The anatomy of a meme

Fame is a weird thing.

Thirty years ago, it was something you built out of good looks, talent, guile, no small amount of luck, and occasionally, a judicious application of sex and drugs. These days, it's turning into the province of chubby people who earnestly lip-sync to the Numa Numa song, of jovial-looking cartoon cats sandwiched between Pop Tarts, of badly-drawn stick figures, and ridiculously photogenic men.

Welcome to the world of Internet memes.

If you're reading this, you've likely already encountered at least one meme. They're everywhere. In fact, you would probably have to try really hard to avoid making contact with an Internet meme. But, what are these things exactly? And more importantly, how do they work? Why are cat videos more popular than doggy antics? How did Derp and Derpina become the poster children of Internet forums everywhere? And why do some become a worldwide phenomenon while others do not?

Laine Nooney, a Ph.D Candidate at Stony Brook University and the person responsible for the Academic Coach Taylor meme, has spent a lot of time analyzing Internet memes.

"[Richard Dawkins] describes a meme as a 'unit of cultural transmission', a self-perpetuating cultural phenomena analogous to the gene as a replicator of a biological datum,'" Nooney explains. "The word itself is a portmanteau of mimemsis, the Greek word for imitation, and gene."

An example of Laine Nooney's "Academic Coach Taylor" image macros. [Credit: Academic Coach Taylor/Tumblr]

While fond of the pairing of the words, Nooney doesn't see Dawkins' biological parallels as being particularly useful. "For me, this makes me think that memes are typified by imitation according to a code or structure. Memes have many formal structures—image macros (which include 300-by-300s, screengrabs, cat photos, etc), GIFs, photobombs, supercuts, snowclones. The content varies, but the technological and formal structures provide a certain consistency. You spend enough time on the Internet and you begin to know what you're looking at."

Like the people who engineer them, Internet memes may share the same bones, but not the same faces. Nooney says that memes are a combination of "postmodern frivolity, extremely amplified pop culture intertextuality and self-reflexivity, and aesthetically pleasing forms of repetition."

In other words, there’s some seriously deep s**t buried in the bottom of 4chan. But why do we like them?

"A lot of the pleasure there is caught up in an arrangement of variation within repetition," says Nooney. "I think it's a similar pleasure we find looking at streams of 300-by-300 macros, watching similar phrases be repeated in a supercut, or same short jerky film clip trapped on endless repeat in a GIF file. It's repetition with a difference, imitation within a structure. "

"Meme culture demands you be 'in' on the joke."

Luckily, many of us are. It seems like seventy percent of Facebook posts are meme-based. If you can reply with just the right Leonardo DiCaprio or Keanu Reeves picture, you might just “win the thread.” Whatever prize that awards you in Internet culture, it’s a hefty one.

Ben Huh says we love them because, as a community, we've come to discover that the Internet "requires a special form of self-expression, that's more participatory and remixable."

Ben Huh, man of memes. [Credit: Cheezburger]

The CEO and founder of Cheezburger, Huh also has a simpler but not dissimilar explanation about what a meme really is. "A meme is any idea that passes from a person to another, and you can see examples of memes on almost every site online. Cheezburger has been creating communities around memes since 2007 and that's the content we commonly refer to as an Internet meme, which is a piece of content that is passed from person to person and remixed online."

While Huh might be the sovereign ruler of Cheezburger, the company behind websites like I Can Has Cheezburger? and Know Your Meme, he says that there are no hard and fast rules about Internet memes.

"Even inside jokes among a group of friends are a form of a meme. As for popularity, it really depends on the community where the meme gets distributed."

Though no one really knows how Internet memes begin, it's impossible to deny that Internet memes are a modern-day fixture. They're here to stay. The question now is, how long will a specific meme last?

Nooney claims that Internet memes lack an inherent lifespan:

"Something like Advice Dog has been around since 2006—but you'll notice it only became more [common] when MemeGenerator was put up in 2009, and then it was able to spin off a whole world of Advice Animals. Advice Dog itself may ebb in popularity, the cut-out head/colorburst background/impact text/bottom-line-punch-line is the form that actually proliferates, and will long outlive any singular instantiation of the meme. The form is always mutating. Whether or not they remain in the vocabulary depends on the education and interest of the user--they will always be intertextual to someone, but not everyone is "aware" of these histories."

Huh begs to differ. "The lifespan of a specific meme is getting shorter and shorter," he says. "They're like an episode of a popular sitcom. But memes themselves are spreading to a wider and less Web-savvy audience, which I think is awesome."

Internet memes are probably most comparable to viruses. They are dependent on living hosts, have the capacity to infect anything and everything, the ability to evolve, to grow and, most importantly, to spread.

Unfortunately, for those who don't enjoy Internet Memes, there is no known cure just yet.

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