February 28, 2008

Viva La Viral: Smile Like You Meme It

Print More

In his book The Selfish Gene, renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins came up with the idea that bits of culture could propagate themselves in a similar fashion to the evolution of living organisms. Ideas, music and scientific theories all behave this way. Some mutate into new forms with the addition of new discoveries, inventions and social dynamics (religion). Some die off (swing-dancing). Most are annoying (flossing, alternate side parking, rap-metal). The orchid of the memetics, though, has to be the “catchphrase.” With more social cache than the soundbite, and less actual usefulness than the quote, the perfect catchphrase is a rare species of memetic data that has an extremely short lifespan, is widespread, and is usually instantly regarded as hilarious.
Catchphrases have a long and rich history. “No taxation without representation,” “J’accuse!” and “Rule, Britannia! Britannia Rules the Waves!” are some important historical catchphrases which originated during the American Revolution, the Dreyfus Affair, and Britannia’s ruling-ness of the waves (respectively). But that was before humor was invented.

The late ’80s had to be the Golden Age of the Catchphrase. Here’s an extremely brief timeline:

July 5th, 1989: Top secret think-tank at the RAND Corporation deploys its super-weapon in the fight to dismantle the Berlin wall when Cosmo Kramer bursts through the door of Jerry Seinfeld, thus subliminally representing the unification of East and West Germany. The catchphrase: “Whoa!”

October 13th, 1989: Steve Urkel drops an open can of creamed corn into Carl Winslow’s father’s open casket. The catchphrase: “Did I do that?” This exact phrase, laughs and snorts included, was reportedly used by George H. Bush in a call to Saddam Hussein after the conclusion of Gulf War I.

NOTE: I once tri­ed to start my own catchphrase. For about the duration of a summer, whenever someone would excuse him or herself from the dinner table or a business meeting to go the bathroom, I would stand up and yell “UNACCEPTABLE” and, while cocking my head, give the person a thumbs up. It never took off.

Shortly after the events of the months between July and April 1989 (about ten years after), we start to notice a major mutation in the catchphrase, moving away from the standard media of print, television and radio. Enter the “internet meme.”
The whole thing started logically enough in 1999, when a sea of animated hamsters twirling around on a webpage looping a gibberish song won hearts and minds all across America.

Much like the asteroid which killed the dinosaurs, the shockwaves from this cataclysmic event are still shaping the world as we know it. Western Culture has struggled to adapt in all its iterations. We can credit the appearance of the internet meme with the entrance of phrases like “WTF” (“What the F#&k”) into the popular lexicon. After all, what else is there to say about dancing hamsters? In terms of the arts, it hardly needs to be stated that the site paved the way for numerous advances in inane bullshit that has even the contemporary art scene saying “WTF?”

All the Matthew Barneys in the world could not have affected this cultural change. Can you imagine a digital video series called “The Hamster Cycle” which featured the artist nude, smothered in petroleum jelly, and twirling around a bare white room for nine hours in complete silence? I can, and that’s why I’ve forgotten what I’m talking about.

Mass media, politicians, pundits, and journalists are consistently trying to appropriate these memes to bolster their credibility with the internet savvy crowd. However, like an old man fondling honeydew melons for freshness in a blackout, the traditional media establishment has had a hard time finding a meme that hasn’t yet soured. What you see on television, in print, etc. are the fossils of dead internet memes. And yet the same cannot be said about what the internet appropriates from the traditional media. The internet revitalizes old or insufficiently exploited bits of garbage found in more traditional media. Website YTMND.com has this effect on catchphrases and other memes found in the traditional media. The site, whose name is shorthand for the “You’re the man now, dog!” line from the Sean Connery flick Finding Forrester, takes asinine snippets of popular culture and loops them over static, cheaply-designed web pages.

What seems stupid the first time you hear on the television it becomes hilarious(ly stupid) the eighteenth time you hear it looped over a webpage that looks like a twelve-year-old made it in 1996.

A word to the wise: excavating the ontology of memes can get complex. Conan O’Brien’s “Walker Texas Ranger Lever” did not achieve its full potential until it found its true expression in the internet’s own “Chuck Norris Facts.” Both of these are sub-species of the larger “Emasculate America’s Most Popular Caucasian Martial Arts Entertainer (Chuck Norris)” meme; which came full-circle to die when Mike Huckabee propped up the festering corpse of the meme on YouTube and effectively forced it to dance the Macarena to shill for his presidential campaign.