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EWFA Chapter 7
Chapter 7 - The Meme Life Cycle
THROUGHOUT 2010 I wrote for an Internet culture blog called Urlesque. Our stated goal was to “uncover bits of the web.” We reported most memes that came along, but for me the most interesting assignments allowed me to cover the way memes spread. How exactly does a no-name tween become an overnight celebrity, sharing iTunes chart space with global pop superstars like Ke$ha and Rihanna? How are people able to find out about memes? Why does one girl’s tearful reaction to the Twilight trailer beat out a professionally produced viral campaign with a budget of millions? At this point we know what memes are, but where do they come from? How do they spread? The first step in answering these questions is an understanding of the Meme Life Cycle.
The following cycle is loosely defined. Memes don’t always follow this pattern in this order, nor does their rise to mainstream exposure always include all eight of these steps, but it’s a useful template.
Internet memes are born when the original source material is initially uploaded anywhere on the Internet. Fertile meme territory can be found all over the web, especially on community sites that encourage content uploading like YouTube, DeviantArt, or Facebook, but also on remote locations like personal webpages.
It could be a video of a guy riding a dirt bike into a railing, a hilariously comprehensive treatise on an obscure cartoon, a clever Photoshopped image, or video of a tween girl having a public emotional breakdown. Once a potential meme is on the web, it may sit idle for months or even years until it is discovered, likely by the meme curators at 4chan.
Someone posts the item to 4chan, usually accompanied by a comment like, “Holy crap, you guys,” or “WTF” (or OMG or LOL or rage or any number of strong emotions). If it’s a good meme, the conversation thread explodes. Hundreds of people add their commentary. The meme spreads to other threads.
If it’s an image, we’ll see parodic Photoshops and image macros. If it’s video, we’ll likely encounter mashups and YouTube Poop, a game in which users deconstruct and piece together video footage for psychedelic or absurdist effect. If it’s audio, memes are remixed, chopped, screwed, mashed up. Even simple text memes, like creepy stories or hilarious personal experiences, will be retrofitted into a series of copypasta templates.
Before long, we can’t scroll through /b/ without being inundated by the meme.
At some point, the meme jumps from 4chan to the broader Internet. This usually happens when someone posts the meme to a content aggregator like Reddit or Digg. These sites allow memes to flourish beyond the niche world of 4chan. They collect news stories, photos, videos—any piece of content—by allowing their communities of users to post whatever they want. When someone posts content to an aggregator, other users have the ability to upvote or digg it. As users promote content by the simple power of their approval, the most widely approved content rises to the top, or rather the front page, exposing it to a much wider audience.
Word of Mouth
Once memes reach the front page of an aggregator like Reddit, it takes no more than a few hours for people to start tweeting and blogging about the meme. Internet savvy types send links to their friends via instant message. The meme may begin to trend on Twitter or pop up on Google Trends, a list of frequently googled search terms.
This is typically when the Internet culture blogs discover the story. Sites like Buzzfeed, Know Your Meme, The Daily What, Videogum, or any members of the Cheezburger Network, will pick up the meme and attempt to add context. Where did it come from? Why is it funny? Can we get an interview with any involved parties? These are the sorts of “value-add” propositions that blogs will try to score before their competitors. It’s a race to get the most information before the meme explodes into the mainstream. The most comprehensive overview will often get the most links from mainstream media.
By this time the meme is being rehashed, as everyone wants to get in on the thing before it goes stale. Self-referential jokes and clever mutations of the meme abound on places like 4chan and Tumblr. Everyone on the Internet is able to enjoy the meme until . . .
There are two ways mainstream media tends to approach memes. If the meme contains anything negative or shocking, as memes often do, we see breathless nightly news exposés and daytime talk-show hosts bemoaning the State of Things.
If the meme skews toward the lighthearted or quirky, we see late-night talk-show bits or stars of popular memes guesting on morning radio shows. “Look at this wacky thing from the Internet,” we hear. “What a world.”
Only the biggest meme stars will ever see any money, whether it’s through corporate sponsorship or by selling meme-related merchandise. Microsoft hired Paul Vasquez, star of the Double Rainbow meme, to promote the Windows Live Photo Gallery software in a TV ad. Adah Bahner of Chocolate Rain fame shilled for Dr. Pepper, Firefox, Sony, Vizio, and more. Internet memes provide advertisers a roster of recognizable but reasonably priced spokespeople who are keen to translate their fifteen minutes of fame into some quick cash before their meme dies.
