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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Internet Memes and their history revisited

Internet Memes and their history revisited

The story behind LOLCats, I Can Has Cheezburger and other ‘meme’ sites.

So I herd u like mudkips.

Oh noez. Wer didz da floorz go?

Ceiling Cat is watching you …

If you don’t have the foggiest idea what we’re talking about, you’re probably unfamiliar with LOLcats, one of the stranger phenomena to emerge from the Weird Wide Web. Quite possibly, you also limit your associations to people who are reasonably sane.

LOLcats — that’s short for “laugh out loud” cats – are simply images of cats emblazoned with a giant caption reading along the lines of the oddball phrases above. Posted on public message boards to be shared by millions, these captioned critters have spawned an online craze.

(© Daniel Smith/zefa/Corbis)

Welcome to the world of Internet memes. Any nugget of digital media that has caused a major online buzz — a doctored photo, a video clip, a rumor, catch phrase or scam — can qualify as a meme. Typically, they first circulate in small online communities before being catapulted to fame by means of a few million clicks. The next thing you know, people are talking about LOLcats or laughing about Star Wars Kid and Chuck Norris Facts around the water cooler.

That’s the essence of Internet memes (rhymes with “dreams”): They are inside jokes that have hit the big time. They’re frivolous, though the best ones are genuinely entertaining. They’re viral and contagious, but not measurably bad for you.

Let’s back up a few years.


(© GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images)

What do you meme?

If you were to ask a philosopher what a “meme” is, she’d define a term coined in 1976 by an Oxford professor named Richard Dawkins. In a nutshell, Dawkins sought a simple term for a “unit of cultural transmission” — a complex idea that can be boiled down and easily shared. Fusing the words mime (for the replication of ideas) and gene (for the role genes play in evolution), he came up with meme.

Though Dawkins had something a bit more sophisticated in mind, some of the cultural units we’re transmitting over the Web today happen to take the shape of fat cats. LOLcats, the Internet equivalent of those porcelain kittens and puppies so beloved by grandmothers, first came to fame in 2006 and soon appeared by the litter on the image boards of sites such as 4chan and I Can Has Cheezburger. They draw millions of views because they are simple, innocuous and occasionally amusing. People apparently find them cute ’n cuddly, though in reality it’s kind of hard to snuggle up to JPEG.

(© GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images)

Another key to LOLcat popularity is the ease with which they can be created and shared. In the early days, way back in 2006, LOLcats could be generated easily enough by anyone with a crude grasp of Photoshop. Today, it’s effortless. With an online Lol Builder it takes no more than a minute to select an image, add a caption and post it for all to see (check the one we built while finishing this sentence).

However, you’ll need to have some grasp of “lolspeak” to write an appropriate caption. Phrases like “I’z in ur Internets” and the prototypical “I Can Has Cheezburger?” are characteristic of lolspeak, which is a distant cousin of l337speak. It’s not so much a language as a phonetic equivalent that leaves the reader sounding like a cross between Snoop Dogg and Jar Jar Binks.

Meme milestones

(© Meredith Parmelee/Getty Images)

LOLcats are neither the beginning nor the end of online memes. Where there’s a stage there will always be a steady stream of performers, and the Web has provided an audience of unprecedented proportions. Over the past few decades, a number of jesters have vied for the crowd’s attention with their online memes.

Most appear to be in the game for the laughs or a momentary flash of fame. More ambitiously, some are in it to promote an idea and turn it into a commodity: If an online meme gets so big that it rubs elbows with offline culture, advertisers will soon arrive with their wallets open. It’s a rare occurrence, but for meme creators and advertisers alike, it’s pay dirt.

For example, Hamster Dance (see below) became such a sensation that it led to bumper stickers, an album release and use in a commercial by Internet service provider Earthlink. The animated TV series “South Park” got a boost to its buzz when the pilot became a viral video hit. Budweiser’s “Whassup?” ads are an example of an Internet meme in reverse: They were first a hit on television, then crossed to the Internet when fans created spoofs using Super Friends and Teletubbies.

Here’s a selection of milestone memes (with thanks to Dipity for tagging them to a timeline), plus a handful of sites noted for their ever-growing archives.

DANCING BABY (1996) – a 3-D animation of a creepy baby doing a creepy dance. This meme jumped the shark when it appeared as an apparition to the title character on TV’s “Ally McBeal,” swiveling its hips to the ooga-chaka opening of the B.J. Thomas song “Hooked on a Feeling.”

JUMPING THE SHARK (1997) — a phrase connoting the point at which a concept has headed irreversibly downhill. It’s based on the episode of “Happy Days” in which Fonzie jumps over a shark tank on water skis.

BERT IS EVIL (1998) — evidence that the unibrowed Muppet from “Sesame Street” is the spawn of Satan, as substantiated by a collection of “Zelig”-style photographs.

HAMSTER DANCE (1998) — an animated GIF that featured rows of hamsters bopping to a tune from Walt Disney’s “Robin Hood” cartoon, which is sung as if the merry band of thieves were sucking on helium..

ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US (2001) — a phrase of broken English dialogue excerpted from the Japanese video game “Zero Wing.” AYBABTU became a battle cry among gamers.

GREAT WHITE ATTACKS HELICOPTER (2001) — a hoax image, handily debunked by Snopes.

STAR WARS KID (2003) — viral video of a teenage boy rehearsing his best lightsaber moves though armed only with a golf ball retriever. Hilarious to all but the poor kid on tape.

O RLY? (2003) — an image of a white owl with the giant caption O RLY? (“Oh really?”), used in online forums as a sarcastic rejoinder. The O RLY? owl was a precursor to LOLcats.

CHUCK NORRIS FACTS (2005) — widely circulated list of “facts” attesting to the awesomeness of the action hero (e.g., “When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn’t lifting himself up — he’s pushing the Earth down”).

DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK (2007) — a five-second video of a chipmunk (actually, it’s a prairie dog) glaring into the camera, synced to the soundtrack of a 1940s thriller.

RICKROLLING (2008) — an online prank in which users are unexpectedly linked to the ghastly Rick Astley music video “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Sites

YTMND.COM – You’re the Man Now Dog features creations based on user-edited images, video and audio.

ICANHASCHEEZBURGER.COM – unofficial home of the LOLcat.

SOMETHING AWFUL – community-generated comedy, in mixed media.

Why ask why?

At this point you may be wondering what memes mean and what purpose they serve the user. After deep consideration and analysis, we’ve arrived at this conclusion: very, very little. At best they provide some fodder for a slack-time surf on the Web when everyone thinks you’re getting some work done. Memes are made by people who have lots of time to kill, for other people who don’t.

For a site hosting memes, however, they provide the most valuable commodity on the Internet: eyeballs. When a site can prove a high volume of traffic, it stands to draw advertisers and gain hard value. Just ask Ben Huh, who with investors paid $2 million for ICanHasCheezburger.com after being impressed by the millions of page views the site was drawing every month. Huh, now the site’s CEO, estimates they will soon cap 100 million views per month. He’s capitalizing on the traffic with sister sites such as ihasahotdog (lol dogs), ROFLrazzi (lol celebs), Engrish Funny and Failblog.

If you’re actively seeking a distraction online, you won’t have to search for long. Someone out there knows that whether you’re bedazzled or bored by the current crop of memes, chances are good you will soon be surfing for more.

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