Remember when it was all about Pig Latin?
In eighth grade, speaking the language made you opular-pay. You could eat unch-lay with the ool-cay kids, and no one would tell you to am-scray.
You may have thought you were participating in a secret club, but you were really just participating in culture. And you were doing so in one of the easiest and most opular-pay ways — by spreading a meme.
A meme is generally defined as a cultural idea that is spread by imitation and repetition. From religious philosophies to phrases like “that’s what she said,” memes have continually played a large role in society. Notably, their formation and content has been altered by the existence of the Internet: The web has spawned a whole new environment for communication, and the memes that developed online are the ones everyone talks about.
If you’ve ever cracked a Chuck Norris joke or been to ICanHasCheezburger.com, you’ve participated in an Internet meme. And while you might not be proud of the number of times you’ve watched the YouTube video “Daniel After Dentist,” your involvement with the phenomena is in fact “real life.”
The possibilities of a meme are at once endless and seemingly pointless. Most tend to have some sort of a mocking element, as “Rick-Rolling” did. The trend involved providing a link and claiming it was relevant to any topic, but instead giving the URL of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” music video instead. The meme might appear to not serve a purpose, but laughing at someone else’s expense (be it the victim or Rick Astley himself) always serves the purpose of entertainment.
The nerdiest of memes tend to stay within their subcultural circles, but they occasionally make it to the mainstream, causing n00bs to say “FTW.” Probably the best example of a well-known meme that many people just don’t like is “All your base are belong to us.”
The phrase originated from a shoddy translation in a Chinese video game; once web users discovered it, they repeated it constantly. Pictures of the Mona Lisa and The Cat in the Hat were photoshopped and then given the expression as the caption; The Laziest Men on Mars created a techno song and used the phrase as lyrics. Someone even wrote a poem combining HTML hex codes and the meme, creating a geek’s ultimate Hallmark card: “Roses are #FF0000, Violets are #0000FF, All my base are belong to you.”
Such incarnations of “All your base” were an example of the fact that, for certain memes, manifestations and user recreations could be essentially more interesting than the meme itself. Users chose to interact with the phrase and turn it into a way bigger deal than it probably ever should have been, and, because of their involvement, the poor translation will go down in Internet history.
It is easy to look at trends like this and renounce them as stupid, beneath you or devoid of cultural significance. And true, a banana singing “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” should probably not be compared to Faulkner. However, the fact is that millions of people are out there videotaping their reactions to “2 Girls 1 Cup,” and if participation doesn’t constitute culture, then what does?
Memes may not be respectable but they are there, provoking responses and imitations. By promoting interaction, these dumb expressions, typos and slow-motion replays of people falling down define a large aspect of our culture. The web can be what we make of it, and if we want to make it about auto-tuned news and bad flash animations, so be it. The people have spoken.
Meme-theorists (yes, they exist) believe that memes evolve by natural selection, and that the life of a viral video or idiom depends on the behaviors of its host. It can be assumed, then, that we have gotten ourselves to this point, and that we control their existence (read: if you look down upon memes, then don’t watch “Keyboard Cat”).
On the other hand, if you do not see these mindless trends as in poor taste, the world (wide web) is your oyster. You can forward links to Soulja Boy video remixes, view hundreds of pictures captioned, “THIS IS SPARTA” and Rick-roll whomever you choose. Better yet, you can justify it all by saying you are simply experiencing culture.
As of now, the countless hours and myriad of people that go into making an Internet meme survive is not hurting anyone. However, if we let these memes become too prevalent, they could lose their ironic appeal and make us all just that much more foolish. And all our base would belong to them.
Jen Winston is a junior majoring in communication. Her column, “The Memeing of Life,” runs Tuesdays.