There is a gray cat with a pop tart for a body on the computer screen.
Its pixilated body is flying through animated space, leaving a rainbow trail in its wake. A grating but catchy tune plays over and over.
“Nyan, nyan nyan nyan, nyan nyan nyan nyan, nyan nyan.”
“The appeal is that it’s just nonsense,” said Joel Johnston, a sophomore broadcasting major at San Francisco State University. “There are some people who like the song.”
This is Nyan Cat, a recent example of an Internet meme, which is an image, video, or saying that spreads virally over the World Wide Web.
The word “meme” first appeared in Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins defined a meme as being any sort of idea that spreads from person to person within a culture and catches fire. It played on the notion of a gene, as both genes and memes multiply with human-to-human contact.
As UC Santa Cruz computer science professor Gerald Moulds put it, “Every idea that manages to self-replicate is a meme.”
Internet memes are much the same thing. They spread from website to website, from community to community, from user to user across the Web, mutating and bonding together, and taking on different meanings along the way.
Moulds says he has “been plugged in to the Internet before most people knew there was an Internet.” He was online during the days of purely text-based message boards, called USENET newsgroups, where he says he experienced his first meme: a message board with the address “Alt.swedish.chef.bork.bork.bork.” The name references the Swedish Chef, a character on the Muppets.
“That was the first really well-known, completely whimsical thing [on the Internet],” Moulds said.
As often happens with memes, the message board spurred imitators and variations, such as “Alt.wesley.crusher.must.die.die.die,” this time poking fun at Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This was happening in the mid-1980s, but most of the memes Moulds can remember are from the last decade. Today, the Internet is much more sophisticated, though memes operate mostly the same way: an absurd or relatable concept takes form, usually in an image, and is released onto the Web, where just about anything can happen. They can remain in obscurity, or they can take over an entire section of the Internet — at least for a couple of days.
The last huge medium to take hold before the Internet was television, which brought mass culture into the home in a way it had never been before. The “Idiot Box” had the potential to be a voice for and of the people, but commercial interests outweighed realistic representations and varying viewpoints.
It’s widely acknowledged that the Internet is in some ways replacing television, and thus memes are poised to rival television as a form of mass entertainment. The popular meme database website Know Your Meme currently has 5,525 memes catalogued total, and that doesn’t count all the variations that come about within each meme.
Compare that to the 70-something channels that come with most cable packages for television. Some would say that you can’t look at TV shows and viral Internet images the same way, but what it all boils down to is the influence of ideas, and in numbers, memes have a lot more ideas, and a growing influence. Johnston spoke about the inevitability of encountering memes in today’s world.
“It eventually just happens,” he said. “If you’re on the Internet, you’re eventually just going to get exposed to memes. My mom isn’t really into the Internet — she just uses it for email, but even she knows about some of them.”
The Internet currently has less corporate control than other mediums. Because of this, memes are a form of entertainment that is actual popular culture in the purest terms: a culture of the people. They imitate TV’s instant-gratification format, but project a voice that is really from the masses, for the masses. Advertisers are constantly trying to produce an inauthentic copy of this, and many criticize meme culture for its anonymous, anything-goes approach. But the populist entertainment ventures on — for better or worse.
“Friday,” that infamous Rebecca Black music video, was inescapable for two weeks in March of this year, and even surpassed Lady Gaga’s single “Born This Way” in hits on YouTube. The song was originally produced and promoted by label Ark Music Factory, but what made the fervor so intense was the work of millions of people on their computers, posting links wherever they could.
And it wasn’t just the video itself that caught on. Different memes dissecting and analyzing small parts of the video, and comparing it to other parts of popular culture, were all over different sites.
One popular image had two panels: in the first, Rebecca Black is smiling, with a caption that reads “Which seat should I take?” a line from the popular song. In the next, the character Gretchen from the popular teen movie “Mean Girls” grimaces, and the caption is a line from the movie: “You can’t sit with us!”
There were hundreds more like it, and thousands of other memes take the Internet by storm every single day. It is a mass medium that, thanks to the omniscience of the Internet, is constantly evolving, an ever changing and growing set of inside jokes and references upon references upon references.
