What Memes Mean: What I Learned about Memes in 2011

Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.

Memes are strange, sporadic, and unpredictable. Some Internet uploads go viral while others don’t, often without much good explanation as to why. But if you stare down the dark well of Internet memes long enough, your eyes eventually adjust to the light. In looking at the weird world of meme in 2011, certain patterns became apparent as to what makes memes hit or miss, stay or leave.

Here are my scattered thoughts on these certain attributes of memes that go meme. They are disconnected ideas, to be sure; if you step back and try to piece them together as a whole, these attributes don’t seem to fit together. But maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. Memes are surprisingly disconnected in themselves.

People love things that are cute. Does it involve kitty cats, small children, or puppies? If it contains some form of culturally established cuteness, the chances are high that it will go viral. Whether it’s a cat playing the piano, a little girl giving herself a daily pep talk in the bathroom mirror, or a child biting another child’s finger — if it’s cute enough, it’s meme gold.

People love to laugh. This may seem glib and obvious, but it’s one of the most important truths of meme. A vast majority of memes become memes because they make us laugh. On the flip side, countless attempts at meme humor are uploaded to the ‘net with high hopes of hitting the viral humor jackpot that never make it off the ground. It’s usually because they just really aren’t that funny.

People love a punching bag. I’d call it something like “Nickelback Syndrome”: People love something they can “love to hate.” The sentiment is always just enough over the line to be a tad asinine, but with enough of us involved in it, we can justify our participation. Music videos, celebrity facial features, and awkward personal photos all become fodder for a communal punching bag in the world of meme.

People want to be part of something. Some memes are more participatory than others, but all memes evidence our desire to belong, even if it’s simply taking part in the re-posting process. It’s even inherent in the idea — a meme isn’t a meme unless you can say “everybody’s doing it.” Memes are made by and for the masses en masse.

Every now and then, people impress you. This isn’t really an attribute, just more of a statement. My personal favorite meme of last year, the deaf woman who heard, was an intensely moving experience to watch, and I was impressed and excited when the clip went viral. It’s amazing to live in an age where images of such moments can be captured in a digital format and viewed across the world, and equally amazing when such a moment makes a meaningful impact on the lives of those who view it. Often the world of Internet meme can seem shallow, just a corner of the peanut gallery reserved for smartphone and laptop junkies. But beneath the surface you find real people interacting with a real culture around them, and sometimes those people bump into something meaningful and remember for just a second who they’re supposed to be. This is the image of God showing up.

And so, like bits of tacky jewelry, we adorn ourselves with these scraps of image and sound, passing them from person to person for a time, and we call it Internet meme. As we turn the corner into 2012, I’m curious to see what nonsense and wonder we will choose as our cultural accessories. My hope is that our choices will leave me impressed.

About Kirk Bozeman

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