Memes never truly die, but one could argue that it’s time to move on when your hopelessly unhip mom or dad asks “Hey, did you see that thing on YouTube about that guy who punched out another guy on the subway?” No more remixes or Photoshops or fervent discussion threads. The meme is over, for now, as every bit of fascination is drained by unimaginative rehashes and abundant mainstream coverage. Particularly powerful memes are subsumed into the memesphere, to be resurrected as callbacks or mashed up with newer memes as comedic references.
A Tale of Two Memes
Let’s chart the meme life cycle with two examples, both of which occurred in the summer of 2010. They weren’t the biggest memes of the season, but they represent the two ways memes are generally consumed by the mainstream: hand-wringing sensationalism and lighthearted amusement.
Consequences Will Never Be The Same
In July 2010, an 11-year-old girl using the pseudonym Jessi Slaughter became embroiled in a microcontroversy on the streaming video site Stickam, where users accused her of engaging in a sexual relationship with a 20-something member of the scene band “Blood on the Dancefloor.”
Birth: Jessi Slaughter Uploads Meme-worthy Content
Slaughter uploaded a response video to YouTube, in which she threatened those who taunted her online. Here’s a taste of what she said:
Hey YouTube it’s Jessi Slaughter here and this is to all you fucking haters. OK guess what? You guys are bitches. You know what? You don’t phase [sic] me. I’m just doing this just so you can tell I read the comments. I read the messages and I replied to them, but know what? I don’t give a fuck. I’m happy with my life, OK? And if you can’t like realize that and stop hating you know what I’ll pop a glock in your mouth and make a brain slushie, OK? Cause you hater bitches—you’re just, like, jealous of me. You’re just saying that because you’re jealous of me because I’m more pretty than you, I have more friends, more people like me, I have more fans . . . Um yeah, and all that shit.
The dialogue makes the girl sound like a hardened street urchin, but in the footage she comes off as a typically self-conscious little girl reeling off catchphrases she’s picked up on TV.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t conceive a video that would be more tailor-made to ignite the ire of 4chan. Here was an 11-year-old white girl taking on the thuggish bravado found between songs on gangsta rap albums. She was out of her element. On her Tumblr blog she claimed, “I can’t be tamed.” Plenty of people wanted to prove her wrong.
Discovery: 4chan Pounces
It wasn’t long before the 4chan hivemind targeted Slaughter. Her unmitigated haughtiness and filthy mouth were perfect bait for /b/tards who would relish turning her life into a living hell for a while. Her video was posted in “You Rage You Lose” threads, which consist of people sharing how long they were able to last before they exploded into a rage while watching the video in question. The girl’s complete lack of self-awareness drove 4chan into a frenzy. In their eyes, she needed to be put in her place. Since her parents clearly had no control over their daughter, it was time for Anonymous to carry out some vigilante justice.
They bombarded her social networking profiles with hateful comments, urging her to kill herself. They also sent pizza deliveries to her house and left threatening messages on her parents’ answering machine.
A large measure of deindividuation—also known as mob mentality—occurs in many 4chan raids. Everything happens quickly, and the rush to be the guy that’s able to score the dox (4chan slang for personal information like home address and phone number) is heady. When all was said and done, even some /b/tards claimed that they thought Anonymous had gone too far. At no point did the attackers stop to think, “Am I really antagonizing an 11-year-old girl? What kind of human garbage am I?”
Slaughter posted a follow-up video which rocketed the story into meme history. Teary-eyed and hysterical, Jessi Slaughter begged her attackers to stop. While this would have been enough to solidify meme status, her father provided troll bait of an unparalleled variety.
I’m gonna tell you right now. This is from her father! You’re a bunch of lying, no good punks. And I know who it’s coming from. Because I backtraced it. And I know who’s emailing and who’s doing it, and you’ve been reported to the cyber police and the state police. You better write one more thing or screw with my computer again, you’ll be arrested! End of conversation! From her father! And if you come near my daughter, guess what? Consequences will never be the same. Ya lyin’ bunch of pricks!
