Monthly Archives: December 2006
The Inside Jokes of the Global Village
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “meme” as a noun meaning “a cultural element or behavioral trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.” “Meme” is a useful term in the modern study of sociology and anthropology, as it is more generic and encompassing than other words such as “idea,” “behavior,” or “invention” (Corning). According to the definition, a meme can be any of these things; however, in the context of the post-Internet world, a more specific connotation has been attached to common usage of the word.
The typical Internet meme is a sort of cultural virus – an idea that spreads rapidly, is everywhere before you know it, and then usually runs its course just as quickly. In the world outside the Internet, convenient examples include lines from television or movies that suddenly everyone is quoting (e.g., “Hasta la vista, baby” or “Oh my God, they killed Kenny!”). On the Internet, memes display a greater variety of nature and occur much more frequently. Like a Petri dish or a pre-school full of snot-nosed brats, the Internet has proved to be the ideal breeding ground for these cultural viruses. Memes rise and fall constantly in the world of the Internet.
In exploring the meme on the Internet, I reviewed several phenomena that have occurred over the last decade or so. My closest examination was of the “Chuck Norris Facts” meme, which had a life cycle ranging from 2005 to 2006. Some of the questions I asked included: What makes for a stronger meme? Why do some spread everywhere, and others stay more contained? How long is the approximate life of the average meme? However, before presenting specific information about this meme, one must first understand how memetics function both on and off the Internet.
The term “meme” was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, an eminent evolutionary biologist (“Meme,” Wiki). Dawkins was searching for a way to quantify how cultural information is passed from one member or generation of a society to another; as examples he cited “tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, [and] ways of making pots or of building arches” (qtd. in “Meme,” Wiki). He defined three characteristics possessed by successful replicators and several criteria to help determine to what degree a particular meme will succeed (Heylighen).
The first characteristic is “copying-fidelity,” which is to say the more faithful the copies, the more of the original pattern remains after several rounds. Of course, when memes are pure information on a network, copies can be expected to be one hundred percent faithful (Heylighen). Another way of looking at this characteristic, more appropriate for Internet memes, could be “pattern-fidelity.” The successful meme must have a strong, recognizable pattern where specific, varying details are fit.
The second characteristic is “fecundity,” that is, the faster the rate of copying, the more it will spread (Heylighen). Again, the architecture of the Internet essentially guarantees success for all memes in this trait, as copying or linking is essentially instantaneous.
The final characteristic is “longevity.” The longer any given instance of a meme survives, the more it can be copied (Heylighen). Herein lies the great irony of Internet memes – though the architecture of the net also seems to guarantee a potentially infinite lifespan for memes, the emergence and spread of a meme on the Internet reaches a terminus even more quickly than in society at large. In examining the “Chuck Norris Facts” meme, reasons for this seeming paradox will be made clear.
Among the important criteria Dawkins provided for determining the likely degree of success for a meme are coherence, novelty, and simplicity (Heylighen). Memes that are going to spread widely must be internally consistent and not contradict existing beliefs, they must present something new to attract attention, and they must be easy to grasp and remember. Given these criteria, the boom of Internet memes is easy to comprehend – they are generally trivial but oddly funny sayings or images.
While characteristics of a meme itself will determine its success in spreading, the way it is spread is fairly consistent and determined not by the meme, but by the human personality. In his 1997 article “The Cool Hunt,” author and social theorist Malcolm Gladwell cites a study that examined the beginnings of hybrid seed use among Iowan corn farmers during the 1930s. He then illustrates how the same principles applied to the resurgence in popularity of Hush Puppies in the mid-90s. Essentially, any given social group can be divided into the following categories: innovators, the extremely small group of adventurous people who first try a new idea, early adopters, a slightly larger group of respected and opinionated community members, early and late majority, the deliberate and skeptical masses, and laggards, a small group of traditionalists who are the last to adopt the idea (Gladwell). In marketing, it is generally recognized that only innovators are paying a lot of attention to advertising – the remaining groups adopt the idea largely because their predecessors have (Gladwell). In the case of Internet memes, the innovators can generally be classified as originators, as they often create the memetic concept themselves. Otherwise, the mechanism is the same.
Clearly, though the meme may be new as a concept or science, their existence is as old as human civilization. Certain individual memes have been with us almost as long. Susan Blackmore states that “Plato’s Republic is a memeplex (group of memes that get passed on together) that first emerged thousands of years ago, was widely circulated, then nearly died out, and was later revived many times” (qtd. in Failly). So mass media is not necessary for the existence of the meme. However, it does allow for far stronger memes, and for those memes to grow far more quickly. Marshall McLuhan famously described the world in the age of electronic media as a “global village.” Memes once developed in a single tribe/group (such as the Athenians in the case of Republic) and only moved on to other tribe/groups after extended interaction with the first. We are quickly approaching the point at which there is only one tribe/group for memes to develop in, a single culture united by media (McLuhan, 63, 72).
