New York, 27 November 2008. The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is underway and 50 million Americans are watching it live on TV. Colourful floats, marching bands and balloons of cartoon characters cruise down Broadway, stopping in front of the famous Macy’s department store for performances by the hottest stars of stage, screen and music.
A float carrying cartoon monsters stops in front of Macy’s and the characters begin singing. But then something strange happens: 80s pop icon Rick Astley appears from the back of the float and begins to lip-sync to his 1987 hit single Never Gonna Give You Up. After a minute the track stops, leaving many bemused. What had happened?
Millions of television viewers had just been ‘Rickrolled’ – a practical joke that started on the internet and then spilled over into real life. Why had the parade organisers played such an obscure prank on so many people? Because they had been infected by a virus – not one that reproduces in living cells, but a virus of the mind: a meme.
The concept comes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who argued that cultural ideas can be copied between people, just like genes. “The same thing happens in culture when anybody imitates another person, or passes on a story, behaviour or way of doing things,” says psychologist Prof Susan Blackmore, an expert in memetics.
Instead of being inherited in DNA, memes are transmitted from one mind to another. The various cultural ideas float in a pool of memes (our collective consciousness) and compete for our attention through natural selection. “That’s the Darwinian process – you have variation, heredity, and selection,” says Blackmore. “The meme is the information that is copied in that evolutionary process.”
Memes come in many forms. Money is a useful one – items with little physical value that represent payment, dispensing with the need to barter for goods directly. The idea is so successful that the meme has been copied by most modern cultures. Many memes serve no practical purpose, however. When he discussed them in his book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins suggested memes could include catchphrases and clothing fashions, such as wearing a baseball cap back-to-front.
On the internet, memes fall firmly in the ‘useless’ category. They consist of videos, images and catchphrases that are mainly entertainment. Some get copied because we’re afraid of what would happen if we don’t – the fear of bad luck for not forwarding a chain letter, for example.
But internet memes like the Rickroll prank get passed on to others due to social pressures. “There’s a natural tendency to want to make other people happy,” explains Blackmore. “If you pass on a joke that may potentially make somebody happy, that’s fulfilling a deep-seated part of human nature. The memes are then exploiting that.”
Origin of memes
So where do memes come from? A few are created by advertising agencies, but the vast majority start life as inside jokes within online communities; the message board 4chan is sometimes described as a ‘meme factory’ due to the volume of memes it produces. A new meme may get noticed by a high profile blog like Boing Boing or a news-ranking site like Digg. From there, the meme is exposed to established websites and eventually ends up in your inbox.
People then start spreading the meme by forwarding it in emails to friends and family, or sharing it on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Once a meme reaches this level of popularity, it is said to have ‘gone viral’. And as British father Howard Davies-Carr discovered, this success can strike at any time.
In May 2007, Davies-Carr uploaded a home video of his two sons, Harry and Charlie, onto YouTube. The 56-second clip was intended for Charlie’s godfather, who lived in the US, but was left open without a password to make it easy for the grandparents to access too. In the video, one-year-old Charlie bites his brother’s finger. Three-year-old Harry screams “ouch” and says, “Charlie bit me”, Charlie just giggles.
It’s a cute clip, but not one you would expect might take the internet by storm “Why would anybody want to look at videos of my children?” asks Davies-Carr. “I was naive and just thought, ‘there can’t be any harm and no-one’s going to be even remotely interested’.”
But the video’s popularity exploded. In the first few months, it had been watched 200 times and Davies-Carr was about to take it offline. Then, the number of daily views started doubling every week and the clip was posted to website College Humor, exposing it to a wide audience. By November 2009, ‘Charlie Bit My Finger‘ had reached 130 million hits and become the most viewed video of all time.
Charlie and Harry had become internet celebrities. “They’re not aware and we don’t really talk about it,” says their father. “I don’t see this as a launch pad for their careers, it’s just something which has happened and is popular.” Davies-Carr has received some money after advertising space was bought next to the clip, although he won’t reveal how much was earnt.
But what does it take to truly go viral? “The technical definition is something that has a reproduction rate greater than one, which means that every person who sees it gives it to more than one other person,” says Jamie Wilkinson, co-founder of Know Your Meme, an online database that documents internet phenomena and tracks trends in their popularity.
When a meme’s reproduction rate falls below one, its popularity declines and it starts dying out. But there’s no official figure for the precise point at which a meme has actually gone viral. “My old benchmark of a million views as internet platinum no longer applies,” says Wilkinson, although he adds that if a YouTube clip gets 100,000 hits a day, you could confidently call it a viral video.
Wilkinson has learnt how to identify the features of a successful meme from teaching a class on how to be ‘internet famous’ at Parsons school for design in New York. His students don’t get homework or sit exams – their final grade is determined by how much buzz they generate. The marking scheme uses tools that measure popularity based on the amount of traffic visiting a student’s websites, and how much their memes are mentioned on social networks.
According to Wilkinson, a successful meme obeys three key rules. First, it’s easy to copy: ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ inspired tributes featuring people and pets recreating the scene. Second, it’s possible to appreciate the meme on multiple levels. Wilkinson’s favourite example is ‘Chocolate Rain‘, where musician Tay Zonday sings in an unexpectedly deep voice. The video is shot in sepia tones and includes subtle jokes, like a caption that reads: ‘I move away from the mic to breathe in’. Finally, a successful meme shouldn’t seem fake. “People on the internet have really good bullshit detectors – they don’t fall for things that are trying hard to go viral,” says Wilkinson, who raises this point when consulted by viral advertising agencies. “The thing I tell them is ‘don’t try and trick people’.”