Slaughter’s powerless father’s empty threats, coupled with his obviously poor grasp on how the Internet works, gave 4chan trolls enough material to construct hundreds of image macros, video remixes, and more. The term “backtrace” has become a common ironic reference to one’s inability to track the online activity of hackers and trolls. Similarly, “consequences will never be the same” has become a favorite closing for troll threats.
Due to the sordid nature of the controversy, this meme bypassed the Aggregation stage, as aggregation sites like Reddit and Digg tend to shy away from bullying like this. They’re generally made up of friendly, positive folks, or at least people who play nice in order to maintain a reputation in the community. A lot of Redditors are also /b/tards. The community shapes the discourse.
Word of Mouth: “Check out this bratty little girl and her dumb redneck
While it’s difficult to document this sort of thing, one can easily imagine 4chan users instant messaging the video to their friends. I mean . . . I did!
Blog Pickup: Gawker and Urlesque Break The Story
Bloggers, on the other hand, had an opportunity to write hundreds of think pieces about the risks of cyberbullying and unsettling teenage Stickam subculture.
At Gawker, Adrian Chen wrote:
Don’t pick on 11 year-old girls. Seriously. No matter how dumb they seem—no matter how much they might seem to deserve it—they are, at the end of the day, 11 year-old girls. You wouldn’t make an 11 year-old girl cry in real life; why do it on the Internet?
Cyberbullying is a constant. No amount of handwringing is going to change that, because it’s nearly impossible to prosecute. Of course no one should be mean to 11-year-olds. But haters, as they say, gonna hate. The problem is more likely to be solved by empowering potential victims with knowledge of the realities of cyberbullying than by expecting anonymous sociopaths to be nice. Slaughter’s parents gave the impression in multiple interviews that they had little understanding of what she was up to online, and furthermore seemed unable to enforce appropriate disciplinary measures.
I wrote as much in a blog post for Urlesque at the time. From there, the story was dissected by countless mainstream news sites.
Mainstream Exposure: Innocent Girl Cyberbullied, are Your Children Safe?
Stay Tuned to Find Out.
It only took a few days before Slaughter and her parents were brought on morning shows to talk about their experience. Child safety experts descended onto the scene to dispense advice that ranged from “ban the computer forever” to “let your kid make mistakes.”
This meme skipped the Commercialization stage, for obvious reasons.
Death: The Hivemind Moves On
For the most part, Jessi Slaughter has since stayed off the Internet (her father was later arrested for child abuse when he punched his daughter in the face), and as usual, trolls got bored and lost interest. While the jargon inspired by this meme will live forever, the Photoshops and remixes have mostly dried up.
Operation Birthday Boy
4chan may be well known for causing turmoil on and off the web, but deep down it has a heart. As much as /b/tards love to bring down the arrogant, they take pride in standing up for the little guy. Consider the story of William Lashua, a 90-year-old WWII vet from Massachusetts.
Birth: Look At This Poor Guy :(
In August 2010, someone posted an image to 4chan featuring a photo of a flyer found at a grocery store. The flyer featured an elderly man with kind eyes and a grumpy frown. It read, “Wanted: People for Birthday Party,” and provided the time and location for the event.
4chan’s heart melted. They assumed that this poor guy was so lonely and friendless that he had to make signs advertising his own birthday party. Within hours, they decided to give him a birthday surprise. They tracked down his military record and contacted the VFW where the party was set to be held, not so they could harass him but to throw him the best party ever.
Aggregation: Reddit Starts Its Charity Engine
When someone posted the plan to the social news site Reddit, the thing exploded. As it turned out, William Lashua’s grandson is a Reddit user. When he posted the following message to Reddit, it only fueled the effort to make Lashua’s birthday special.
Kind folks of reddit, My family and I appreciate the outpouring of love and generosity. There has been a large misunderstanding. The poster which I’m told was found at the Gardner Stop & Shop was more a local notice for people that know him. It was in no way to indicate that he is alone. He has 7 children, many grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. In his younger years he was a foster parent to dozens of foster children. He is well liked in the community, and will be fully supported on his 90th birthday
Thank you again for all the love and well wishes, we certainly never expected this.
Word of Mouth: “Check out this adorable old geezer.”
The story spread to personal blogs and Twitter accounts. People posted photos of gifts and cards they planned to send. One guy who worked at a beef jerky company uploaded photos of his planned gift to the obviously toothless Lashua: a full case of dried meat. A Facebook group, which peaked at nearly seven thousand members, was created for people to share birthday wishes and collaborate on gift ideas. Lashua’s image was Photoshopped and mashed up with dozens of other memes and meme templates.
