The rise of the meme

The rise of the meme

By Joe IdeasTap 29/07/11

“Om nom nom”, keyboard cats (pictured), Star Wars kid – what do they all have in common? They’re all memes, of course. Joe Hooper investigates the history and meaning behind this internet phenomenon...

A meme (a term first coined in the ’70s by Atheist boffin Richard Dawkins) can be anything: a video, a picture or a moving GIF of a look one character gave another in a film 20 years ago. Memes transmit cultural ideas from person to person – from the ridiculousness of Princess Beatrice’s Royal Wedding hat to the US Government reaction to Osama bin Laden’s death.

More often than not, even when dealing with serious issues, memes are supposed to be humorous or irreverent. Some are designed to satirise a current event, others to lampoon a celebrity and others they are just plain silly. Part of the humour comes from a knowledge of previous incarnations of the meme and even the original material used. 

You could probably read everything there is to read about them and not fully understand where they begin and end – or maybe that’s just me. Memes can provide a mirthsome half-hour at work, or you could get caught in a meme wormhole where, before you know it, you’ve lost an entire afternoon looking at pictures of Keanu Reeves eating a sandwich.

By their nature, memes exist partly in a collective online consciousness. The difference between a meme and a viral is the fluidity of their content. In other words, it’s a bit like Chinese whispers in that they change and evolve over time. For example, the Downfall parody Angry Hitler has spawned versions satirising the unreliability of Windows Vista to the 2009 Romanian general election.

Early this year, Downfall’s distribution company, much like Angry Hitler, had enough and decided to delete all parodies from YouTube. Needless to say, this provoked a whole new rash of Angry Hitlers. 

Memes are so popular, they now have their own convention. ROFLCon has been held for three years now featuring such luminaries as Charlie Schmidt of Keyboard Cat fame and Ben Huh, creator of I Can Haz Cheezburger. This year’s gathering was at SXSW, no less.

Surely the ultimate extension of all of this is Anonymous, an association originating on imageboard website 4chan (the birthplace of lolcats). A tag of Anonymous is assigned to visitors who leave comments anonymously. As the popularity of imageboards increased, the idea of Anonymous as a collective of unnamed individuals came to be.

From its online beginnings in 2003, Anonymous has grown from a meme to an actual organisation. There is a more punkish, political slant to their brand of civil disobedience, which ranges from simple online vandalism (flooding YouTube with porn – the user reactions to which spawned their own memes) to protesting against the Church of Scientology. All you need to do to join is carry out an act online – you’re out the group if your identity is ever revealed. Real-world meet-ups see members show up in their trademark Guy Fawkes V for Vendetta masks. 

The meme is certainly on an upward trajectory. Wendi Deng’s intervention has become the latest event to be sucked into the memosphere. There’s already a video of the phone hacking scandal parodying Rebecca Black’s Friday – something that could also be classed as a meme.

Anyone’s brain hurting yet?

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