Memes do not create themselves. They do not “evolve.” Communities create and mutate memes, and communities provide the natural selection that perpetuates or puts them to an end.
Meme History 101 – Memes and Online Communities go back a long way
In the beginning (1985), there was the Internet: The Internet. The Meme-Rex. The word was first used to describe “The linked computer network of the U.S. Defense Department.” It is the shorthand for Inter-network.
And on the 1982’nd year AD, William Gibson created Cyberspace…
According to popular consensus, the most successful internet-meme of all times (other than the Internet itself) is the word “Cyberspace.” The word was first used by the person who has perhaps the most significant cultural impact on, well, cyberspace – the sci-fi author William Gibson. He coined the phrase in his famous short story “Burning Chrome” in 1982. The Cyberspace meme was later immortalized by Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer”. This novel is the first one to ever win the science-fiction “triple crown” – the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award and the Nebula Award, which is greater than or equal to infinite epicness.
A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.
I think it is fair to say that the “Neuromancer” novel is itself another early, immortal meme, but it is not as popular in the Internet mainstream as LOLcats for example. Anyhow, the whole universe created by Gibson inspired many of the members of early online communities. Somehow, he successfully turned a monochrome terminal with a blinking cursor into a portal to a romantic world full of adventure.
The Internet Coke Machine:
The “cultural soup” of the early Internet apparently had a peculiar flavor, because another popular meme of the early times was the Internet Coke Machine in CMU. Basically, a bunch of caffeine-hungry computer programmers hacked the Computer Science Department’s Coke Machine, so that they could see if there is any cold “happiness in a bottle” in it without having to go out of their offices. It could also tell them which bottles of coke were best cooled. And all this could be done through this early meme-line-of-code:
> finger coke@cmu_
Bytes’ got temper (-:
According to Internet Lore, the first emoticon was used in a message sent by Scott Fahlman on 19th September 1982. There was a large discussion of whether emoticons are really necessary – after all neither Shakespeare nor Milton needed to use them. It is 2011 now, however, and we still use smiley faces everywhere. So, as the poet has said, when Natural Selection speaks, debate champions should remain silent. Here is the message (the smiley faces are composed entirely of ASCII, but WordPress converts them to images 😦 ):
19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c> I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers::-)Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(
Now, our only source of this information is Scott Fahlman himself, but nobody has felt the urge to refute his claim so far, so… let it be. Ideas happen when their time has come anyway, right?
Usenet: Usenet is one of the first remarkably strong online communities, and it gave birth to many memes still in use today. Did you know that the first recorded use of the term LOL, as in “Laugh out Loud,” was in a Usenet message from the early 1980’s? Yeah, LOL was cool way before we, current students, were born. Some other abbreviations the Usenet community is to be held accountable for are AFK, BRB and ROTF.
According to Wikipedia, the act of trolling can also be traced back to Usenet, but back in the day it was considered to be a good thing:
“… a veteran of the group might make a post on the common misconception that glass flows over time. Long-time readers would both recognize the poster’s name and know that the topic had been discussed a lot, but new subscribers to the group would not realize, and would thus respond. These types of trolls served as a practice to identify group insiders.”
Yeah. Right. As the community evolved, trolling became tightly associated with the initiation of flame wars, and all those other things that would make people on the internet hate you.
Other popular Usenet memes were BIFF (also B1FF) – a nickname given to Usenet newbies, and it had a meaning similar to the modern “noob” – it was rather unwelcoming.
Godwin’s law – Mike Godwin observed that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Godwin’s Law’s achieved its meme status when people started citing “Godwin’s Law” in the beginning of almost every Usenet thread they started as a “Reducto ad Hitlerum” measure – they did not want the Nazi comparisons in their discussion.
The “Something Awful” forums: “SA” was started in 1999 as the personal website of Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, but the community that formed around its forum gradually turned into the primary foundry of internet culture. If you have heard of the legendary phrase “All your base are belong to us” it is probably because of this website.
