EWFA Chapter 1
Chapter 1 - Memes: Shared Nuggets of Cultural Currency
“DUDE, YOU’VE GOTTA see this.”
The sound of machine gun fire filled my freshman dorm. Walking down the hallway, I’d hear the explosion of grenades and machine gun spray muffling anguished shrieks of the dying. This went on literally all day and night. It was 2002, and the bros on my hall were taking full advantage of our campus’s T1 Internet connection by playing a run-and-gun PC shooter game called Counter-Strike till dawn.
For many of us, it was our first exposure to high-speed Internet. Previously we had to share 56k connections with siblings. It would take minutes to download a basic webpage. I remember setting up a string of downloads before bed each night and letting my computer run till morning. If AOL deigned to not kick me off the connection, I’d have four or five new songs in the morning. In college, I could accomplish the same in minutes. Webpages with streaming video loaded instantaneously. For the first time, the Internet moved as fast as my imagination. The guys on my hall spent most of their days taking advantage of this garden of earthly delights in hundreds of ways, some more illicit than others.
I vividly remember some gawky kid running into my room, doubled over in laughter.
“Dude, you’ve gotta see this.”
“I can’t explain. Just google ‘gonads and strife.’”
I heard the pinging of instant messages being sent back and forth throughout the hall. Laughter bubbled up all around me. And the sound of a chipmunk-like voice filled the air.
“Gonads and Strife” was a crude Flash animation that featured a monkey in a suit, a hyperactive squirrel, Stephen Hawking, R2-D2, and a spinning anatomic figure of a penis soaring through a lightning-filled sky. It was profane, catchy, and defied explanation. It spread through campus like wildfire. Like a virus, actually.
I can’t explain why Gonads and Strife is funny. You pretty much had to have been male college freshman to appreciate it. For a moment there, before YouTube and the rise of user-driven content aggregators like Digg and Reddit, intensely creative folks uploaded their work to the web, and finding it felt like being in on something special. Gonads and Strife was far from the first meme I experienced, but it was the first time I’d seen anything “go viral,” although my friends didn’t have a name for it yet.
I can think of a dozen more flash animations that eventually surpassed it in popularity, but in my little world, Gonads and Strife was genius. We scratched our heads, “How did someone even conceive of this? I’ve never seen anything like it.” It wasn’t long before I was running into someone else’s room, saying, “Dude, you’ve gotta see this.”
A History of Memes
In the decade since, barely a day has gone by that I haven’t gleefully shared something from the Internet with a friend. The Internet is home to gigs upon gigs of content that compel viewers to share, participate, augment, parody, and otherwise own it. Today we call these bits of cultural currency memes. In order to understand why 4chan matters, we first have to understand memes.
Of course, memes were not born on the Internet. They’ve been driving the human sociocultural experience since before we scribbled on cave walls. Memes seek to replicate themselves laterally—the ideological or cultural equivalent of a gene, naturally arising from human interaction.
Ask evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins what a meme is and he’ll tell you this:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
This is an excerpt from Dawkins’s groundbreaking book, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. Dawkins didn’t originally come up with the idea of a meme, but he was the first one to use the word, and thus to inadvertently kick-start a new branch of anthropology called memetics, a catchall term for the study of human social evolution as opposed to biological evolution (i.e., genetics).
I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.
The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word ‘même.’ It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’
So, for Dawkins, religion is a meme. Art is a meme. Every form of human social expression is memetic. We are surrounded by memes, ranging from every family tradition we hold dear to the comics in today’s funny papers. Some memes are widespread, like progressivism. Others are specific and intimate, like the unique baby talk between mother and child.
Everything we do and say is an imitation, to some degree, of the things we’ve seen those around us do. In a matter of speaking, memes seek to replicate themselves. Of course, neither Dawkins nor I would argue that memes are sentient beings capable of “seeking” anything. Memes are simply mental expressions that behave like genes. But memes have several things in common with biological life-forms. That’s why we often refer to memes as “going viral.” They spread from person to person the way a virus does. Most of the time, we don’t even realize we are spreading them, the same way a beast plays host to an intestinal parasite.
