As Leonardo DiCaprio states in Inception, “once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”
A defining part of human history has been the sharing of ideas. It’s how knowledge spreads and how modern culture emerged.
But in recent years, idea-sharing has gone from slow diffusion of concepts to rapid, quick-fire streams of memes.
A meme is an idea that spreads by word of mouth, interaction or by mass media exposure.
Think of it as an informational gene or virus. A meme spreads and imprints itself onto people’s minds.
Although the concept has existed forever — morality lessons taught by parents can be considered memes — our memetic culture emerged only recently.
For an example of how a meme can spread, look no further than Charlie Sheen.
Yes, he’s a famous actor, but it was the memes he spawned that really drew people’s attention.
“Winning” and “tiger blood” have become pop phrases, and are even being used to advertise reruns of Sheen’s show and hawk products.
For another example, look at the line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
It’s a commonly referenced line, but how many people know it’s from the 1980s movie They Live? Better yet, how many people who quote the line have actually seen the film?
Memes are more prevalent today because on one hand, in the world today, it has simply become easier to talk to people.
Email, mobile phones, faster transportation, etc. all mean you can share that ‘LOLCat’ picture with someone far more quickly than you could 10 years ago.
But there’s also a cultural consideration. We as a culture are facing an information overload.
The streams of content and ideas flow so quickly and from so many areas, leading to a kind of cultural ADD.
Because of this, when a meme picks up, it really picks up. Parodies, remixes and saturation of memes are common.
A video clip of Antoine Dodson became a massively popular meme, spawning an even more popular auto-tuned remix by the Gregory Brothers.
But the problem with memes is they lose context.
A parody, random reference or remix of a context-specific idea can be entertaining, but is weakened in its effect.
Antoine Dodson’s manic outbursts were strange, yes, but they came in response to sexual assault against his sister.
Even though people know he wants everyone to “hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wives,” when filtered through auto-tune and video remixes, his urgency and anger are cheapened.
Sure, not all memes start from something that serious. But the rise of this memetic culture has lessened the impact of serious topics, boiling things down to simple, funny ideas.
And there is another problem: Memes won’t last forever.
Rebecca Black’s “Friday” might have been a trending topic on Twitter for weeks, but will we remember it in a year?
Sheen tried to ride out his memes’ popularity with a live tour, but his first show ended with him being booed by the audience.
If you want to talk about 15 minutes of fame, memetic celebrities are a good example.
So is Charlie Sheen a cultural milestone? Unlikely. Tiger blood and bed intruders will fade, likely replaced by some equally popular but short-lived meme.
Everything is moving at such a ridiculous pace. It takes something really special to leave a lasting, significant mark on our lives.
What will do that? Most likely not a meme.
Nicholas Slayton is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Age of the Geek,” runs Fridays.