The first step toward this was the evolution of radio and television networks in the mid-20th century. This allowed for the development of quick-moving trends in fashion and art that McLuhan observed. As such media became more and more ubiquitous, memetic slogans and lines became the norm. There was always a “Where’s the beef?” or an Urkellian “Did I do that?” lurking about in the cultural lexicon. Then along came the Internet.
“The Internet is heaven for memes. Computers store information much more accurately than human brains, and can copy that information to vast numbers of other computers very quickly” (Blackmore, qtd. in Failly). There are several practical consequences of this shift. Most visibly, the increase in memes available to individuals causes an increase in the machines needed to store and copy them (Blackmore, qtd. in Failly). Improvements in technology then allow for further memetic spreading, creating a circle.
Another consequence is that the nature of successful memes becomes increasingly trivial. Take the idea of the office water-cooler, around which workers stand socializing. This phenomenon of the 20th century workplace was where jokes were shared, gossip was spread, and politics and culture were discussed. The Internet is essentially a global water-cooler. Now, the jokes can spread across the globe as quickly as the politics and mainstream culture.
So how do these memes spread so virulently across the Internet? The most common method in the early days of the Internet was e-mail. E-mail was one of the first widely utilized functions of the Internet, due to its convenience in the workplace (“e-mail”). Because it is a free service that enables users to send messages to a massive number of people with ease, e-mail greatly facilitates the propagation of the trivial (Heylighen). The e-mailing of jokes is a natural extension of the water-cooler conversation. Soon, the jokes become silly websites. Almost everyone has received an e-mail from a friend with a link to some goofy website to look at.
Many websites began to feature forums or message boards in the mid-90s; these were direct descendants of the dial-up bulletin boards and newsgroups that formed the basis for the Internet in the 80s (“Internet forum”). Users in these communities often share links and create custom signatures that are tacked onto the end of all of their posts. These signatures are frequently memetic in nature.
In the late 90s, blogs began to appear on the Internet, albeit in limited numbers (“blog”). Around 2000, blogs began to bloom, and at present, blogs are increasingly a part of mainstream media (“blog”). Linking on blogs allows for an even more rapid spread of memes. Beyond the average personal blog are popular blogs focusing on Internet news. An excellent example of this is Boing Boing <www.boingboing.net>. There are also massive blogs which any member can post a story to, such as Slashdot <slashdot.org>.
Perhaps the most crucial development in the spread of Internet memes since the birth of the Internet itself is the birth and boom of social networking and bookmarking services over the last few years. Social networking services such as MySpace allow users to build networks of “friends” and share content with them. Social bookmarking sites allow users to store links and classify them using the methods of folksonomy – a methodology of categorizing Web content by applying “tags,” or labels to them (“folksonomy”). In the contemporary online environment, this method of meme spread is quickly outpacing e-mail as the primary way things move from one casual user to another. The original and simplest example of such a site is del.icio.us. On the front page of the site, a combination of recent and popular links is displayed. That’s where memes really enter the picture. As more and more people link to a site, and their friends in turn see the link, visit the site, and then link it themselves, the odds of a site, a video, or a song hitting the front page increases. Once it hits the front page, the cycle continues to multiply as countless other users see it and link back to it.
The forums, blogs, and social sites represent various communities within the Internet. Some memes spread across the Internet as a whole, while others remain contained within particular communities. The reason for this is the success criteria of coherence and simplicity. Many memes do not make sense or are not easy to comprehend without the background knowledge gained by regular participation in a community. Those memes that are most successful are those that are easiest for the widest audience to understand and remember. It should also be noted that some of these smaller memes never really “catch on” even within their small community, but rather, they are propagated by a very small number of users who have editorial control over the community. For example, Boing Boing featured a very high number of posts containing pictures of children in robot costumes near the end of 2005.
Among the first major Internet memes were the “Dancing Baby” and “The Hampster Dance” (“Internet Phenomenon”). These were simple animated GIF files set to music, and spread mostly via e-mail. They lacked the participatory quality that defined later Internet memes. The first major example of a highly participatory meme is “All Your Base Are Belong To Us.” This phrase, from a poorly translated Japanese videogame, became a tagline or catchphrase in Web forums, and around the middle of 2000, a site was constructed with a Flash animation of the game and the phrase Photoshopped into several different real world scenes (“AYB”). By 2001, a huge surge of popularity found the phrase appearing in images, Flash animations, on blogs, and eventually in the real world.
