Internet Memes: Imitating Behavior to Perpetuate an Ongoing Joke

By Janet Martin

Richard Dawkins defines memes as “that which is imitated.” In her book, “The Meme Machine,” professor Susan Blackmore takes this definition and applies it to aspects of everyday life—speech, clothing, music and even cooking. Dawkins pre-dates sites like Memestache.com, but Blackmore and other scholars have not discussed memes as we know them—a series of online pictures with related text that must coincide with a larger joke. In other words, things like “Hipster Kitty,” “Socially Awkward Penguin,” and “Conspiracy Theory Keanu.”

The Relation of Memes to Memetics: Is There a Difference?

Urban Dictionary defines memes as “a word, phrase, expression, iconic imagery or recognizable reference popularized amongst online communities such as on forums or in online games.” This sounds more like the memes with which most of us are familiar and seems a far cry from the definition of memes—or, more accurately, memetics—used by Dawkins and Blackmore.

Nvate Internet Memes Success Baby Hipster Kitty conspiracy theory Keanu Martin Farncombe

Success Baby

However, the creation of things like “Success Baby” and “Lazy Senior” actually rely on the same concept as memetics. When you or a friend creates a new meme for the message boards, you are imitating an image and style that has already gained popularity online; you must use the same picture and sentence used by thousands of others, or you risk using the meme incorrectly.

Martin Farncombe is a management consultant who is working on a book about business memes. He sees the connection between the memes of pop culture and those of scholarly study. “I would not distinguish between Internet-based memes and those related to other transmission media—nursery rhymes, chain letters, [or] viral TV ads,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s right to talk about people being ‘drawn’ to Internet memes. Memes have been around as long as Homo sapiens. What the Internet does provide is an ideal transmission medium for certain types of simple meme because it’s so easy to transmit to wide audiences using tools like Facebook.”

History of Memetics

Memetics are hard to understand, but some knowledge is necessary in order to understand memes as we know them. After all, an Internet meme is really a new manifestation of an idea that has been around as far back as the 19th century, according to Morgan Kaufmann in “Evolutionary Design by Computers.” Dawkins was discussing imitated behavior as early as 1976.

These days, research has been conducted regarding memes in everything from financial markets to design. Most things in our lives—or everything if you ask Blackmore—use imitation in order to spread an idea or concept. Memetics determine how we learn and interact with information. Think about speech; when you learn to talk, you do so by imitating the sounds and sentence structures you hear. Even accents occur, in some part, because children hear the way their parents and teachers pronounce certain words and imitate it.

“While I wouldn’t underplay the role of genetics in our behaviors,” said Farncombe, “a lot of our deep behavior and all of our superficial behaviors—what we wear, what we eat, how we dress, the language we use, our economy, laws, work, religions—are memetic in nature.”

What Makes an Internet Meme Good?

Now back to Internet memes. The biggest thing when creating an Internet meme is sharing because the whole reason to submit something online is to share it with others. However, some submissions of a popular meme seem to work better than others. Some memes gain more popularity and are shared via Facebook, Pinterest, and other social networks. Have you ever wondered why your version of Hipster Kitty didn’t receive as many likes as you had hoped for? Farncombe said it’s all a natural part of memetics.

Nvate Internet Memes Success Baby Hipster Kitty conspiracy theory Keanu Martin Farncombe

Socially Awkward Penguin

“The ways our parents and teachers raised us and the religions they made us learn contain concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ although these concepts are just memes and have no independent merit,” Farncombe said. “A ‘good’ meme is one that fits in with the memes we already run and that we are happy to absorb. A good Catholic, for example, is unlikely to accept the tenets of reincarnation because it does not fit in with their dominant meme set.”

A “good” meme is any meme that fits within the pre-conceived idea of what that meme should contain because you wouldn’t put a Socially Awkward Penguin joke under a Hipster Kitty picture, or make Conspiracy Theory Keanu say something of merit. That simply doesn’t fit, and therefore, wouldn’t be absorbed by the World Wide Web.

In their essay, “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production,” Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear quote Dawkins, who said that a good meme can be identified by three key characteristics: “fidelity, fecundity, and longevity.” Fidelity refers to “ideas that make intuitive ‘sense’ and are meaningful to individuals in ways that allow the ideas to be imitated or reproduced,” and “fecundity refers to the rate at which an idea or pattern is copied and spread,” while longevity simply means that the longer a meme survives the more “it can be copied and passed on to fresh minds.”

Knobel and Lankshear are discussing Internet behavior at large, but these definitions still apply to the popular idea of Internet memes. To make your Socially Awkward Penguin successful, it needs to follow the rules of the meme (fidelity), go viral (fecundity) and stay that way (longevity). Memestache.com says pretty much the same thing, but in simpler terms. First, “someone finds pic, adds caption [and] Internet LOLs.” Next, “more people add their own caption to same pic,” and the meme keeps going.

How to Create a Good Meme

The first part is easy, since the picture is chosen for you. But how does one arrange the other part? How do you get the Internet LOLs (fecundity) and the longevity? “A ‘good’ meme is one that is noticed and transmitted—the more likely it is to be noticed and the more often it is transmitted, the ‘better’ it is,” Farncombe said. “Consider a picture of a cute cat that pops up on your Facebook page—you inherently want to look at it because it comes from one of your friends, it gets noticed because you like cats, and it’s easy to pass on to your friends by hitting ‘share.’”

Nvate Internet Memes Success Baby Hipster Kitty conspiracy theory Keanu Martin Farncombe

This is an example of a Hipster Kitty meme and how a person can generate their own meme.

“A picture of a dull building is less likely to get noticed or transmitted, therefore the cat picture is a ‘better’ meme. Of course, you have to look at this in terms of populations—if you don’t like cats, then you might not notice it and probably won’t share it, even though thousands of other would.”

So a good place to start would be your friends because they are likely to enjoy the same things as you and will, therefore, imitate the behavior. Then their friends share it, then the friends of those friends, and next thing you know your Conspiracy Theory Keanu is known throughout the Webosphere.

So while scholars haven’t done research on Internet memes per se, the work out there can still help out the aspiring meme maker. If you wish to make a meme that will reach number one on your favorite online forum, simply gain a basic understanding of the origins of memes. An understanding of human imitation will help you create a Hipster Kitty that people all over will share and imitate.

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