Blog Pickup: The Daily What and Urlesque pick up the story
The heartwarming tale was an opportunity for small media outlets to feature the kinder side of the web’s underbelly.
Mainstream Exposure: Internet Wishes Area Man Happy 90th Birthday
A local news station interviewed the Lashua family and the story ran on a few prominent news websites.
Death: 4chan Pats Itself on the Back
Reddit took images from the birthday party and 4chan users and subsequently shared with the community. According to one anonymous poster who contacted the American Legion, Lashua received fifty bouquets of flowers, twenty cakes, and five UPS trucks bearing cards.
Whether 4chan is an Internet Hate Machine or a place where people can collaborate on positive projects, no matter how misdirected, the exciting thing here is the way that information is now being discovered, disseminated, and consumed online. Creatives and tastemakers are no longer trying to shoehorn the web into their existing media channels, but are embracing it as a new source—the new source—of popular culture. People are creating their own fun, their own characters. They are engaged in a vibrant participatory culture with no rules or boundaries.
We’ve all heard statistics about how people are spending less time watching TV, listening to the radio, and going to the movies, and how that time is now spent on the Internet. This is why.
In the time it took you to read this chapter, thousands of new threads were started on 4chan. Hundreds of new posts went up on Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter. Dozens of stories were picked up by culture blogs, and a few made it all the way to global news sites or even TV. A single photo, song, video, or story has gone viral, exposed to millions. Marketing agencies who understand this process are among the few pioneers who recognize that they no longer possess the tools to drive culture—culture which no longer trickles down from above, but grows up and spreads laterally from below. This is why Stephen Colbert and Old Spice reach out directly to Reddit and even 4chan, respectively.
Welcome to the Memesphere
Once cultural artifacts go viral, they are subsumed into the lexicon to serve as the foundation for comedic callbacks, mashups, Photoshops, etc. The culture becomes so self-referential as to become virtually incomprehensible to those who do not live inside it. Think about your grandparents, and how your daily conversation about SMS texting and email wouldn’t make much sense to them. That gap between those who are “in” and those who are “out” widens at a staggering acceleration, to the point where I might come back to the web from a short vacation and have trouble understanding what’s going on. As the memesphere grows, it demands more of your attention.
This is largely because information isn’t arranged linearly online. It’s more like a complex network of rabbit holes which may or may not yield the information you’re looking for. If you’re looking for information, you do a Google search. But maybe you don’t know what exactly to search for. So you try Wikipedia with a few different search terms.
You find that in order to gain a basic understanding of X, you must first learn about Y and Z. But then, in order to understand Z, you’ll need to watch a YouTube video, check out a forum thread, and visit someone’s Twitter account. You must probe many pathways, bouncing from one resource to the next and back, hunting for puzzle pieces. It’s a skill that only today’s younger generation is equipped to grasp, because we’ve grown up with the acceleration of consumer technology. It’s an active, participatory quest for understanding. It’s becoming second nature.
Today, this is the way humans learn, laugh, build, argue, discover, share, and live.
Surviving and Thriving in the Memesphere
One question I get more than almost any other in my line of work is, “How do you make something popular online?” The wording of this question belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how the web works, especially considering that it’s usually asked by people who spend a lot of time online.
What made Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” go viral, two decades after its release? This question is impossible to answer, because the song’s viral success was based on several serendipitous events. Advertisers in particular want to be able to buy this kind of success, but there’s no way a social media marketer would be able to mastermind a coup like this. It could only have happened by chance. Sometimes it just comes down to blind luck: slow news day, bad weather, a randomly placed 4chan thread.
Like pop songs, memes that behave like empty vessels are often the most successful. I’ve seen some memes plastered with several different languages. But sometimes the most obscure, unapproachable memes win out in the end because of increased enthusiasm from a small group of fans.
If there’s anything 4chan users hate (along with the rest of the Internet), it’s a forced meme, which someone, whether a wannabe Photoshop artiste or a grassroots marketing consultant, is desperately trying to make viral. While some companies have managed to pull off viral success, forced memes are most often met with yawns, if not outright contempt.