All of this brings us to Chuck Norris. Beginning in early 2005, on various IRC chat channels and the forum of popular website Something Awful <www.somethingawful.com>, people began to cite various “facts” about Norris (“Chuck Norris Facts”). An example of such a “fact”: “There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live.” All the facts followed a similar pattern. The basic premise is Chuck Norris is so strong or manly that he can do the impossible, or how a commonly accepted truth is actually inverted and centered on Norris. As the year progressed, the meme made its way into the chat channels and forums for the popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft. It spread quickly in this context, becoming one of the most frequent insider jokes for WoW players (“WoW”). Bloggers also picked up on the meme, using the “facts” as signatures to posts or as non sequitur headings.
In May of 2005, Ian Spector – a 17-year-old freshman at Brown University – designed a website that would randomly generate “Chuck Norris Facts” along with facts about other macho stars (Farhi 2). By the end of the year, he decided to set up a site exclusively for Norris, providing the most popular facts on the front page, and creating a complete repository of every fact he could collect. In January of 2006, the meme exploded.
The website and search engine of Alexa <www.alexa.com> track the reach of websites (i.e., the percent of total Internet users visiting the site). This is expressed in terms of thousands of users visiting the site in a random sample of a million. The following graph tracks the reach of Chuck Norris Facts <www.chucknorrisfacts.com> over the last year:
The Norris meme clearly possessed the quality of “copy” or “pattern-fidelity” that Dawkins listed. The architecture of the Internet itself provides every meme with “fecundity” and potential “longevity,” as mentioned earlier. The meme certainly met the criteria of coherence, novelty, and simplicity. In short, its success was essentially guaranteed.
As the graph shows, the site has not completely died, but it has leveled out at a much lower rate of traffic than it possessed during its boom. Yet as a meme in the Internet at large, the “Norris Facts” have all but disappeared. This brings us back to the paradox of the assured longevity of Internet memes. As an evolutionary system, competition is an inherent quality of memes (Heylighen). Because the Internet is such an ideal breeding ground for memes, new ones constantly emerge to compete with existing ones. Competition is not the only reason for the decline of a meme, however. One of the important criteria for success is novelty. As Internet memes succeed, they become inherently less novel, therefore less likely to continue to succeed.
The “Chuck Norris Facts” meme is not completely dead – as long as the idea is still out there, it survives. But as the graph shows, it no longer thrives. Memetic competition and novelty were clearly both major factors in this case. At the same time as the popularity of the Norris meme was declining, the Snakes on a Plane meme was spreading rapidly. Though the SoaP meme never possessed a central hub as strong as the Norris website (Snakes on a Blog had a tiny fraction of its traffic, at best), as a whole the meme clearly overtook the “facts.” The Norris meme spread over a little less than one year, with about four months of wide-spread use. This seems to be a fairly common life-cycle for a successful Internet meme.
In the end, what do all these trivial images of cute hamsters and catchphrases about Walker, Texas Ranger teach us? They show that social theorists are correct; there is a consistent, predictable manner in which concepts are transmitted from one person to another. They show that the meme is, therefore, a valuable concept in the study of humanity and society, and not just another buzzword. To put it another way, they show us that “meme” isn’t just some trivial meme. They also show how deeply the development of the Internet has affected our ability to communicate. In the past, an individual could share an inside joke with a group of five or six friends they regularly spent time with. Doubtless, such inside jokes still exist. But now we also share some of our inside jokes with five or six hundred-thousand friends, spread all across the global village.
“AYB.” Wikipedia. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayb>
“Blog.” Wikipedia. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog>
“Chuck Norris Facts.” Wikipedia. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Norris_Facts>
Corning, Peter. “The Invasion of the Memes: Is It Science Fiction?” Institute for the
Study of Complex Systems. 2001. 8 Dec. 2006 <http://www.complexsystems.org/commentaries/jul01.html>
“E-mail.” Wikipedia. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-mail>
Failly, Denis. “La théorie des mèmes: Pourquoi nous nous imitons les uns les autres.”
Next Modernity. 31 Aug. 2006. 8 Dec. 2006.
“Folksonomy.” Wikipedia. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folksonomy>
Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Coolhunt.” Gladwell.com. “The New Yorker Archive.”
17 Mar. 1997. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://www.gladwell.com/1997/1997_03_17_a_cool.htm>
Heylighen, Francis. “Evolution of Memes on the Network: from chain-letters to the
global brain.” Ars Electronica Catalogue. 1996. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/Memesis.html>
“Internet Forum.” Wikipedia. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_forum>
“Internet Phenomenon.” Wikipedia. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_phenomenon>
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage. Prod. Jerome Agel.
Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2001.
“Meme.” Oxford English Dictionary. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://80-dictionary.oed.com.sunny.stockton.edu:2048/cgi/entry/00305506?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=meme&first=1&max_to_show=10>
“Meme.” Wikipedia. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme>
“WoW.” Wikipedia. 8 Dec. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WoW>