"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."


Glenn Reynolds:

Barack Obama:
"Impossible to transcend."

Albert A. Gore, Jr.:
"An incontinent brute."

Rev. Jeremiah Wright:
"God damn the Gentleman Farmer."

Friends of GF's Sons:
"Is that really your dad?"

Kickball Girl:
"Keeping 'em alive until 7:45."

Hired Hand:
"I think . . . we forgot the pheasant."

I'm an
Alcoholic Yeti
in the
TTLB Ecosystem

Monday, August 30, 2010

Internet Memes

There's real time, and then there's cyberspace time. Real time ticks away at a predictable stately pace, while cyberspace time is elastic, and its only reliable characteristic is that it passes between 5 and 25 times faster than real time. Internet memes are the only signposts by which one may mark the quick march of cyberspace time. They emerge, propagate like a virulent epidemic, breed with and infect other memes, get old, burn out, and disappear.

Possibly the first internet meme was the fracking* emoticon, said to have begun with some cursed Patient Zero in 1982. We choose to believe that it is no coincidence that 1982 also saw the coining of the term "cyberspace" by William Gibson. The emoticon is ASCII Art for the idiot who not only cannot write clearly, but must go next door to borrow a cup of clever. We will not discuss full-color emoticons, animated emoticons, nor emoticons that morph into Keanu Reeves. They remain wit for the half-wit.

Cyberspace time ran more slowly in those ancient times, when the internet was dominated by Usenet discussion threads. And so it was not until 1989 that saw the handing-down by Mike Godwin of Godwin's Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. A useful corollary is that the combatant first mentioning Nazis or Hitler automatically loses the argument. Like the emoticon, Godwin's Law remains with us; unlike the emoticon, it remains useful.

Another meme still with us is the pointless -- but strangely fascinating -- webcam. Probably the first of these went online in 1993, providing a live feed of a coffee pot at Cambridge University. The thing was located in "the Trojan Room," and thus became "The Trojan Room Coffee Pot." It remained online until 2001, when its demise attracted international attention.

The mid-90s saw the rise of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.  Based on the "small world" concept that you are connected to every other person on earth through no more than six linked acquaintances, it requires one to connect any named actor to Kevin Bacon.  Supposedly begun on a Usenet group called "Kevin Bacon is the Center of the Universe," it is not truly a classic meme, but has surely spawned many internet offspring, including Bacon's own charitable website "SixDegrees.org" and this short film:

The best memes are simple, unintentional, and impossible to look away from.  In 1997, for example, we had The Hamster Dance.  After 30 seconds (and one cannot click away before that) the silly tune has been scorched into your lizard-brain, deep at the base of your skull.

To become a legendary meme, the underlying idea must be susceptible of modification, wide application, and use in unexpected contexts. In early 1997, on 4chan, a link purportedly to the then-new "Grand Theft Auto IV" instead took the unsuspecting HERE:

"Rick-Rolling" lasted forever by cyberspace standards, and inevitably its DNA split and fertilized other memes:

Decades later (four years in real time, or 2001) came the equally inexplicable "all your base are belong to us," with its roots in an 8-bit video game which, when ported, had been translated into Engrish:

This didn't have the staying power of Rick-rolling, of course, because of its limitations: "All your [INSERT] are belong to us" can't go too many places before it degenerates into "The Aristocrats!"

Spongmonkeys.  What the Hell were "spongmonkeys?" Are they animals?  Are the just furry THINGS?  Are they manifestations in our universe of some extra-dimensional creature?  OK, OK, settle down.  They first appeared in 2002:

Whatever they are, spongmonkeys imploded when they began to shill for Quiznos.

It's hard to believe that Lolcats have only been with us since 2006. The idea of cats & captions isn't new. This is from a century ago:

But the lolcat explosion is different, and shows no sign of abating. Lolcats now range from the amusing to the coma-inducingly cute to the poignant and, well, many other themes.

The mid oughties saw an explosion of outright memes (propagating, evolving, cross-fertilizing) and their cousin, the viral video. In 2006 alone, we were introduced to Angry German Kid, Lonelygirl15, Sneezing Panda (which may have been the inspiration for Cute Things Exploding), and Laughing Baby. Several of these are both viral videos (buried down at the bottom of emails titled "FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: SO CUTE!" from your mother) as well as memes, spawning no end of variation. And we never did understand the appeal of The Llama Song:

We think that sometimes someone sets out to consciously create a meme. Other times it's hard to tell if it's merely some regular guy's teeny, tiny, once-in-a-lifetime's flash of unadulterated genius. In 2007, we were truly blessed with this Hall of Famer:

It was clipped from a serious video. And you ought to see Kickball Girl's live version.

By that time -- 2007 -- everybody was into the meme thing whether they knew it or not. It's clear you've reached the singularity when your grandfather starts sending out links to his friends at The Home and copying you. It begins to become difficult to separate out the sufficiently bizarre, creative, or hilarious from the merely meh. Leave Britney Alone is stupid, while TechnoViking is sublime (LGT overdubbed version, as the original is blocked). NinjaCat (2008) is quite clever, but we've never really warmed up to David After Dentist (2009).

Without a doubt, our favorite internet meme is "Hitler Rants." The original clip is from the 2004 Oscar-nominated German film "Downfall." Like all great ideas, it seems obvious once someone has it: Hitler ranting at his aides from the bowels of the F├╝hrerbunker as the Red Army rolls into Berlin, in German. Just add subtitles! It is impossible to list or link to all of them, which have addressed the iPad, vuvuzelas, Lady GaGa screening his calls, every imaginable possibility it seems. Try Googling "top hitler rant videos."   Hitler gets RickRolled, and calls the Angry German Kid. Inevitably, he rants about Hitler parody videos. We'd have thought that this last would be sufficiently universe-bending, but we were wrong. The ultimate meta-meme came when the copyright owner of the underlying footage demanded that such videos be blocked. And it can't get better than this:

* Yes, we are aware that "frack" is itself a meme, but what's really going to bake your noodle later on is . . . .

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