Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Causes an Internet Meme?

Gavin asks a very interesting question:

it has me thinking, what gives some web sensation staying power?

What makes some video, idea, or motif a predominant meme? Why do people blog about bacon, zombies, and lolcats, but not so much about pork shoulder roast, mummies, and parakeets? Why does one guy mouthing the words to Numa Numa in front of his PC become famous, while almost all others who do likewise do not?

I don't have any answers, but I'm thinking out loud. Perhaps commentors and bloggers can bounce these ideas around:

Penetrability. Modern Internet life virtually obliterates geographic barriers and invents new communities based upon common interests. Language remains a barrier in cyberspace (for now), but otherwise cuts across physical boundaries. But netizens still tend to focus their activities in their niche communities, limiting contact outside of them.

For example, I read a variety of conservative and libertarian political blogs, as well as geekery and gun blogs. So if a meme gains traction within those communities, I have a good chance of encountering it. But if, for example, a meme moves through the Canadian blogosphere, I'm unlikely to encounter it because I rarely read Canada-focused blogs.

Some fora retain enormous reach through a vast variety of niche communities. Neatorama is an example, pulling interest from very different communities. It is highly unusual of me to encounter a commentor there that I have read from or heard of anywhere else. Neatorama and similar fora transcend these already-permeable cyber community boundaries to bring strangers into contact with each other. Such fora have enormous penetrability, and the presence of memes on these fora can vastly increase their scope.

Instantaneous Comprehensibility. Can a meme be grasped in under 10 seconds -- or summarized in under ten words.

Example: Britain's Got Talent singer wallflower single homely inner beauty.

What Internet meme do these keywords describe? The Susan Boyle video. Which, by the way, I've never actually seen. But tell me that that isn't what the meme is about.

An Internet meme thrives if it can be understood within the short attention span of netizens.

Those are just my thoughts for the moment. What do you think? What causes an Internet meme?


Oloryn said...

While you can pick out particular things that contribute to something's 'memeness', I'm not sure that you can pick out exactly what causes an internet meme. I mean, if you could pick out exactly what causes an internet meme, the marketing vul.., er, um, people would quickly jump on it and start using said cause to hawk their wares. At which point, the cause of internet memes would probably change (insert Douglas Adams-inspired joke here).

John said...

Yeah, it's probably more profitable to be a distributor of memes instead of a creator of them. Sort of like what Neatorama and BiongBoing have done.

trekkerjay said...

I am going to show my ignorance here... what does the term "meme" refer to?

John said...

I would define an Internet meme as a cultural theme, motif, or concept which gains popularity and spreads rapidly and deeply across the Internet.

For example, someone creates a Star Trek parody video, then uploads it onto YouTube. One blogger watches it, enjoys it, and posts it. Bloggers that read him post it themselves, or e-mail it to their friends. Who in turn post it on Internet fora, until it eventually reaches you.

Anonymous said...

If enough people on 4chan like something, they go on using the meme different places and much faster than swine flu it has become successful. Partially because it drives up the view count on youtube which makes it easier to notice by people unaware of 4chan. Many memes start somewhere else but somewhere along the way it gets posted on 4chan and thereby gets the same treatment as a meme started elsewhere.

Rebeca said...

This is really a new and interesting topic. Good question you are asking for ?