Our Top Five Memes of 2011

When I first tried to rank the Internet virals of 2011, the diagrams just weren’t working. I kept trying to draw a graph in my brain, something I could mentally chart out and calculate to get some well-reasoned results. But I kept having this image of Robin Williams pop into my head to draw each diagram on a chalkboard, make fun of it, and tell me to rip the first few pages out of my textbook.

And so I just asked myself, “What were my top 5 favorite memes of 2011?” and I was able to come up with my own list pretty quickly. Then I thought, “What do all these memes have in common?” And frankly, what they all had in common was that I remembered them.

This list (which is pretty close to my original) represents the memes of 2011 that we all most likely remember, which is kind of the whole point. Memes are not necessarily memes because of some particular quality or set of qualities; memes are memes because whatever qualities they may or may not have, they enter public consciousness in a pervasive, culture-affecting way. Some Internet fads pass into meme because they’re funny, some because they’re moving, some because they’re fun to take part in, some because they’re particularly meaningful. But all of them affected our lives in a way that we remember.

So here you go. The top 5 memes of 2011.

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#5 The many phrases of Charlie Sheen.

It was hard to decide on #5. This was the point where things start to get fuzzy, where things like Steve Buscemi, Pop-Tart cats, and “first world problems” start to feel about the same. But when I searched my heart, the answer came to me in perfect clarity: It’s all that weird stuff Charlie Sheen said.

Sheen had a phenomenal year of being a jerk. Phrases like “tiger blood,” “Adonis DNA,” and “winning!” (the most popular) from his ludicrous interviews quickly became priceless bits of sleazy nonsense, all too good to not be things we procured for our own ends. Through Twitter hashtags, autotuned YouTube vids, and just plain personal over-quoting, we made sure our lives were tinged with the words of Charlie Sheen for quite a while. We will always remember “winning!” every time we see a rerun of Two and a Half Men.

#4 Tebowing

Tim Tebow is our famous Christian of the moment. I like the guy a lot; he’s turning out to be a great example of integrity and sincerity in the midst of the usual cesspool of professional athletes. But in late 2011, his celebratory touchdown position of taking one knee in thankful payer was something fans and detractors began lampooning to no end. In this act of “Tebowing,” people took pics of themselves in the pose all over the place, submitting them to sites for public perusal.

Though Tebowing is basically a spin-off of the year’s earlier internet hit “planking” and a latecomer to the 2011 list, it has quickly made itself worthy of the Top 5, mainly because of Tebow himself. He’s everywhere these days, the current centerpiece for public dialogue on religion and personal sincerity. And whenever we think of Tebow, we will always think of “Tebowing.”

#3 Occupy Wall Street’s Pepper Spraying Policeman

I wanted to avoid this one, but it just kept popping up for me. This is probably the only one that I’ve included mostly due to its poignancy.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was one of the major newsmakers of 2011, bringing conversation and contention to light between all sorts of people. One of the more controversial moments of the movement involved a police force dressed in riot gear sent to disperse a group of students on the UC Davis campus. The event ended with a policeman nonchalantly spraying a can of pepper spray on a seated line of college students, with the action invoking outrage from a variety of commentators and media outlets.

In response, images of the pepper spraying policeman began to be superimposed on countless photos in silly and serious ways, highlighting what many considered to be the senselessness of the event. Here was a meme that was funny in effect, but funny with a serious point. We will always remember the images the pepper spraying policeman when we think about Occupy Wall Street.

#2 Planking

Planking was the most egalitarian of this year’s memes. Any man, woman, or child can lie face down on something and have someone take their picture. There is no learning curve or set of higher aptitudes needed to take part in planking (and also no potential issues of conscience to sort through like in Tebowing).

The competition of planking was in creativity of location and setup. People planked at weddings, in the middle of rush hour, at the Grand Canyon, on top of telephone poles, alone, and in groups. They submitted their pics to sites across the Web, hoping a shot of their horizontalizations would rise to the top of the list and be seen by someone somewhere. Needless to say, things tended toward further and further extremes in people’s hopes of garnering attention, sometimes with sad results when things went awry.

We will always remember planking, mostly because it’s way too ridiculous to forget.

#1 Rebecca Black “Friday”

No contest here. Rebecca Black’s terrible music video for a terrible song was this year’s top meme. It was awkward, catchy, viral, quotable, and malleable enough to be lampoon-able again and again. And since it was tied to a day of the week, it kept coming up over and over and over and over in offices and schools around the world. We sang it, got tired of singing it, and then sang it again. A meme that can’t die is a true meme indeed.

“Friday” is now an archetype — the rare kind of meme we compare other memes to (i.e., “it’s not as funny as Rebecca Black”). “Friday” is the 2011 meme that we can now add to the class of high memes like “Double Rainbow,” “Charlie bit my finger,” and “LOLcats.” It’s a modern meme classic, and the meme of 2011. We will never forget Rebecca Black because she’s, well, Rebecca Black. 

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The meme stream of 2011 contained a number of strange, fascinating bits of pop culture. These bits tell us a number of things: We still don’t like putting up with jerks (at least not the really big ones), we’re looking for sincerity and not quite sure what to do when we find it, and we all want to be part of something meaningful and world changing. We also want to be part of a community and feel included even if it’s because of something silly, and, as always, we can’t live without the things we all “love to hate.”

Memes always bring out interesting facets of our culture, and it definitely was an interesting year. It leaves me curious to see what the ‘net holds for us in 2012. And maybe next year will be graph-able.

About Kirk Bozeman

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