Memes can be ideologies, trends, fads, gossip, jokes, music, fashion, or adages—any concept that can be shared from one person to another. They’re distinct and repeatable, and they live and die by natural selection in the same way that biological entities do. If a meme fails to spread, it’s dead.
In the notes in Dawkins’s 1989 reprint of The Selfish Gene, he admits that the word meme had become something of a strong meme in itself. In fact, his brief discussion of memes was only meant to serve a larger purpose: to establish that complex ecological systems arise from entities that seek to replicate.
I believe that, given the right conditions, replicators automatically band together to create systems, or machines, that carry them around and work to favour their continued replication. The first ten chapters of The Selfish Gene had concentrated exclusively on one kind of replicator, the gene. In discussing memes in the final chapter I was trying to make the case for replicators in general, and to show that genes were not the only members of that important class.
Although Dawkins had no intention of creating a grand unified theory for human culture (he eventually distanced himself from the term), a slew of memeticists picked up where he left off, attempting to use memes to explain all human behavior. Countless heady discussions followed, influencing fields like cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology, all dedicated to expanding Dawkins’s theory of self-replicating units of cultural transmission.
So how did we get from a broad, classical definition of a meme to an animated GIF of a dancing baby (or flying gonads)? Why has the term meme become so closely associated with web-borne viral content over the last ten years? Why, when we hear the word, do we think of something like the dancing baby rather than, say, Buddhism?
The Internet allows memes to spread more rapidly than any previous medium in human history. We now live in a world where any idea can be expressed instantly to nearly anyone on the globe, and millions of people take advantage of this capability every day, unconsciously spreading memes with every link shared, every video uploaded, every blog post written. Never before has the ratio of senders of memes to receivers of memes been so high.
Millions of memes are constantly fighting for your attention, for a chance to replicate. Meme populations grow and shrink in the “meme pool,” as public awareness expands and contracts. The structure of the web has been built around ensuring that the strongest memes made up of the most compelling, “sticky” content rise to the top. We see this principle in action in content aggregators like Reddit and Digg, which often collectively scrape content from, you guessed it, 4chan. This process is a part of a phenomenon I call the Meme Life Cycle, which I’ll explain later.
Since the Internet has made it so easy for memes to spread, it’s become inextricably linked with how most people understand memes. Ask a fifteen-year-old what a meme is and he or she will probably say something along the lines of, “Have you ever seen lolcats? What about Antoine Dodson? Double Rainbow?” They’ll rattle off Internet ephemera until you recognize something.
That’s because today the word meme is shorthand for “A piece of content (e.g., a video, story, song, website, prank, trend, etc.) that achieved popularity primarily through word of mouth on the web.”
When Internet phenomena such as viral videos, email-forwarded hoaxes, and web microcelebrities began to appear, journalists co-opted the term. As early as 1998, the word has been used to refer to bits of popular culture that are considered to be “from the Internet.” But what does that mean, exactly? It’s difficult to say, especially since the world of the web and the rest of popular culture are becoming increasingly intertwined.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a precise time when the word meme started to refer to bits of Internet-borne cultural iconography, like lolcats. I’d guess that Richard Dawkins would scoff at the bastardization of his term, especially since he distanced himself from it before the Internet ever co-opted it. We know that memes are propagated through social networks. This form of transmission is distinctly different from that of genes. You can’t share your genes with your pals. Because the Internet so tangibly manifests those social networks, the word meme became a convenient term to describe specific bits of information that are shared on those networks.
In 1998, Joshua Schachter, who later went on to sell social bookmarking platform del.icio.us to Google, started Memepool, a multiauthor blog that contained links to interesting and offbeat content on the web. It was part of a growing network of blogs like Boing Boing, Waxy, and Laughing Squid, who made up a vibrant culture of sharing cool Internet content. Memepool tracked stuff that was going viral. At the time, news outlets that profiled Memepool naturally referred to memes when describing the site’s subject matter.