But while the rules for success give a meme the potential to become popular, whether it actually goes viral also depends on what’s going on in the world at the time. “It has to do with a cultural zeitgeist that the meme hits on, a new way of looking at something that’s popular – entertainment we can relate to,” says Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network, a company that runs blogs based on particular internet memes.
Culture spans a broad spectrum, from the celebrities, movies and TV of pop culture at one end, to the niche interests of sub-cultures at the other. Communities like 4chan may play an influential part in internet sub-culture, but many of their niche memes would alienate the average person. “Internet culture is a lot more subversive,” says Huh. “They usually take pieces of content from popular culture and take it out of context for their own amusement.”
Every so often, however, a meme manages to infect mainstream culture, as in the case of ‘LOLcats’ (laugh-out-loud cats). The Cheezburger Network’s eponymous blog, I Can Has Cheezburger?, features photos of felines accompanied by amusing (often grammatically incorrect) captions. Although the meme first appeared on the 4chan website in early 2005, it wasn’t until I Can Has Cheezburger? came along in 2007 that LOLcats really took off. Thanks to the meme’s popularity, Huh has published two bestselling books on LOLcats. “The best memes have an appeal that goes beyond internet culture,” he says.
Internet culture can influence mainstream entertainment too. The 2006 movie Snakes On A Plane generated a massive amount of online buzz before its release – almost entirely thanks to the title. Fans produced parody trailers, T-shirts and posters, and the film became such a huge internet phenomenon that its producers added extra scenes and lines to match fan expectations.
Evolution of memes
At every step in a meme’s evolution, from obscure internet in-joke to your inbox or bookshelf, it’s subjected to repeated rounds of natural selection as it competes with other ideas – the strongest memes live and the weakest die. “People are getting loads of emails, throwing away the spam,” says Susan Blackmore. “Most of the millions of them don’t get copied.”
Technology has played an epic role in helping memes spread around the world. Cultural memes such as money were once copied through language and behaviour but, like the photocopier and printing press before it, the internet has enabled the information carried in memes to be copied without direct contact between people, over long distances, and even through time.
The internet is already starting to remove us from the copying process altogether. Google search results, for example, are created after web pages have been ranked based on their popularity. Its software selects between various sources of information and then copies the best bits to a database, so memes are beginning to spread without needing to exploit our minds. “Machinery is taking over the three critical processes: copying, variation and selection,” says Blackmore. She even suggests we may need a new name for such technological memes, such as ‘tremes’ or ‘temes’.
Viruses of the mind will continue to infect us through the internet, though. And, short of not using the web, there’s little we can do to protect ourselves from them. So don’t feel guilty about forwarding an email containing the latest funny video – blame it on your memes.
The Meme Pool
Infectious elements on the internet show plenty of variation
Memes often infect mainstream audiences through YouTube. As the third most visited place on the net (behind Google and Facebook), the video-sharing site hosts many of the most popular memes, from people who intentionally share video diaries to reluctant internet sensations such as ‘Star Wars Kid‘, a teenager who swings a pole round like a lightsaber. Like all memes, the most successful viral videos are easily emulated and re-mixed. One of the most popular of 2009 was ‘Keyboard Cat‘ – the meme that involved using a clip of a cat playing an upbeat tune on an electronic keyboard as the punch line to videos of embarrassing bloopers.
Appearing on YouTube may immortalise you online, but don’t expect fame and fortune. An internet celebrity’s first clip is often their only viral video, and fame is typically short-lived. Some former stars have attempted to recreate their 15 seconds of fame by trying to make their new videos go viral; Gary Brolsma became an internet phenomenon with a webcam video where he mimes and does his trademark ‘Numa Numa Dance’ to a song by Moldovan boy band O-Zone. Despite several attempts, his subsequent routines didn’t prove popular. With a few exceptions such as Harry and Charlie, most internet celebs don’t make money from their memes.
Superficially, these are just pictures with text superimposed over the top. But when images and captions are juxtaposed in certain combinations, they produce anthropomorphised animals for cute or comedic effect. The most famous macros are LOLcats – felines that appear to behave like people. Another popular macro is Advice Dog, an adorable puppy who offers inappropriate suggestions such as “When in doubt, whip it out!” Advice Dog demonstrates how memes evolve: the image is easy to copy and mutates when the caption changes. The concept has created several new species of memes, including Courage Wolf and Philosoraptor.
Catchphrases and slang
Sometimes called ‘net speak’, internet slang is like text language on mobile phones. Many abbreviations we use in emails and text messages – such as LOL for ‘laugh out loud’ – come from the internet. Catchphrases can also become memes. Simply using “fail” as a one-word sentence means something is considered a failure, and the phrase is often added to image macros. The online community 4chan has generated many catchphrases. Its members are interested in Japanese pop culture, so many originate from poorly translated ‘Engrish’ phrases in comics, videos and games, such as “All your base are belong to us” from the game Zero Wing.
Memes grab our attention, which is why companies use them to increase brand awareness in the hope you’ll buy their products. One of the most successful was Burger King’s Subservient Chicken, a website where you could command a guy in a chicken suit to perform (pre-recorded) actions based on typed requests. Viral marketing has traditionally involved tricking us into not realising we’re being shown an ad, but nowadays companies are taking a different approach. Adverts like Cadbury’s drumming Gorilla are designed to be so entertaining that you’ll share the ad with friends and family by word of mouth, emails and social networking sites.
JV is an award-winning science journalist with a PhD in evolutionary biology. He spent several years at here at at BBC Science Focus, running the features section and writing about everything from gay genes and internet memes to the science of death and origin of life.