The other day I was reading an article a friend of mine (Melisser, this is ALL your fault) shared on Facebook. The article, “The 50 Greatest Internet Memes of 2011,” is, as you might imagine, a deep wormhole. Not only is the article long (it covers, in detail, 50 different internet memes), but it includes links to various iterations of these popular memes. It took me almost an hour to get through the first five. Afterwards I cursed myself for wasting precious grading time. When you pay other people to take care of your children so that you can work, wasting an hour on nonsense is unacceptable.
The real question here is not why did I spend a precious hour of my work day reviewing the top internet memes of 2011. Clearly, Hipster Cop and Paula Deen riding things are awesome. But why are they awesome?
Given the rampant popularity of internet memes, it should not be surprising that there is a growing body of work on the subject. Memes are not simply photoshopped images shared on social media and on Internet clip shows for the amusement of those of us who spend long periods of time sitting in front of a computer each day. They form our social and cultural networks. The term “meme” (short for “mimeme”) dates back to Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene (1976). He refers to memes as “units of cultural transmission.” For example, if I read an article detailing a new approach to say, the critical analysis of widgets, I might mention it to my colleague, an analytical widget specialist. She might then write about it in a paper that she plans to deliver at the National Association for the Critical Analysis of Widgets (aka, NACAW). In turn, people sitting in the NACAW audience, listening to my colleague deliver her paper, will hear that idea, putting it to other purposes, in a variety contexts. The idea spreads as it multiplies. In this way, Dawkins argues, memes are like viruses:
When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. (192)
This sounds a little bit like the zombie apocalypse but you won’t need to worry about that for at least 3 more years. Let’s move on, shall we?
Like zombies, we shouldn’t think of memes simply as the innocuous debris of popular culture. As Karl Hodge explains in a article for The Guardian, written all the way back in 2000:
[Memes] are much more than just whispers being passed down a line. Religion and ritual are memes, as are fashions, political ideas and moral codes.
They are copied from one person to the next, planting fundamental beliefs and values that gain more authority with each new host. Memes are the very building blocks of culture. Not every meme is a big idea, but any meme with the right stuff can go global once it hits the internet.
In “‘ALL YOUR CHOCOLATE RAIN ARE BELONG TO US’?: Viral Video, YouTube and the Dynamics of Participatory Culture,” Jean Burgess argues that internet memes are “a medium of social connection.” The value of any particular meme is based on its ability to generate more content, that is, on its “spreadability.” Burgess explains:
…in order to endow the metaphors implied by terms like “memes,” “viruses,” and “spreadability‘ with any explanatory power, it is necessary to see videos as mediators of ideas that are taken up in practice within social networks, not as discrete texts that are produced in one place and then are later consumed somewhere else by isolated individuals or unwitting masses. These ideas are propagated by being taken up and used in new works, in new ways, and therefore are transformed on each iteration – a “copy the instructions,” rather than “copy the product” model of replication and variation.
Indeed, the Paula Deen Riding Things meme offers potential meme participants an actual template to use, promising “anyone can do it”:
For me, at least, community is a major part of the appeal of most internet memes. When I see Paula Deen riding the balloon from the “balloon boy” hoax of 2009, I am delighted because 1) the image itself is funny and 2) because I know that the author of that content also found that image to be funny. The creator and I are linked by our shared laugh over the image of a tipsy Paula Deen riding a tinfoil balloon. Or how about the person who dressed up as Paula Deen Riding Things for Halloween and then herself became an example of Paula Deen Riding Things? When I look at this image I am delighted to think that there are other people who laughed as hard at this image as I did. Just like film genres, internet memes create a sense of community.
But the point of this blog post is not to explain what memes are or how they work, since there are many superior scholars handling those questions (see Works Cited for a few). What I am interested in is why internet memes make me laugh. Dissecting humor is no fun but I am consistently amazed by how funny certain memes become for me and by their ability to make me laugh out loud when I’m sitting alone at my computer. That’s a weird feeling. The memes that make me laugh the most have a few recurring traits:
The majority of memes rely on the recognizability of the image or video that is transmitted from user to user. If you cannot instantly see the resemblance between the meme and its source text (whether that source is something “in real life” or another meme), then the humor won’t work. For example, the humor of the amazing Pepper Spray Cop meme was based primarily on the recognizability of its source: the horrific police brutality that took place at a peaceful UC Davis student protest. This story was all over the news — particularly online — and the various YouTube videos documenting the protest have racked of millions and millions of views.
This meme is particularly interesting because its source text is incredibly disturbing, revealing the casual way in which someone in power is able to use a weapon of suppression on a peaceful citizen. But the meme’s power relies precisely on the viewer’s ability to register all of this tragedy, to recognize the new environment into which Pepper Spray Cop has been inserted, and to find humor in the very incongruity of their meeting. For this reason, I think the best examples of this meme are those which have PSC spraying symbols of innocence or peace:
As the old saying goes: comedy = tragedy + time
For all four years of college, I worked for the campus humor magazine. Often, in order to meet publisher deadlines, the staff would literally work all night: scanning images, laying out pages, and writing content. The last-minute content was almost always the product of delirium and repetition. What was not funny at 9 pm was very, very funny by 3 am. It’s all about the repetition: if say something unfunny often enough, eventually it will be funny. Even Henri Bergson knows that repetition is awesome, or so he says in his essay “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic.” He offers this example:
The same by-play occurs in the Malade Imaginaire. Through the mouth of Monsieur Purgon the outraged medical profession pours out its vials of wrath upon Argan, threatening him with every disease that flesh is heir to. And every time Argan rises from his seat, as though to silence Purgon, the latter disappears for a moment, being, as it were, thrust back into the wings; then, as though Impelled by a spring, he rebounds on to the stage with a fresh curse on his lips. The self-same exclamation: “Monsieur Purgon!” recurs at regular beats, and, as it were, marks the TEMPO of this little scene.