In the mid-2000s, Jonah Peretti, who went on to found The Huffington Post and meme-tracker-of-note Buzzfeed, and Peretti’s colleagues at Eyebeam, a not-for-profit art and technology research center, put together a research group called Contagious Media. The group was dedicated to performing culture-jammy “viral experiments” to demonstrate how information is passed around on the web. The project launched such viral phenomena as Black People Love Us (a satirical site about a dorky white couple’s attempts to be accepted by the black community) and the “Nike sweatshop” email (a customer service exchange between Peretti and a Nike employee that resulted from Peretti trying to order a pair of customized shoes emblazoned with the word “sweatshop”). They held festivals and competitions based around this idea of contagious media.
Kenyatta Cheese, co-creator of Know Your Meme and former Eyebeamer, explains,
Jonah Peretti put together a Contagious Media Festival that was basically asking, “What is the science and culture behind the viral Internet?” As we collectively started taking the work of connecting viral media and connecting it back to the older theory of Dawkins, the word meme became the go-to term to describe viral content.
Somewhere between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, the word meme became synonymous with weird, cool, and silly web stuff, and most people remain unaware of its original meaning in the field of evolutionary biology. I hope Richard Dawkins can at least get a kick out of how the word’s definition has spread and evolved, memetically. In a 2010 interview with NPR, Dawkins said, “Well, I was pretty computer-literate for the time, but neither I nor anybody else, I think, had any very clear idea of what this enormous flowering that would become the Internet. It’s become the perfect ecology for memes. I mean, the Internet is now one, great, memetic ecosystem.”
Is Yosemite Bear, the burly eccentric who achieved cultural ubiquity with his famous expression of awe at the sight of a “double rainbow,” really all that different from Toby Radloff, the “genuine nerd” who became something of a pre-Internet microcelebrity when he starred in a series of MTV promotional shorts in the ’80s? Radloff was a coworker of comics legend Harvey Pekar, who featured Radloff in his American Splendor comics. Radloff was just a random weirdo who became known nationwide for a short while, not unlike Yosemite Bear and dozens of other web icons who’ve popped up on the mainstream’s radar over the last twenty years.
While the rise of Yosemite Bear and Toby Radloff share the same “look at this random everyday weirdo” element, the means by which each achieved mainstream exposure is different. Radloff got big because some TV execs decided he was a quirky character and put him on TV. Yosemite Bear eventually made it all the way to the small screen as well, but it happened because millions of links were instant-messaged back and forth. Thousands of tweets. Hundreds of blog posts. The rise was perpetuated by an unorganized grassroots movement. If you are aware of Yosemite Bear, it’s because his meme was strong enough to beat out the millions of other memes competing for your attention.
Memes had spread virally before the Internet as well. Consider the strange story of Shut Up Little Man, a series of recordings from the ’80s made by a couple of guys living in San Francisco. Fascinating documents of bizarre humanity, the tapes captured the sounds of the guys’ misanthropic neighbors hurling drunken insults at each other. The recordings were passed from friend to friend on cassette tapes. People made copies of copies. They became what we used to call “cult hits” in the burgeoning alternative West Coast zine culture. Since then, the recordings have been turned into a puppet show, a feature length drama, and a documentary that debuted in 2011.
OK, so we’ve established that there’s nothing new under the sun. As I mentioned in the introduction, this isn’t a book about explaining the way technology has changed the way we behave. The Internet didn’t invent memes; it just expanded their scope and ramped up the frequency of their creation.
According to Eddie Lee Sausage, one of the guys who made the Shut Up Little Man recordings (whom I interviewed for urlesque.com), experimental jazz composer John Zorn sampled them in his music. And they didn’t peter out with the rise of the Internet. Within two days of Mel Gibson’s racist rant against his now ex-girlfriend, some anonymous YouTube user had mashed up the rant with the audio from Shut Up Little Man. A similar mashup was created when Christian Bale famously flipped out on some poor lighting guy on the set of Terminator Salvation.
