I am somewhat ashamed to use the term “meme,” which I have been resisting for years. I’ve tried to group it into the category of pointless, space-filler terms like “outside of the box” or “on a going forward basis,” but it has become increasingly clear to me that “meme” is, in fact, a concise and distinct term that captures a phenomenom that otherwise can be described only with a lot more words.
The Urban Dictionary offers these five definitions for “meme”:
1 : an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)
2 : a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable
3 : the fundamental unit of information, analogous to the gene in emerging evolutionary theory of culture
– meme pool (n.) : all memes of a culture or individual
– memetic (adj.) : relating to memes
– memetics (n.) : the study of memes
4 : in blogspeak, an idea that is spread from blog to blog
5 : an internet information generator, especially of random or contentless information
My favorite sorts of memes are those that start from some basic “text,” such as a short video, event or comment that “catches fire” in popular culture, and then build on it, creating new and increasingly bizarre derivations. So for example there is the Kanye West/Taylor Swift meme, where new words are plugged, “Mad Libs”-style, into Kanye’s infamous rant at the MTV Music Awards, or the “Yo Dog!” meme where the same thing is done to the host of ‘Pimp My Ride’s” infamous trope, “Yo dawg, I heard you like ______, so I put an __________ in your car so you can ________ while you drive!” (See the excellent website “Know Your Meme” for hilarious mini-episodes on memes, done by Dharma-initiative-like people in labcoats).
But my favorite meme of all is the “Hitler Subtitle” meme, in which people take a famously over-the-top scene from the movie Downfall, where Hitler freaks out at his generals, and add subtitles suggesting that Hitler is instead getting mad about something else altogether. The first one I remember seeing cast Hitler as Hillary Clinton, with the generals attempting to break the news to her that Obama was on an unstoppable course to securing the Democratic nomination. But it’s been done over and over again, on countless different topics ranging from problems with Windows Vista to a planned trip to Burning Man, and every time somebody sends me a new one, I laugh even harder than the last time. I have no idea why — the mystery of a successful meme is why it doesn’t fizzle out, but instead gains momentum as it evolves. In this case, there is something about the scene with its buffoonish German ranting that lends itself to literally any conceivable expression of outrage. And, of course, the more insignificant the topic, the sillier it seems in the context of Hitler and his generals. But what I don’t understand is my sense that it is funnier each time in part because of the experience of having seeing all of the other versions.
Here is the latest iteration:
(“Know Your Meme’s” explanation here.)