One of the signature weekly activities of the SA community was “Photoshop Phriday”, during which forum members, or “goons”, as they call themselves, would mash together several images for the sake of parody. Follow the link below to see last Phriday’s phinest:
The SA forums are also has another famous hobby – “The Blue Ball Machine,” which involved the creation of small, looping animations of random devices that maneuvered blue balls. The only requirement was that in every animation, the ball had to enter at one place and exit from another. When tiled next to each other, these animations create the illusion of a gigantic mechanism, and they feel as if they are synchronized to the “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” theme. Check it out:
Max Goldberg, the creator of the “You’re the Man Now, Dog” website – a portal responsible for the popularization of many of the memes of the early 2000’s said in an interview for Wired that “[The Blue Ball Machine] is our most viewed title ever.”,
The SA community created many of the most epic memes of the early 2000’s. In late 2003, one of the goons – moot, would take the online community scene to a whole new level.
4chan.org – 4chan was launched in October 2003 by Christopher ‘moot’ Poole. The website was designed to be an anonymous image exchange forum, with Anime and Manga as its main topics. It gradually turned into one of the most successful meme-factories and online-activism hubs on the internet
So, how did the 4chan community change the world, besides voiding thousands of people of respectable amounts of their mental innocence through /b (also known as the “Random” thread – the community’s most active and controversial board)? Well, some of the most famous memes today originated on 4chan. “Rickrolling”, “LOLcats”, “Caturday”, Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain”, “Pedobear”,” IMMA CHARGIN MAH LAZER” are a few of the popular ones.
There are some other memes that are specific to the 4chan community, but I will not mention them here, for /b reasons.
Many factors that contribute to 4chan’s title as the world’s leading meme factory. While it is not exactly clear what these factors are, I think it would not be too wrong to point out the large number of people in the community and the specific mechanics of the board.
4chan is an image exchange forum, and each thread contains images on a certain topic – Anime, Cars, Weapons and so on. However, not all images that are posted are retained. Once you visit a thread, you can move up to 15 pages back in its history. This, combined with the large number of users posting to threads like /b (Random), makes it rather hard for a certain image to stay within the 15 page range for too long. Online communities create their memes, but they also play the role of Natural Selection for their ideas. Natural Selection in 4chan is pretty ruthless – it is easy for an idea to be sent to the junkyard. Memes survive only if they grab the attention of a large enough part of the community, and the ones that do, like the “LOLcats” one, are often destined to be successful even in different environments than the ones that created them.
YouTube: The third most visited website on the Internet is the home of the majority of the video-memes out there. “Charlie bit my finger”, “Nyan Cat”, “This is Sparta!”, “Numa Numa”, and ”Obama Girl” are just a few examples.
What is interesting about YouTube is that often, unlike other online communities who develop their memes, many memes on YouTube were not developed specifically for the YouTube community. Rather, they become memes only after they are posted to the site – like the “Star Wars Kid” and “Badger Badger Badger.”
Gaming communities: MMORGP’s, StarCraft2, FPS-communities and so on also produce and perpetuate their own memes. Some examples:
StarCraft2: “Idra: GG”
World Of Warcraft: dancing characters
Unreal Tournament: “Double Kill… Multi Kill… Mega Kill… Ultra Kill…”
Also, warez servers – Where do you think video-memes were stored before YouTube? The local warez was the only place to find the 3D Dancing Baby video. Also, the terms “leecher” and “seeder” started there.
This list is not exhaustive at all. I wrote it just to illustrate how different communities and memes evolved over time.
All the examples cited show that Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes as “survival machines” seems to be able to hold its ground. The three factors needed by a survival machine – reproductive potential, ability to mutate, and longevity have all been demonstrated to a certain degree by the memes above. For example: Smiley Face – Viral: Very; Mutable: Very; Longevity: High – still a meme? – Yes. Internet Coke-Machine: Viral: Very; Mutable: Not too much; Longevity: The coke machine was probably scrapped already; still a meme?
I think the answer to the last question is a little tricky. Is the Internet Coke Machine meme dead forever now? And what exactly should we mean by longevity, when applied to memes? Dawkins suggests that “is probably relatively unimportant,” but I think it could have some practical applications if interpreted correctly. While I was writing this blog post, I told several engineering-inclined people about it, and they were very amused and liked the idea a lot. Maybe we can employ longevity to be the distinction between and the factors that cause memes to be active or inactive. After all, many interesting ideas of the past are still interesting today – we do not need to look for Polaris to find where north is, and the knowledge of how to wield a sword is not quite essential for our survival nowadays, but in the right communities, these memes are still active.
When, and do memes actually die? Perhaps it is fair to say that memes materialize within and disappear with their communities. Until they find a new home.
There are many questions that need to be answered about memes, but at least we get more and more examples on which to test our theories.