By taking apart Rebecca Black’s cheesy, generic pop song, the masses used humor to reject the disintegration of the music industry. Memes aren’t important because they make stars out of 13-year-old girls — they’re important because they allow the public to speak, and to decide what’s valuable. They are, in a way, a re-appropriation of American popular culture.
And this re-appropriation has concrete results. On April Fool’s Day of 2008, YouTube linked all featured videos on its front page to the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up,” copying a popular practice from Internet pranksters known as “Rickrolling.” The song shot to number 77 on Amazon’s online store.
The meme site ICanHazCheezburger, which bought Know Your Meme in March for an undisclosed seven-figure amount, receives around 2000 submissions a day alone. The site focuses on LOLCats, a type of meme that takes humorous images of cats and imposes absurd text laden with purposefully poor spelling and grammar.
For much of the 2000s and still today, LOLCats were and are inescapable. Their signature “I can haz [insert thing here]?” has become an acceptable way to request something, and people are expected to know what is being referenced. Emily Huh, editor-in-chief of ICanHazCheezburger, explained why she thinks certain memes take off so much.
“It has to have some entertainment value, whether it’s funny or whether it’s so horrible that it is funny,” she said. “Like Rebecca Black. It was so horrible that you just had to laugh at it. You don’t necessarily have to relate to it, but just understand it.”
San Francisco State student Johnston, who can spend an hour or two going through different memes in one sitting, echoes Huh’s opinion.
“I think the absurd nature of a lot of [memes] definitely make them entertaining because you just can’t really expect them,” Johnston said. “They’re all very accessible. A lot of people can see them and understand them, and a lot of people can use them in their own way.”
“People come to our sites because they get to connect and share with people what they have made or seen,” Huh said. “People get a few minutes of fame. They get really excited when they make a submission and it gets to the home page.”
An example of a relatable meme is Rage Comics, four-panel comics that always end the same way: with a stick-figure man looking upwards, his face contorted, mouth agape, with the text “FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU.” The situations leading up to the almost-expletive are always everyday annoyances — the sort of things that happen to everyone at some point, but that are so mundane that most people never talk about them, like being too lazy to tie your shoelaces and then tripping over them.
The “fffuuu” guy is one of a cast of characters in the meme-verse. Also present are Forever Alone and the Troll, different unattractive faces that have their own comics and followings.
These memes, like many others, originated on 4chan, an anything-goes message board site which grants users complete anonymity. A student at Cabrillo College, who wished to remain anonymous, has been using the site for about five years now. They first looked at it after they repeated a joke they had heard someone else tell, only to be told that the joke originated on 4chan.
“I read that thread [rage comics] when it first happened,” said the student. “It was just some guy, he made a four-panel comic, and it ended with the ‘fffuuu’ guy.”
4chan is known for having no boundaries or limits for what is acceptable to post. That means a lot of awful stuff, like child pornography and extremely racist, sexist, and homophobic posts, pop up. This is the price that is paid for a democratic, populist form of entertainment — all democracies depend on free speech.
“I do think the anonymity of the Internet has inspired creativity without traditional boundaries, and much of what’s been created seems like a response to the those traditional boundaries,” said UCSC professor Moulds in an email. “Some of what is created is small-minded or mean, and maybe much of it wouldn’t be out there if every creation were clearly linked to its author. But it would also chill free expression immensely if people thought that every off-color joke or juvenile Photoshop could be tied to their real names forever.”
And alongside the offensive material, memes that later take hold of the entire Internet start on 4chan. For the Cabrillo college student, the limitless atmosphere is key for creativity free from judgment.
“It’s almost completely anonymous, which is a huge helper, because people aren’t afraid to post a word,” they said.
After a meme pops up on 4chan, it takes a while to spread to other sites, like Reddit, a more policed message board, and Tumblr, a popular micro-blogging site. Once there, in the mainstream, the memes can blend together with each other to create a sort of pop cultural society and language. Christopher Price, editorial director of Tumblr, spoke about this phenomenon.
“I think that the graphical Internet memes are almost like hieroglyphics [because] you couldn’t express that sentiment any simpler than that,” Price said. “And so it’s just a guy saying ‘fuuuuuck,’ you know, that’s a pretty clear, basic sentiment. We all get that. We all have been there before.”