A Meme is Born: The Story of Keyboard Cat
Imagine creating some bit of entertainment and putting it up on YouTube for your friends, only to watch it become a massive global sensation. That’s what happened to Brad O’Farrell when he posted footage of a cat playing a keyboard.
O’Farrell has spent time on Internet forums for years, originally going online so he could talk about video games. This was way before people “just got online to make social media profiles.” O’Farrell says that his early Internet experiences gave him thick skin. But he still gives anonymous a wide berth:
I’m actually kind of terrified of the Internet because of my tragic past on message boards, I’m always afraid doing an interview about keyboard cat will make me sound like a douche and make me a target of 4chan.
O’Farrell had a group of online pals that all followed each other’s YouTube channels. The vloggers would make jokey little videos, but O’Farrell didn’t seem to find his voice on camera, so he began using his channel to make mashups and other meme-ish creations.
At that time, O’Farrell’s network of vlogger friends were making parody videos, sometimes of popular YouTube or Hollywood stars, or of one another. O’Farrell wanted to create content that would give his buddies something to parody, but he had no intention of creating a meme.
O’Farrell stumbled on a 30-year-old video of a cat “playing” a short tune on a keyboard (the cat was being manipulated by its owner, Charlie Schmidt). He thought it was funny in itself, but he came up with the idea of pasting the video at the end of fail videos, e.g., videos of people falling down or messing up or otherwise making an ass of themselves. He titled it, “Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat,” referring to the vaudevillian practice of a musician starting to play to cue a flailing performer that it was time to exit the stage.
The original title, “Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat” is sort of like mad libs. I renamed the cat “Keyboard Cat” (it was originally “Cool Cat”) because it was more specific and evoked a character like “Pedobear,” whereas Cool Cat could be referring to any cat. The “Him” part is an easily changeable template, for whoever the subject is of the parody. I was intending to make more follow up videos myself, so I was mostly just setting up a naming convention for a series of videos, but other people made them before I got around to it.
First he noticed that people were using his template to “play off” other videos. Then he noticed they were being posted on various forums, and realized that YouTube commenters were referencing other memes. That’s when he knew that the sort of people who spend time playing around with memes were beginning to appreciate the video. At the time, O’Farrell was working for a web video company, who tasked him with promoting their content on YouTube. He often pitched YouTube directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. This time he sent in Keyboard Cat with his usual suggestions, and the video was granted feature placement. From there it took off, spreading to 4chan and other meme-oriented sites.
I thought maybe it would be a blip on the radar, one of those things like “hey look someone made the Mona Lisa out of Legos and it was on Boing Boing for a day”, but the fact keyboard cat became elevated into the ‘meme canon’ surprised me. Even though a keyboard cat video alone isn’t enough to make it onto big blogs these days, the character of Keyboard Cat itself is sort of permanently in the Internet consciousness. It’s like how a satellite is launched into space with a rocket and then it detaches and is self-sustaining, the “Play him off” part was the rocket that got the “Keyboard Cat” character into the zeitgeist.
At this point, the video was getting enough attention that O’Farrell decided to attach ads. But he was worried that Charlie Schmidt might come out of the woodwork and want a piece of the pie or throw a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice at him. So O’Farrell tracked down Schmidt and explained the benefit of keeping the parodies online. Schmidt agreed, and now he’s selling T-shirts, an iPhone app, and even a collection of Keyboard Cat’s Greatest Hits—not to mention the TV commercials (Wonderful Pistachios used Keyboard Cat alongside Snooki, Chad Ocho Cinco, Rod Blagojevich, and characters from Peanuts, among other pop-culture heavyweights). Currently, more than four thousand different YouTube videos feature Keyboard Cat.
O’Farrell agrees there’s no way to guarantee that something will go viral, but there are ways to help it along, like putting it in a familiar format; making it easy to parody with basic software; and pitching well to editors and bloggers—but only if the content has legs and clear legal rights.
So this is 4chan’s lighter side that has bled out into the rest of the web. Participatory culture, meme creation, viral media: whatever you want to call it, we’re experiencing something new and exciting, and 4chan is at its forefront.
And yet 4chan is not just creativity. It’s also creative destruction. We’ve already seen how anonymous trolls tried to ruin Jessi Slaughter’s life. What would happen if they went after global corporations or political candidates of the highest order?
What happens when a toddler gets bored building sandcastles? He totters over to the next kid’s creation and obliterates it with one unexpected kick.