The Origins of Meme Culture

“Oh God… eleven articles in and he’s writing about memes? He must be REALLY out of ideas.”

Actually, memes fascinate me. I’ve always wondered how something as innocent as Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” could be turned into an Internet sensation. And ‘Rick Rolling’ isn’t your average meme, too. You might discover that a movie trailer you’ve looked everywhere for has been cruelly switched out with this 1980s dance-pop song, at which point the disappointment and frustration you feel are overwhelming. You also can’t help but feel slightly outsmarted.

Another meme that I’ve taken a guilty pleasure in was “Darude – Sandstorm.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the background of this particular meme, the comedic appeal was that any question asking for the name of a song or movie was answered with “Darude – Sandstorm,” and that was it. That was your answer. That one film from 1997 with Harrison Ford about the terrorists and the plane? Darude – Sandstorm. That one catchy song you heard on the radio the other day, but couldn’t remember the name of? Darude – Sandstorm. For me, the crux of the “joke,” if that’s what you want to call it, was the unapologetically apathetic nature of responding to legitimate inquiries with “Darude – Sandstorm.”

What, like other viral phenomena, made the song special enough for cyber stardom? The website KnowYourMeme.com was founded to answer these types of questions. Special Internet analysts known as “Meme Scientists” are tasked with not only tracking down the origins of memes, but their popularity and interest over time. A common trend they’ve noticed across memes of all varieties is that they are many times short-lived and readily transmittable, spreading through social media like a flu virus.

The way I see it, memes are the fast food of the Internet in that they’re cheap, quick to prepare, and accessible to everyone. They’re just on the cusp of meeting the criteria for trueborn jokes, yet routinely fail in their mission to deliver any remote substance. They might as well be caught in an identity crisis, because if they cannot be classified as jokes, what are they?

To answer this question, we need to turn back the clocks a little bit. In the 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, was conceived by the U.S. Department of Defense to establish a single communication network between multiple computers and thereby exchange vital information (Andrews, 2013). This technology then snowballed in the next three decades, first beginning in the 1970s with the groundbreaking work of Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, who both developed the first protocols for exchanging data across a wide array of networks. On January 1st, 1983, ARPANET incorporated ICP and IP into its connectivity parameters, becoming the pioneer of the modern day Internet. In 1990, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and helped to finally bring the first iteration of the Internet into the public eye.

With all of the technological advances made by such innovators as Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf, and Tim Berners-Lee, and the amazing distance the Internet has traveled since then, nobody could have possibly predicted something as anomalous as meme culture to arise. Perhaps, then, our taste in memes lies not in the roots of the Internet itself, but in our own genetic makeup.

There are many characteristics differentiating human beings from animals. Politics, language, religion, law, and art are several, and all tie into a fundamental need for expression, or the need to feel like we’re being listened to.

In the early days of civilization, people devised unique methods of communicating their thoughts about the world, like the creation of cave paintings where they would draw on the walls of dank caves to tell stories. Thousands of years later, they assimilated such things as writing, music, and fashion into their lifestyles, effectively becoming the only species on the planet to express itself at such a sophisticated level. But what about the Internet?

The Internet has provided us with a remarkable capacity to both connect with people and exchange information across major geographical distances. As I’ve discussed, it started off as a military communications network but progressed into an entity of its own. With it came a slew of perks that would make our lives better, easier, and more enriched every day (video pornography comes to mind right now). So what role do memes play in all of this beautiful, and sexy, chaos?

In short, memes are another, more modernized way of expressing ourselves. They extend from the rise of major social media venues such as YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, and Vine, which have all contributed to the popularization of meme culture. More importantly, people enjoy memes so much because they see a part of themselves in the posts they share. Personality theorists all agree that the best way to measure individuality is by taking a look at the clothes people wear, the music they listen to, the food they eat, the movies they watch, and in this case, the memes they share on Twitter. All of those things? They’re not aspects of personality, but rather projections of personality.

When you like, share, or comment on a post, you do so because it resonates with you in a significant way, or because it speaks to you. I wouldn’t be writing this article right now if I didn’t believe memes were worth talking about. Therefore, I use language to project my personality onto the world, whereas others might use more subtle methods of accomplishing this task.

Memes are great expressive tools because they take on such an exaggeratory and emphatic quality. The informal phrases, “when you,” “be like,” and “all like” are often used to help convey universal truths about the human condition, such as waking up early for school, running into your ex-girlfriend at the mall, or going on a new diet. For example, a person wishing to make a commentary on college lectures might make a video of their dog sitting in a classroom to create the impression of cluelessness and confusion, two feelings that all college-level students are familiar with.

Another example would be minion memes. In the films Despicable Me (2010) and Minions (2015), these little yellow beans do not speak a single word of coherent English. However, people have created memes in which sassy and audacious statements like “I was born to be awesome, not perfect” are paired alongside a minion, thereby taking a seemingly neutral image and imbuing it with meaning and personality.

Furthermore, memes have gained popularity because they facilitate short attention spans. The traditional picture meme can only contain two lines of text: one on the top and one on the bottom. Snapchat only allows several lines of text, with videos and pictures lasting up to 10 seconds before they are no longer viewable. Additionally, 60 characters of text is the soft cap on Twitter posts, while the video-sharing service Vine only permitted its users to submit videos that were a few seconds in length.

Whatever the case may be, memes are symbols as much as they are communications of identity. Love them or hate them, they won’t disappear anytime soon.

 

Reference

Andrews, E. (2013, December 18). Who invented the internet? Retrieved September 27, 2016,   from http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/who-invented-the-internet

 

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Fundamental Living

I like to write about whatever fascinates me.

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