Let us scrutinise more closely the image of the spring which is bent, released, and bent again. Let us disentangle its central element, and we shall hit upon one of the usual processes of classic comedy–REPETITION.
I think, had Bergson has the opportunity to see the Nyan cat video, he would be using that as an example, rather than Moliere. Watch the following videos and I think you’ll agree. First, take a look at the original Nyan cat. You only need to watch it for about 30 seconds to get the point:
Then, there are Nyan cat videos which play with Nyan’s presumed ethnicity. This variation on the meme adds stereotypical signifiers of an identity — such as a turban and Bollywood music — to the source text:
There are versions of the Nyan cat meme that simply play with its addictive, seizure-inducing score:
Then there are the many Nyan cat videos that play with the Nyan cat’s presumed joie de vivre:
This one comes with an important warning “Eats Souls.” Please proceed with caution.
I had to stop watching this one around the 20 second mark:
And finally, Nyan IRL:
With every video I laugh harder until there are literally tears coming down my cheeks as I watch the still image of a cat with a pop tart tied to its back and a plastic rainbow placed next to its ass.
It is difficult to deny that part of the humor of many internet memes lies in mocking the source text. And it is always a relief to laugh at someone else since it means, for the time being, no one is laughing at you:
I don’t feel all that bad for celebrities who become memes or even “civilians” like Rebecca Black. I think if you put a video on YouTube in the hopes that it will make you famous, then you have to accept the consequences of “fame,” whatever form that fame might take. But I do feel bad for those unfortunate souls who did not intend to be on the internet but caught the snarky eye of a someone with access to Photoshop and WiFi (i.e., everyone):
This meme, Angry Vancouver Fan/Angry Asian Rioter, is particularly mean-spirited. I agree that rioting after a hockey game is stupid. Who watches hockey? But clearly the appeal of this image is who is doing the stupid rioting. Asians as well as Canadians are stereotyped as being mild-tempered pacifists (which is actually a stereotype worth embracing), and so this image appears especially outrageous. “How can this Asian Canadian young man have so much rage?” the internet wonders, “Let’s torture him for it!” Images like the one above remind me of a John Hughes movie: Angry Asian Rioter is Duckie and all of us on the internet are James Spader.
Sometimes the source text being mocked is the person sitting in front of the computer. For example, the “first world problems” or “white whines” meme that was so popular throughout 2011 mocks the idea that anyone living in a first world country and/or anyone who is white would have a legitimate reason to complain about their life:
In particular, this meme mocks individuals who use social media like Twitter or Facebook to lament the small inconveniences in their otherwise cushy lives, like finding pickles on your sandwich after you said “no pickles.” On the one hand, this mockery is deserved — with so much suffering in the world, is it legitimate to curse your cable provider for creating a DVR incapable of consistently recording the TV shows you program it to record? Sure. But next to famine and oil spills, not so much. The snark is well-deserved and as someone guilty of complaining about many first world problems, I recognize myself in this meme. I especially enjoy cursing my cable provider (you know who are. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE). This kind of meme serves a valuable social purpose — it forces many of us (or pretty much anyone who regularly consumes and distributes memes) to recognize our own privilege. The best humor holds up a mirror to society.
But let me add a brief sidenote to this “self loathing” aspect of memes. Consider the reaction to the consumer debacle that was Black Friday 2011. The image of people using pepper spray (pepper spray is having the best year EVER!) and guns in order to save a few dollars on their Christmas purchases, is disdainful. And memes like this one appeared:
And a non-comical one:
Both images paint the Black Friday shoppers as greedy, mindless consumers. And yet, should we really be shaming all of those people who stood in lines at midnight, hoping to snag a good deal? In America’s current, desperate economic climate, can we really mock those individuals who plot, plan and scheme to save money during what is the most expensive time of year? Sure, scrambling for a Barbie doll when little children (and adults and teenagers) in Africa are starving feels unreal. But for the unemployed and underemployed worried about putting a present under the tree, waiting on line for a cheap Barbie doesn’t seem so greedy or mindless.
But still, I mean, first world problems, people, first world problems.
Or Just Read this Flow Chart
Cracked.com also did an amazing job of explaining the humor of memes with this elaborate flow chart. I suppose you could have just clicked on this link and skipped my entire post. Yeah, sorry about that.
So, what are some of your favorite memes and why do they make you laugh? I think you know what mine is, at least for this week:
Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1911. http://www.authorama.com/laughter-1.html
Burgess, Jean. “‘ALL YOUR CHOCOLATE RAIN ARE BELONG TO US’?: Viral Video, YouTube and the Dynamics of Participatory Culture.” Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures. 101-109.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.