Of memes and trollface

The Internet and Facebook are currently awash with image macros purporting to be memes. In this article I invite you to don a pair of rose-tinted glasses and take a journey through the history of the meme to reveal the extent to which current Internet culture has become boring and homogenised.

The term ‘meme’ originates in Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’, meaning a concept which spreads throughout culture. Just like a gene, a successful meme is able to spread throughout culture, while unsuccessful ones fade from existence.

An Internet meme is a similar concept, with the most successful being ones which users are more inclined to spread due to their shock value, humour, or other quality. Some of the first Internet memes originated on USENET, and could be classified as a concept (e.g. Godwin’s Law), or what would now be called “copypasta” -̶ a length of text (e.g. hoaxes or stories).

With faster bandwidth came the opportunity to begin using images as memes, which saw the introduction of “All Your Base” and “O RLY” to the Internet lexicon, along with the accompanying images.

In the mid-2000s, websites such as 4chan and Encyclopaedia Dramatica, which both served as as chroniclers and gatekeepers of Internet culture. 4chan still exists due to its capacity to monetise its traffic, while Encyclopaedia Dramatica died when it was revealed the website was losing $30k a year on bandwidth costs.

Another factor leading to the downfall of the frequently offensive yet extensive archive on Encyclopaedia Dramatica was the website and associated YouTube channel, Know Your Meme (KYM). KYM was able to democratise and monetise the business of chronicling Internet culture. Previously, Internet culture had its own special language and norms, requiring those new to it to “lurk” – to passively observe culture until they understood.

It is websites like KYM and 9GAG which I argue have undermined Internet culture by taking its sharp edges off, making it accessible to anyone with the Internet and channelling focus into memes which are instantly understandable like image macros – images with text superimposed.

Early Internet culture was autonomous and subversive, pushing and quite often over-stepping the boundary of what is considered socially acceptable. What bound it together was a collective disdain for the mass and popular, while desperately clinging to its Byzantine norms.

KYM and 9GAG on the other hand, lowered the barrier for entry into the Internet world, and have cultivated a fanbase so large and diverse that the most popular memes are the ones which have broad appeal – the inoffensive, the politically neutral, and self-explanatory. These websites’ success can be attributed solely to their ability to commercialise the Internet’s collective intellectual property.

If I could point to one meme which blew open the world of Internet culture, it would be the horrendous “Advice Dog” series. The meme is essentially an image macro, with the head of a dog set on a rainbow spiral background, featuring text giving “advice”. This meme spawned child memes of the same design like “Courage Wolf” and “Socially Awkward Penguin”.

With this meme came websites dedicated to assisting users generate their own “X Animal” memes. Of course, such websites had existed in the past for demotivationals, and now they exist for any punter wanting to inset bold-stroked, Impact-font text on any photo.

What these recent developments mean is the goalposts for what makes an Internet meme shifted; from a popular idea transmitted across the Internet, to any image macro.

The digital revolution is well upon us, and as promised, we can all be publishers. It should be disputed if this is a good thing because the Internet is now awash with unfunny and uncreative “memes”. To publish your own, to borrow a phrase from 4chan, is now to piss in an ocean of piss.

This criticism comes from somebody who considers themselves a member of the Internet Old Guard, and the nostalgia for “how it was” still runs strong. Consuming Internet memes used to require a special commitment to the art, and one can’t help but lament the death of a very special and unique moment in history.