The Inside Joke
In high school I was never the first to discover a new online fad. I refused to touch MySpace, I was reluctant to join facebook, and I rarely used the internet as a source of culture. For me, the internet was a tool for tracking my favorite sports teams and playing the occasional online game. This was not an issue for me socially, and I generally felt like I was a culturally informed conversationalist.
Then, all of a sudden, I was lost. One night, casually relaxing and watching a football game, it was like my friends began speaking another language. Every other sentence I heard made absolutely no sense, and I found myself irritated and exclaiming, “What the hell is a mudkip?!?!” Of course, my confusion merely encouraged my friends to delve deeper into their newly-discovered language. They were laughing hysterically, uttering nonsense, and I was sitting there wondering what drug they had taken that made their ramblings at all amusing. I was experiencing absolute awkwardness: being the only one in the room on the outside of a massive inside joke.
Finally, someone threw me a bone. “Memes, Nick! Haven’t you ever been to 4Chan??” I remained clueless, so I spent the rest of the night smiling and nodding, pretending to be totally into the senseless humor. But I didn’t dare try and use one of these ‘memes’ they were so fond of. I simply followed along. They say a dope will laugh 3 times at a joke: First when the joke is made, next when the joke is explained, and finally several minutes later when he actually catches on. I was stuck repeating the first two steps over and over again.
Kenyatta Cheese of Know Your Meme would probably have labeled me a civilian. At the time, I would have labeled myself a victim of a silly fad. The role I was playing, though, was an integral one. In order for an inside joke to be successful, there must be an outside, a group whose ignorance makes the humor all the more entertaining. Whatever one might call my role, the situation forced me to reconsider the relevance of internet-based culture. I needed to decide whether or not to buy in, do my research, and become an insider in the growing fad.
In his book, “The Selfish Gene,” Dr. Richard Dawkins, British ethologist and evolutionary biologist, defines memes generally as “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” He goes on to explain how memes propagate themselves culturally and how a so-called “meme pool” behaves in quite a similar fashion to the “gene pool” with which we are more familiar. From Dawkins’ description, memes are brought to the forefront as an important tool in social progress. As much as our genetic code determines our physical being, our memetic code, comprised of outside factors, should define the culture in which we live.
The issue in Dawkins’ logic, however, is revealed by the dissonance between theory and reality. In theory, memetics is a serious study, with such topics as the “God Meme” which pose real academic questions and spur debate. In practice, though, the idea of the meme has been embraced by a population that has a different intention in mind. Memetics has become – as the popular meme goes – simply “4 the Lulz.”
Internet memes are just one more way of keeping the internet user-created. Instead of simply accepting the mainstream humor provided by the ‘professionals,’ the creative and clever use memes as a new kind of comedy. (Francesca Coppa would certainly approve!) And memes aren’t always just passive time-wasters. Some memes, like planking and cone-ing, require time and effort. However pointless these activities may seem, they provide entertainment for those who are in on the joke, and the efficiency of the internet as a sharing tool allows the fads to grow to massive proportions. Just watch a couple videos and you’re guaranteed to at least get a chuckle out of them.
While Lolcats and planking are mostly harmless, memes can certainly have a more negative side as well. Take trolling for instance. Trolling is behavior which is meant to anger or frustrate the object of criticism. When so-called “trolls” decide to gang up on a certain online figure, the mocking and degrading attacks often become excessive and cruel. In the case of Jessi Slaughter, we see an example of trolling having a real impact outside just the cyber-world. Enjoyment by the trolls came at the expense of a little girl who quite clearly had enough developmental issues of her own before harassing phone calls and comments came into play. Whether or not Jessi Slaughter deserved criticism is up for debate, but I think most would agree that the outcome of her situation was regrettably worsened by the online community.
One more interesting wrinkle to mention is copyright law. It is clear that US regulations allow fair use of certain media for the purpose of parody, but this right does NOT extend to satire. The “Downfall- Hitler Reacts” meme is often in direct violation of this code. The example here is fair use because the editor is making a statement about the film and its production company. However, the endless re-edits of this clip to mock everything from Xbox Live to Justin Bieber are actually in the realm of satire. They critique society as a whole, not the piece itself, and for this reason they are in violation of a copyright.
-Memes are funny, it only takes a few minutes on any of the various meme databases to realize that silly (but clever!) viral humor is entertaining
-Meme culture is not necessarily an effective use of time, but hey, neither are most of our extra-curricular activities.
-Sometimes the online community goes too far, and the anonymity which we hold dear to us is often the enabling factor.
-It is MUCH more fun to be in the know in an inside joke than to be left in the dark, so I put in my hours of tedious studying and I believe I can now claim to be a participant in a really fun and witty new realm of humor.