Speaking of music, consider hip hop culture, which is based on sampling, the practice of taking someone else’s work, mixing it with the output of others, adding some of your own bits, and fusing it all together into something fresh. Many of today’s hip hop producers sample classic hip hop loops, which are themselves made up of bits of soul and jazz from the ’60s and ’70s. And the beats are only part of this cultural milieu. B-boy dancing, MCing (rapping), and graffiti are layered over the music in a rich sensory experience that vividly demonstrates the way all art evolves memetically.
The graffiti that evolved from hip hop culture is a prominent pre-Internet visual meme. Like many memes, graffiti is a means of showing off creativity or spreading a message. Sometimes graffiti artists just want to mark their territory. We’ve all probably seen “X was here” scrawled on a bathroom stall at some point. Where did that come from? Why is it observed all over the world? A suspected root of the meme is the “Kilroy was here” iteration, which features a bald-headed cartoon man with a long nose peeking over a wall.
Kilroy can be found in countless locations, scribbled on beachheads, landmarks—even the Berlin Wall. No one is quite sure who Kilroy is, and even the name is up for dispute, with variants that include Foo, Chad, Smoe, Clem, and others. Some suspect that the phrase originated among US servicemen marking places they’d been during tours of duty. Some historians place Kilroy’s origins as far back as the 1930s. Regardless of where he came from, Kilroy is a wonderful example of a visual icon that motivated people to spread the meme virally, for no monetary or reputation benefit. They just wanted to be part of the meme.
Hide Ya Kids
I’ll never forget the moment I first heard a woman singing The Gregory Brothers’ “Bed Intruder,” in a bar in the summer of 2010. For me it was a singularity that represented a shift in popular culture, the moment when Internet ephemera became solidified in the mainstream.
When people ask me what memes are I usually respond, “Have you ever heard of lolcats? You know, those funny cat photos with the misspelled captions?”
If that doesn’t work, I’ll say, “How about Antoine Dodson? That guy from the projects? There was that song? Hide ya kids? Hide ya wife? Nothing?”
Usually, by the time I get to “Hide ya wife,” a wave of recognition washes over this uninitiated person’s face, and I’m grateful I don’t have to explain why an attempted rape is supposed to be funny. But that’s what I’ll do here.
In July 2010, Antoine Dodson was filmed by a local NBC affiliate in his Hunstville, Alabama housing project, where an unknown attacker had attempted to rape his sister the previous night. The video features an impassioned plea by Dodson:
Well, obviously we have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbin’ in your windows. He’s snatchin’ your people up, tryna rape em. So y’all need to hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husbands ‘cause they rapin’ everybody out here.
Antoine became an overnight meme celebrity, but he rocketed to fame when his monologue was Auto-Tuned by musical comedy group The Gregory Brothers a few days later. The song was posted on iTunes and reached the Billboard charts, and The Gregory Brothers split the profits halfway with Antoine, enabling him to get out of the projects. At this point, Antoine is nearly as recognizable a pop-culture icon as Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. He’s appeared on BET, the Today Show, and Lopez Tonight.
Many people felt that the humor of the clip was derived from a near-tragedy resulting from the plight of poor urban communities. The original coverage struck many as exploitative, as though Huntsville’s NBC affiliate WAFF aired Antoine’s ebonics-filled tirade for no other reason than to laugh at the uneducated black guy. Feminist bloggers wondered how a guy’s goofy rant so easily overshadowed his sister’s painful ordeal.
Nonetheless, the video racked up millions of views, becoming one of the fastest-expanding memes in history. Antoine saw an opportunity and rode the meme celebrity train for all it was worth. Merchandise, TV spots, promotional campaigns, you name it: Antoine was all over the place. He became almost a modern-day folk hero. Thousands of YouTube videos remixed, mashed up, and otherwise parodied the original. Even if the original video had been out of his control, at least Antoine was able to own his viral fame. On his personal site he proclaimed:
You all made me who I am today and for that I will for ever be in your debt. Once again I say thank you from me and on behalf of my entire family. I love you guys so much. You have given me this opportunity to shine so dammit I’m going to shine.
