Note to readers: I debated publishing this article entirely in lolcat speak, but ultimately fought the urge. If you’d prefer to get meta, however, have at it.
Internet memes are like the Force: It’s created by all living things (dogs, cats, socially awkward ducks, Scumbag Steves). It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy of web-based humor together. But while we casually laugh at their absurdity and lingo or obsessively iterate new jokes built on their base, Patrick Davidson of MemeFactory studies and documents this Internet phenomena as part of his PhD program (yes, really), and along with two colleagues is writing a meme textbook.
Patrick will keynote at Web 2.0 Expo New York this week on The Online Animal Economy: Examining the Cute Kitty Video, a title inspired by a chapter he’s writing for the book, which is being funded as a Kickstarter project. During his talk, he’ll discuss memes and examine the ways in which people have historically observed animals… and which of their behaviors tend to be the funniest.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion over the usage of the word ‘meme,’” he said. “What does ‘meme’ mean in that instance? Individual image or category of images or videos? Hard to define… When you say the word ‘meme’ you have to remember that you’re not saying anything about the object… The parts of it I care about is how it’s copied and how it’s changed… Its spread and adaptation are more important to me.”
Patrick said few people give memes deliberate thought, although some research is being done by communication academics. “This type of ‘vulgar media’ is often disregarded as being low brow,” he said. “Youtube comments might not have personal value… but I still think that this is undeniably a big deal.”
Patrick focuses much of his work on Advice Animal memes and compares it to poetic forms such as Haiku, as the origins of both have striking similarities.
Back when Haiku was first developing, the poems could be divided into categories of “mindful and mindless,” he said. “You can find all of these silly puns about breasts and farts.”
“We like to think the things that stand the test of times are beautiful florid descriptions of true love. But fart jokes are a pretty longstanding human tradition.”
The sheer number of people engaging with Internet culture through memes should interest any academic studying historical communication. “If you have an entire country of racists you wouldn’t celebrate that they were racists, but you’d seek to understand why they are racist,” Patrick offered as an analogy. “Millions of people are doing it, wouldn’t you be slightly curious as to why?”
“Computers and the Internet are here to stay… better to start paying attention to it sooner rather than later.”
Memes can also be looked at artistically as an example of collaborative creativity. But what drives people to propagate and create memes? Although it’s not a piece of art someone would pay for (…yet), the online community praise and recognition – or being Internet Famous – seems to be enough.
“People know that Michael Bay made the Transformer movie… that doesn’t exist for most Internet memes,” he said. “A lot just disappear… that doesn’t keep them from having localized attributions or localized credit. If there are 10 people who interact with it every day even anonymized… those people are still going to see you post that… they’re going to know that that person made that thing… for those people that matter, they’re going to know it was you.”
Despite the appeal of Internet Fame, and his research, Patrick said he doesn’t contribute to meme creation. “I think it takes a special kind of person and while I appreciate what they do, it’d be irresponsible for me to claim to be one of them.”
But his favorite meme? “I used to say advice dog really quickly. There are definitely some advice dog variants that hit close to home… but now, maybe Bachelor Frog.”
Come see Patrick chat about lolcats, Advice Animals, and more on the keynote stage next week at Web 2.0 Expo New York. Register with code BLG20 to save 20%.