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4th Mar 2013

The Decline Of Participatory Memes


by Gabriel Wainio-Théberge

2012 was a bad year for memes.  Even if you didn’t think about it you probably noticed it.

But this isn’t just because there was nothing new, or because 9gag consolidated its position as the place everyone goes to for “lulz” now. So listen up, all y’alls in the meme tag posting rage comics and Spurdo Spärde or whatever it is you kids like these days.  There might actually be a threat to your online lifestyle.

Here’s one of the more accurate-seeming lists I can find of the top 10 memes of 2012:

The first thing that’s going to jump out, if you’re a fan of old memes at all, is the unfunny.  I mean, the first two have nothing inherently humorous about them at all - they’re just structures on which to organize “humorous” observations about daily life.

That said, there wasn’t that much “inherently” humorous about a lot of old memes, like your average Rickroll or what have you.  The thing about old memes was that a lot of them in a way were really experimental.  They pushed the boundaries not only of what was funny but of what funny was.  They didn’t depend on a “joke” so much as on context, shock, randomness, absurdity, defamiliarization, repetition.  They were their own art form.  And on a deep level, they only worked on the internet.

Comparatively, new memes like your average “Shit People Say” vid don’t do anything stand-up comedy doesn’t.  It’s just the same old jokes in a virally replicating structure.

But these are my personal tastes.  (Mixed in with a fair bit of nostalgia.)  People like Rage comics, Bad Luck Brian, What People Think I Do, even those fucking four-panel Facebook things.  That’s fine and it’s their business.  Or, at least, it should be.  What gets me more is this.

Let’s look at the top 5 memes.

>Somebody That I Used To Know
>Kony 2012
>Call Me Maybe
>Grumpy Cat
>Gangnam Style

(BTW, in my opinion Grumpy Cat and Gangnam Style were the only genuinely good memes this year.)   What do these memes have in common?  Well, 4 out of 5 of these are deliberately promoted “products”.  (Yes, I’m counting Kony 2012.)  3 are actually hit pop singles.  And they are all self-contained works - even Grumpy Cat, if you count the complete body of pictures uploaded by Tabatha Bundesen as a “work”.  There were macros, too, but the macros weren’t nearly as compelling as the original cat.  The others may have gone viral and sparked a lot of parodies, but they weren’t like Troll Face or 60’s Spiderman where every iteration is equal, and most people who use the meme don’t even care what the original is.

In other words, memes are becoming less egalitarian, less of a participatory culture.  They’re still more participatory than broadcast TV or radio - the audience chooses what goes viral, and is free to fuck around with it however they like - but they’re participatory in the same way as fandom, where there’s an original “text” with a definite “author”, which is privileged in some way, at the very least serving as a universal constant within the “fandom” or the audience of the “meme”.

This isn’t some sort of conspiracy (although Scooter Braun’s behind Gangnam Style and Call Me Maybe, and that guy’s like a one-man New World Order).  It’s just a coincidence, a natural confluence of a couple of factors:

a) corporations (and NGO’s) have discovered the power of memes, and are trying to use them, within the bounds of their own top-down marketing structures

b) the people who used to make memes are now making forced, unfunny memes, or just not making memes at all.

A big part of it’s that 4chan isn’t producing a lot of content any more.  Love it or hate it, 4chan took the structural logic of the internet to the extreme that was needed to break online culture completely free of other paradigms (literary, broadcast, etc.)  If everyone’s anonymous - not just hiding behind a username but literally Anonymous - you can’t have top-down distribution of content.  You can’t have ownership.  You have to develop something else - the internet meme: a form of content that’s shared and participatory from the start.

But 4chan seems to have gotten sick of the idea of memes altogether.  When a lot of its minor memes, like Rage Comics and Advice Animals in particular, got really huge on the rest of the internet - more importantly, when they started being handled in a way that channers didn’t like - they basically threw a passive aggressive hissy fit.  Any mention of memes on /b/ these days will get you told to “go back to Reddit”.  (I’ve been there.) 

And it’s hard to say if there’s any way to change this.  Trying to influence 4chan, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis’ remark on Tolkien, is like trying to influence a Bandersnatch.  Except it’s worse than that, because they respond to any outside pressure by going further in the opposite direction.  Calling for more interesting, funny Original Content used to be something channers did - now they’d just see it as just 9gag looking for something else to steal instead of doing its own ungodly work.  They’d rather /b/ stay “cancerous” forever than have to interact with the rest of the internet on equal terms.

Tumblr humour does have some potential.  The Powerpoint meme combined observational and absurd humour in a way that I like to imagine would take the Cheezburger network by storm if it wasn’t so tl;dr.

I’ve also tagged this “alt lit” because people in the online “alternative literature” community  have done a decent job of intentionally creating memes, which you aren’t supposed to do, but which is what the webmeme as an artform is up against, anyway, given Scooter Braun, Invisible Children etc..


Something like Nebula Dog may seem “hipster”ish but it’s better than forced new Advice Animals People Now I Guess?, like “Sheltered Freshman”.  (IMO.  Admittedly, most people in the alt lit community itself don’t consider “better” or “worse” to be meaningful terms, a philosophy that may have had an effect similar to /b/’s anonymity.)  There’s still something a bit too proprietary about the alt lit memes.  Nebula Dog was created by Steve Roggenbuck, and 90% of Nebula Dog macros, including the ones made by other people, end up on his blog and get shared primarily through it.  (The alt lit community places a high premium on one’s “personal brand”.)  In this instance that hasn’t decreased the lulz so much as limited the spread (alt lit’s obscurity as a subculture might also be part of the problem).  

Of course, I also think the collective ownership of the “meme” is itself an innovation worth preserving.  That said, it might be harder to preserve from now on.  Today there are entire sites devoted to “memes”.  Everyone knows what a “meme” is, not just 4chan.  It’s harder for a meme to develop unselfconsciously.  Here’s the sticky predicament this budding artform finds itself in: on one hand, you have people on Reddit and 9gag and the Cheezburger network deliberately creating “memes” from a very limited template (Rage faces, Advice Animals), dictated by their preconceived ideas of what a “meme” is.  The less naturally these emerge - the harder they try to be “memes” - the less funny they are.  And these unfunny forced memes aren’t capable of competing with the forced memes that have huge money and established powers behind them, or conventional entertainment that just happens to go “viral”, like all these pop videos.

Ergo, while “viralability” as a marketing strategy is now taken for granted, the “meme” as an (ill-defined) art form is at risk of sinking back into obscurity.

What’s hard to say at this point is whether people who genuinely like memes - I assume that’s you, whoever’s reading this - should embrace the self-consciousness, stop pretending like 4chan that we still live in the pure golden age when the world wasn’t aware of us, and outright try to create new memes as art.  Humour, whatever.  Something that will compete with what’s out there.  And whether we should do so operating deliberately on a more sophisticated theory of what makes something a funny meme than “face on a starburst background with text above and below it.”

Or whether we all just need to remind ourselves of what it says on Encyclopedia Dramatica (censored for tumblr and basic human decency):

>”A meme cannot be created by any one person.  Every noob tries this Over 9000 times.”

>”A meme… is a gift to be shared, something to be cherished, but not some lame token of glory”

>”A meme is born <hyperlink to “Original Content”>” 

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  4. research-space reblogged this from altcrit and added:
    The idea of the death of the meme, or the corporatized meme, is truly scary.
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