As of this writing, Dodson is working on an upcoming reality TV show.
Keeping Up With the New Language
People use the word meme to describe visual content like videos or photos or offbeat microcelebrities, but it’s important to recognize that the meme is the concept. A photo or video might be just one execution of that concept among many. As memes evolve, they branch out in countless ways, shifting and merging with other mashed-up, mutated memes. Sometimes, in order to understand a given iteration of a meme, one must also be familiar with dozens of others.
Here’s an analogy. The world of ABC’s show Lost, which captivated TV viewers in the 2000s, demanded an unprecedented amount of attention from its fans. Each episode contained dozens of storylines, playing out bit by bit. There were so many characters and relationships to keep track of. One could not just jump into the show mid-episode, let alone mid-season. An offhand joke, or even a wordless facial expression, could be a reference calling back to an occurrence from an episode originally aired years prior. People who tried to pick up the show but hadn’t watched earlier seasons were, uh, lost.
So it is in the world of memes. Keeping up with the Internet’s daily output of fresh memes will likely define the watercooler conversation of tomorrow. A host of wikis, blogs, and even books have appeared over the last few years to try to make sense of it all. The structure of hypertext makes it easy to explore branching clusters of increasingly granular information. But given the availability of information on the web, the network of memetic information increasingly demands more from casual browsers. If I see something on 4chan and don’t know what it means, I follow an informal process for figuring it out. This likely will start with a Google search, followed by a few quick scans of Wikipedia entries. If the meme is too obscure for Wikipedia, I might have to browse Encyclopedia Dramatica or Urban Dictionary. If it deals with entertainment I might instead opt for the Internet Movie Database or Allmusic. I may consult Google News or Technorati to see if there’s been any recent related web chatter. By the time I’ve fully explored the information, my browser is full of tabs.
As the Internet facilitates a growing network of increasingly complex memes, the gulf expands between those in the know and those who aren’t privy to meme culture. There is a new language of memes forming, and I’m not referring to lolspeak or leetspeak. What I call the language of memes is not Internet slang, but a new visual way that people succinctly communicate emotions and opinions. Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh calls it the “visual vernacular.”
Those who aren’t able to keep up with all the latest cultural iconography won’t be able to engage in the conversation. Knowing how to source the roots of memetic language will become an increasingly valuable skill as the network of memetic imagery becomes progressively more complex and people are expected to be more familiar with obscure web phenomena. Ignoring Internet memes will be equivalent to showing up to the office watercooler having watched none of last night’s primetime content.
Dude, You’ve Got to See This
What compels people to share this stuff? The same impulse that incites us to gossip and share jokes. We want other people to enjoy the information we’ve acquired, and we get a mental kick out of being the ones to share it. This is as universal and historic a human characteristic as the need to eat. Sharing information, no matter how trivial, solidifies societal bonds and deepens relationships. These shared points of reference make up life as much as our inside jokes at work or gossip at church.
Clay Shirky has made waves in the last few years as being a kind of Marshall McLuhan for the Web 2.0 era. Throughout his two books, Cognitive Dissonance and Here Comes Everybody, Shirky provides the kind of commentary that fills one with excitement for being a part of the web right now. We’re making things happen! It’s a new stage in human social evolution! Look at all the cool stuff the Internet lets us do!
In Cognitive Dissonance, Shirky uses the lolcats found at http://www.icanhascheezburger.com as a convenient representative for what he calls “the stupidest possible creative act,” as opposed to, say, improving a Wikipedia entry or creating a platform for financing human rights projects in the third world. I asked him about this, and he laughed.
“Actually, I love Cheezburger.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling a bit less guilty for spending more time laughing at “fail” videos than I’ve contributed to building out Linux.
He quickly added, “I’m not going to hold them up as a paragon of human intellectual achievement, but . . .”