Price also talked about a recent trend on Tumblr, which has been to essentially tell stories using different memes to express emotions. In a world that is becoming more and more wired, things like body language and facial expressions are being replaced by animated images called Graphics Interchange Formats, or GIFs.
“They have their GIF folder on their computer, and they pick the best animated GIF from Harry Potter or something to express how they feel. And that’s rather an amazing way to communicate. It’s bizarre,” he said. “There are so many references, so there’s really a lot to be communicated there, but the person doesn’t necessarily do any of the communicating.”
Because memes are a form of entertainment that is easily manipulated and created by anyone, the potential for cross-sectional references are infinite. GIFs depicting the movie “Inception” and the show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” can be placed right next to each other, creating a completely new hybrid. In yet another Rebecca Black meme, 50 Cent and Elmo can ride in the same car, both of them laughing at the tween singer. It’s a pop culture junkie’s dream come true.
But entertainment isn’t the only world memes can comment on. Almost immediately after Osama Bin Laden’s death was announced, images were circulating with the text “America! Fuck Yeah!” and pictures of Bin Laden made to look like the lead character in “Black Swan” saying “I was perfect” also made the rounds. The nation wanted to celebrate the death of a man widely regarded as evil, and they turned to GIFs and Photoshop to do so.
But there are still drawbacks. Because memes rely on catchphrases and single images, patience for anything longer is running low. A UCSF study released in April showed that extreme multitasking associated with the Internet can limit the brain’s attention span.
“There’s very much simplicity, and short is important. And sometimes I get a little scared about that,” UCSC professor Moulds said.
He tells a story of receiving an email with a link to a video, and after seeing how long it is, thinking to himself, “A minute and a half, that’s forever!”
But perhaps more threatening than length is the possibility of being monetized. Viral marketing tries to synthesize the organic way memes can spread, creating ads with the goal of having amused Internet users doing the publicity for them.
“I think it doesn’t become a meme, usually, for money,” Moulds said. “In terms of the memes becoming popular, that seems to happen purely by accident. There are attempts to replicate that, of course. ‘Snakes on a Plane’ was introduced as viral marketing.”
Movies like “Snakes on a Plane” and “Cloverfield” are famous for viral marketing campaigns, as are brands like Skittles and Burger King.
A Cabrillo college student, who wished to remain anonymous, remembers seeing a supposed feud between Lady Gaga and Weird Al played out on the pages of Reddit surrounding Al covering one of Gaga’s songs. They suspect it was really all viral marketing.
“All of a sudden, these two people had huge bursts of publicity. Hundreds of thousands of people saw that on the front page of Reddit,” they said. “It’s viral PR firms. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but it’s kind of like mind control in a way. It’s manipulation.”
But despite these worries, Christopher Price from Tumblr has an optimistic outlook for the future of memes.
“I think there will always be an element of Wild West, anything-goes, because it’s just the nature of the Internet,” he said. “It’s a platform that encourages you to use it and create your own stuff for it. There are always going to be these people in their basements making really weird stuff that nobody understands. And I think that’s great, because it’s that weird stuff that gets refined and refined and refined, and then it somehow makes sense to people.”
For a Cabrillo college student, who wished to remain anonymous, memes have nowhere to go but up. They waved their hands around and opened their eyes wide as they spoke about their future.
“I think it’s going to be like the next Beatles. I mean, that’s kind of a weird reference, but the Beatles were huge,” they said. “Meme culture is going to explode. I’m really excited. Ten years from now there’s going to be an Internet culture class at prestigious universities.”
Maybe that will happen someday. But for now, memes are still in their own world, what San Francisco State student Johnston calls the “subconscious” of the people. And maybe the people don’t want to turn over their own mass medium to the established media just yet. Maybe they want to keep memes weird.
After all, that pop tart cat is still on the screen, reblogged on Tumblr by Topherchris, also know as Christopher Price, a day after we spoke. And the caption underneath is as follows:
“I almost attempted to describe Nyan Cat to a reporter yesterday, but decided against it because I didn’t want to sound batshit crazy.”
This article has been slightly modified from the original version.