You might have seen a popular meme floating around the internet—a photo of a young Justin Timberlake in his frosted-tip glory paired with the phrase, "It's gonna be May." It's an image that inevitably circulates every April 30th, and it's viral now to the point that May 1 has been dubbed by some as NSYNC appreciation day. While I was always a Backstreet Boys gal myself, there is something so perfect about this meme. It satisfies my penchant for 90's nostalgia and also points to something we all noticed but never really said out loud (Timberlake's pronunciation of "me" as "may"), so that it feels like an inside joke that we’re sharing on a really wide scale.
You may think I'm taking an analysis of an Internet fad too far, but there's actually a word for the study of memes: memetics. That word, of course, isn't referring to the study of the O Rly Owl or Socially Awkward Penguin. The concept of memes has been around since the 70's, coined by evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins in his first book, The Selfish Gene. He wrote, “Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”
Some examples of the cultural memes that Dawkins is talking about are catch phrases, or songs that everybody knows, or fashion trends.
Memes Spread to the Interwebs
Because memes are the product of community and social interaction, it's really only natural that they would erupt on the internet. Critics of the internet in its infancy would say that it dehumanized interaction, but early adopters of the internet found comfort in the ability to connect over common interests online where they might not be able to in their local community. Niche culture flourished online, because where it might be difficult to organize a meetup to discuss your favorite 70’s science fiction novel in your small town, it was suddenly really easy to do so on a message board.
Memes, basically community in-jokes, started to crop up in these early days of the internet as communities grew around shared interests. While you could argue that social networks existed long before Facebook, the culture-wide popularization of social media has made the spread of memes easier and easier, though a lot of the meme inception is still occurring on more niche platforms and then spreading into wider consciousness.
Viral or Meme?
Many memes are viral, meaning they’re circulated widely and rapidly online. But not all viral content can be considered a meme. A defining characteristic of a meme is that it evolves or over time as it’s shared. A great example is one of my all-time favorites, the Doge meme.
What started out as a random picture of a Shiba Inu uploaded to a personal blog became one of the internet’s best-known memes after the photo was posted to Reddit with a caption that misspelled the word “dog” as “doge”. Primarily through Tumblr, Reddit, and 4Chan, the image was shared and iterated until the viral meme that we know and love emerged: images of the doge paired with snippets of grammatically-incorrect inner monologue (so meme, very virus, wow such internet). The meme continued to morph, with evolutions including a BitCoin alternative called DogeCoin and a weather service site called Doge Weather.
This doge is struggling.
But a meme might not necessarily become widely popular outside the scope of one community, and therefore isn’t automatically viral. For example, I used to frequent a LiveJournal community (excuse me while I show my age) for the Boston Red Sox, which was full of inside jokes that were only ever relevant not only to the Red Sox fan base, but to fans on that particular forum.
Some memes cross over from the internet to everyday life. Case-in-point: the Smirnoff ice meme, which started with a 2010 website BrosIcingBros.com and turned into thousands of college students finding creative ways to present a friend (or frenemy) with a Smirnoff Ice, a notoriously disgusting premium malt beverage, which they were forced to chug on bended knee.
A great example of viral content that isn’t a meme is the Pentatonix Daft Punk video. The a cappella homage to French electronic group Daft Punk garnered over 132 million views on YouTube, mostly through social sharing, and earned the group a Grammy award, but it can’t really be considered an internet meme, because it wasn’t widely re-iterated.
The Internet is About Humans
Internet memes have an interesting facet that regular memes don’t have: they leave a permanent mark on the forums they’re posted on, and are therefore their iterations can be traced. The site Know Your Meme actually does a great job of finding meme origins and tracking their development. It’s also a ridiculous amount of fun to see all the ways other people have interpreted your favorite memes, from Nyan Cat to the Honey Badger.
While memes are great to laugh at, they also point to the very human nature of the internet and how online communities mimic the formation of your traditional anthropological communities and culture. More and more, as the internet becomes ubiquitous, we’re seeing internet memes spill into social consciousness in an offline way, blurring the line between life on the interwebs and IRL (never forget the time the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Rickrolled a nation).