Fair enough. He continued.
. . . I do think there’s lasting social value in it. There’s a spectrum of creativity from mediocrity to excellence, but there’s a gulf between doing nothing and doing something. And anyone who’s slapped a few words on a picture of their cat has already crossed that gulf. The invitation to make something and share it with other people on that scale is so radically different from what we were capable of doing in the twentieth century, that even a lolcat, one of the stupidest creative acts, is still a creative act.
Clay explains that we regard lolcats as an inexplicable novelty because the network on which they happen is so new. But the drive to share funny or interesting things with each other is a deeply entrenched human (not to mention animal) trait. So people who shake their heads and say, “Why would anyone waste their time with this stuff?” don’t recognize that this impulse is nothing new. What’s new is the scale of the sharing.
Think of the aforementioned watercooler conversation. Or the bulletin board–covered walls of the college dorm room, festooned with satirical flyers, newspaper cutouts, editorial cartoons, and other ephemera. I remember as a kid visiting the shop floor where my dad worked, and noticing that he’d covered a filing cabinet with hundreds of magazine ads and other imagery. He’d used a Sharpie to draw mustaches and black eyes on the models, or given them speech bubbles, granting the images the ability to mock his coworkers.
I asked Buzzfeed’s senior editor Scott Lamb how he responds to people who think the world of memes is a waste of time.
Bad romantic comedies are a waste of time. But very little Internet culture counts as that—as a waste—for me. First of all, it asks so little of you. Ten to fifteen seconds to scan a post, at most two minutes for a video? And most memes can be read and understood much faster than that.
It’s important to remember that the cost that memes bear is almost nil compared to most other media. Who has the time for this stuff? Actually, quite a lot of people. Internet memes are bite-sized, and as more of us become handcuffed to computers throughout the day, these tiny diversions become almost necessary.
A recurring theme in Shirky’s work is the idea that some human social behaviors have always existed but are latent until triggered by some new technology that allows humans to express those behaviors like never before. In many cases, cultural critics shake their heads, claiming that human society is somehow getting dumber or lazier or more debauched. Clay argues that human behavior is mostly constant, and what changes is the technology.
This explains why we didn’t see a group like capital-A Anonymous, the pseudopolitical activist group spawned from 4chan, ten years ago. Clay Shirky mentions the area code hookup threads that pop up on /b/ from time to time.
The scale at which Anonymous operates would not have been available ten years ago. When you look at area code hookup threads, the unspoken there is that obviously there’s enough people here in any given area code that might be on the board. That density wasn’t around ten years ago. People getting comfortable with this medium takes a lot longer than just rolling the tools out.
Clay draws my attention to Six Degrees, an early social network that had basically the same functionality as the more popular Friendster, but years earlier. In 1996, there simply weren’t enough people online to support Six Degrees, and those who were online were not sufficiently acclimated to the Internet to be comfortable with the sort of commitment to a virtual identity that profile-based social networks such as Facebook and MySpace demand. Today, a generation has grown up with the Internet, considering it as much of a given as telephone networks. This generation has pioneered social networking because a lot of younger people already feel like they are living their lives online.
The Meme Factory
So what does all this have to do with 4chan?
For eight years now, 4chan has been a powerful (if not the powerful) wellspring from which memes emanate, a no-rules, boundary-less forum where the funniest and most interesting content not only rises to the top, but is copied, remixed, and mashed up ad infinitum until it becomes an indelible piece of this ever-shifting new culture. On 4chan, entertainment is no longer passive. It is an interactive, living organism. 4chan behaves like the Internet, but harder, better, faster, stronger—a whirling microcosm of creativity. A fetid, bubbling meme pool.
To understand what makes 4chan tick, one must understand the language of Internet memes. 4chan didn’t invent this, and is hardly the only place on the web where memes are born. Many of the memes featured in this book became viral completely independent from 4chan. But for a period of time that continues at least up to this writing, 4chan reigns as the web’s primary meme factory.