Where Do Internet Memes Come From?

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In 1996, a 3-D diapered baby started doing the cha-cha on the Internet and inside TV character Ally McBeal’s brain.

With that dancing baby came the birth of the Internet meme, represented by a colorful cast of characters today including Lolcats, Double Rainbow Guy and Chocolate Rain.

No one has proven that “Baby Cha-Cha” was the very first viral online character, but it was certainly one of the first, popping up two years after Mike Godwin first applied the term “meme” to Internet discourse in an article for Wired magazine. He wrote:

A "meme," of course, is an idea that functions in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a "viral meme") may leap from mind to mind, much as viruses leap from body to body. When a meme catches on, it may crystallize whole schools of thought.

Godwin borrowed “meme” from Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins coined “meme” (which intentionally rhymes with “gene”) to describe the self-replicating nature of cultural ideas.

But unlike ideological memes in the real world, Internet memes are human-replicated, with users forwarding, tweeting and posting those videos and links that strike a certain chord, says Matt Morain, a doctoral student at North Carolina State University who studies viral Internet culture.

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“Mashups, remixes and other intertextual activities are rhetorical acts of communicating culture, from one person to many, with a specific emotional intent,” Morain told Discovery News.

If Internet memes are human-replicated, where do those Lolcats and Rick Rolls come from?

“In an environment where speed is everything and attention is fleeting, good timing coupled with a strong cultural awareness can make the difference between something that goes viral and something that ends up in the gutters of the Web,” Morain explained. “It's a delicate art to master.”

Web sites and online advertisers are certainly trying to master that art by crafting viral marketing campaigns and content with the hopes of sparking a meme –- and reaping a tidal wave of traffic and pageviews.

For instance, “Bros Icing Bros” became summer 2010’s viral drinking game, as thousands of people coerced friends to chug Smirnoff Ice on bended knee and uploaded the documentary photo and video evidence.

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As icing took off, garnering coverage in The New York Times, Ad Age, Newsweek and other media outlets, many suspected that Smirnoff was behind the viral trend that supposedly started with a group of college students, but once the meme took off, it didn’t really matter. 

The Smirnoff icing trend also speaks to the innate frivolity of most Internet memes. They exhibit the more bizarre manifestations of the human experience, imagination -– and AutoTune skills (see: “Hide your kids/Hide your wife” remix). They give us a brief laugh and something to pass along to friends.

To Morain, the interconnectivity that memes promote is where their value lies.

“Critics might fail to see their value as cultural artifacts when compared to say, Manet's ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ or a Tchaikovsky composition, but that's usually because they fail to take into the account the context in which a meme was created, shared, remixed and redistributed,” Morain said. “Internet memes are inherently a social activity and as such, their value lies not in their content but in the networks – both human and technological -– that share them.”

Yet for other people, Internet memes spread so quickly and last so briefly, they’re degrading popular culture by forcing everyone to laugh at the same online joke for a moment and move on to the next trend.

In a May 2010 opinion piece for the Washington Post, The Onion editor Joe Randazzo called for the end of Internet memes.

“Instead of acting as an organic cultural touchstone, the modern meme — from LOL, which hasn't been used to signify physical laughter since 1997, to Lolcats — now sucks the joy out of our interconnectedness,” Randazzo wrote.

Google analytics indicate that Randazzo has a while to wait until Internet memes fade into the cultural background, though. Search requests for “bros icing bros” have nosedived since its summertime peak, but the number of people seeking out “memes” only continues to climb.

Unlike Randazzo, Morain doesn’t interpret Internet memes as a sign of cultural failure. Sure, they’re often silly and might not promote intellectualism, but in a way, memes have become a sort of glue holding Internet communities together.

“Isn't there something endearing about getting an e-mail forward from a much older relative who just discovered Lolcats for the first time?” Morain said. “Nothing like multigenerational feline humor to bring a family together. I'm pretty sure that's what engineers had in mind when they were building the Internet in the first place, right?”