the tidal wave of attention memes get, but to be good netizens, individuals can refuse to take part in spreading those types of cruel-hearted images and videos, at the very least to make more time to enjoy the truly hilarious ones.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your experience and leave a comment below. ♦
Categories: Culture Desk