I can’t really fault anyone for feeling hesitant about this post, since many people regard memes as an irritating, hackneyed sort of entropic byproduct of the Internet unworthy of existence, let alone study. I will set your mind at ease by saying that this blog is not going to become a byproduct of 4chan. I intend to investigate memes, not to parrot them, and any that end up featured on this blog will be there because I thought there was something interesting to say about them. And no, none of the links in this post are Rickrolls. Well, except that one.
Memes, or at least proto-memes, have been around since before the internet (throughout, I shall be using “meme” in its lay sense, not its evolutionary psychological sense, because evolutionary psychology is bunk). Any idea, picture, or phrase that makes its way into the general social consciousness has a memetic quality about it; any time you are surprised that someone else knows something that you also know, like a movie line, you are witnessing memes in action. But before the internet, such things could only propagate top-down, not laterally. You picked up quotes from movies and such (“May the force be with you”), which were created and distributed by media companies after careful consideration of what sorts of things were likely to catch on. True, sometimes the distribution happened laterally when a box-office flop became well known purely though people showing it to their friends, as with The Princess Bride, but a cult classic is still a top-down creation of a film company. There were also independent films before the Internet, but these only became well-known if they were picked up and distributed by major film companies. This situation would have seemed unsatisfactory to me. I want communication to happen, even over great distances and between diverse groups of people, without any boardrooms or focus groups. It doesn’t have to be a profound or polished communication, just something someone thought other people should see.
Thankfully, I live in the age of the Internet, which makes it possible to propagate text, pictures, sound bites, and videos between large numbers of people without any type of mediation. The internet, thus, acts as a great equalizer: people might propagate something from a popular movie or video game, but just as likely it’ll be a VHS recording of a cat in a onesie playing a keyboard. Nor does the original creator get all the credit (indeed, the original source is often not known), because memes are not just repeated, but modified. Everyone has a chance to offer a new variation on a theme (longcat, for instance; cats are a common theme), offering a new quick laugh to people already familiar with the initial concept. Over time, conventions develop, and an unofficial canon; Longcat now has an adversary called Tacgnol. Of course most of these variations, and indeed many of the initial pictures and videos, are not particularly clever or well executed, but that’s the beauty of the system: You don’t have to be brilliant to put your two cents in and have the rest of the world see it. There’s no screening and nobody in charge who determines what gets propagated and what doesn’t, and that’s a good thing. Just watch how it inverts the direction of information flow: the Queen could end up watching your video of a laughing baby. In the case of Rickrolling, the original creator got inducted back in through a bottom-up pattern: a forgotten ’80s star pulled back into the spotlight by random people on the Internet. It’s populism at work.
True memes did exist before the internet in the venerable form of chain letters, but I hope no one construes me as being in favor of those, because I’m not. Chain letters have three vital differences from other types of meme. First, a chain letter is essentially an empty communication: like a virus, it serves no purpose but to propagate itself, and the content of such a letter is usually limited to warnings about what will happen if you don’t send it along and promises of the great benefits that arise if you do. Second, a chain letter tries to force compliance and make you pass it on, whereas other memes are propagated by their own merit: by being clever or funny enough that someone else “just has to see this.” Third, many chain letters propagate fraudulent pyramid schemes that prey on people’s desire to get something for nothing, whereas a proper meme offers nothing but itself. Thus, individual chain letters add nothing to human communication except coercion and deception.
Large quantities of chain letters, on the other hand, can yield interesting information. Their contents and media reflect the culture in which they were created, and they can be used to learn how information is spread and distorted. A good archive, with analysis, can be found here.