But Internet culture, and the exceptional speed and ease of transmission online, represents a step-change. Early geneticists were attracted to fruit flies as research subjects because their extreme fecundity and short lifecycles meant many generations could be studied in a space of months. When it comes to memes, the Internet is an immense colony of fruit flies living in fast-forward – with all the experimental data widely and instantly available.
Looking at this data, the one distinguishing feature would seem to be downright frivolity. Memes support the idea that the online world has blurred the distinction between work and play – that media has given way to social media. A giant culture of messing about has found its perfect technology. It’s no coincidence that the biennial convention on Internet meme culture, held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 2008, is called ROFLCon, after the common online acronym for “Rolling On the Floor Laughing”.
In line with the evolutionary analogy, the memes that live longest tend to be those that are most adaptable. If the defining art form of the first part of the 20th century was collage, from the constellations of fragments in modernist poetry to the collided images of the plastic arts, that of the digital age is surely the remix or the mash-up. Video clips are spliced together; sound is sampled and repurposed; public domain images are overdubbed with catchphrases. Downfall, a German film made in 2004 showing the last days of Hitler, is appropriated to have the Führer ranting about Oasis splitting up; a sample of Gregg Wallace from Masterchef provides the hook for a techno track (“I like the base, base, biscuit base”). The term exploitable is, in this context, often used as a noun by those who make memes and describe their behavior.
Jonah Peretti, founder of Buzzfeed, a website that keeps track of, promotes and reports what goes on in viral media, says: “We used to think of the world in sections like front-page news, the sports section, the business section, the entertainment section. But when you think about memes and a lot of web culture, things are not organized that way. They’re organized by a sort of social logic. What kind of things do people like to do together? What kinds of things do people relate to? We organize our site by these emotional responses. So we don’t have a sports section and an entertainment section: we have an LOL [laughing out loud!] section, a WTF [good heavens!] section, a geeky section and so on.”
One of the most enduring and easily remixed meme genres is what users on Internet forums call the “image macro”—that is, a picture with lettering across it—of which the best known is probably the LOLcat. There are now millions of these in circulation. The archetypal LOLcat—back in the dawn of time, i.e. 2007, was a fat-looking gray mog asking: “I can has cheezburger?” Subgenres sprang up, multiplied, divided, and adapted. The Bible has been translated into LOLspeak, and LOLwalruses are already old, old news.
Image macros may use a specific image and an associated running joke, or a phrasal template of the sort known as “snowclones”: for example, “to X, or not to X”; “X is the new Y.” Snowclones are catnip to the Internet. A catchphrase from online war games, “I’m in your base, killing your men” (and numerous misspelled alternatives), has spawned the snowclone, “I’m in ur X, Ying ur Z.” You’ll find it on LOLcats: “I’m in ur fridge, eating ur noms.” Kanye West’s famous interruption—“I’ma let you finish”—was another instant snowclone; “Yo Jesus, I’m real happy for you, and I’mma let you finish, but Allah had one of the best ideas of all time. Of all time!” And so forth.
A participatory element undoubtedly helps memes to spread—and to beget other memes. Peretti describes the rise of “Disaster Girl,” which began life as an image of a little girl smiling impishly with a burning house in the background. “What we did at Buzzfeed was to cut her face out of the image and let people put it on top of any disaster. So she went in front of Bill and Monica’s first meeting, Windows Vista, the Hindenburg ... People already liked the image and were passing it around. But we made it easier for them to participate and make it their own.”
Memes have penetrated the real world too. Whimsical crazes such as “planking”—where users, and increasingly celebrities including Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, photograph themselves lying flat in odd locations—or “extreme ironing” are activities undertaken so that the images of them can be uploaded to the Internet. One of the most celebrated instances of a meme that straddles the online and offline worlds is the “flashmob”, where a crowd of strangers appears spontaneously in a public space and, for example, breaks into a synchronized dance routine.
The first flashmob was convened in 2003 by Bill Wasik, a writer on technology and culture then working as a senior editor at Harper’s magazine. “It really started as a prank or a joke,” he says. “I’d become very interested in viral email and I thought it would be fun to do a show in New York where the audience would be gathered entirely by viral email. At a certain point, I realized I could be lazier and not come up with an idea for the show: the show would just be everybody coming out to the same place at the same time for no reason.
“I intended this to be a little New York experiment. Just a few weeks into it people were doing them all round the country and then all round the world. I had meant it to be viral in one way, where the emails would spread virally. But then it became viral on a completely other level.”