New memes spread like viruses through the body of the ’Net

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You may have seen some peculiar cats lately. Kittens with sniper rifles, big fat cats with jars on their heads, felines trapped in the shower, and of course, cats eating invisible sandwiches. The source of these ridiculous household pets? It’s just another Internet meme — a cultural tidbit that has been passed from person to person a little bit like a virus.

You will hear over and over that the Internet is one of the most important technological advancements of our time. My journalism professor, Tom O’Boyle, frequently stressed this fact: We are living, at this moment, through what could very well be the biggest, most fundamental change in the way people think and communicate since Gutenberg created moveable type.

The Internet is an organism, in a loose sense of the word. It has its own brand of intelligence, thanks to the distributed intellect of millions of users around the world. The power behind Wikipedia, YouTube, and even Google is all built around the sheer volume of users and content on the Internet; problems are solved faster than ever when hundreds of brains are churning away at a single question. It has never been easier to be exposed to brand new ideas and ways of thinking, and the impact of that is starting to be felt in popular culture.
In a world where your friends might send you dozens of YouTube links, random blog posts, and weird news stories every day, memes can be born and spread in a matter of hours. A meme is like a “gene” of culture — a concept, idea, phrase, picture, even video clip — that is transmitted from person to person. It’s the individual unit that makes up culture. They are transmitted like genes, passed on from one person to the next.

If this sounds familiar, it should; viruses spread the same way. You have probably heard of the term “viral advertising,” a method of getting word out about a product or service through ads that don’t try to push a product. They rely solely on people showing it to others, saying “Hey, this is so weird,” or “Dude, check out this kickass video.” You can find viral videos and websites everywhere, but most of them end up finding a home on sites like YouTube. A recent hit was an ad for Sony’s Bravia line of HDTVs, which featured a large apartment building and the surrounding neighborhood engulfed in thousands of gallons of exploding paint.

Viral advertising is one thing — the viral spread of random funny memes is something else entirely. There is no greater cause here, no product to advertise, no idea to spread; these memes spread because people find them funny and they send them to their friends, who also find it funny, and the cycle repeats from there. One of the earliest and best examples of the power of these memes was the Flash animation “All Your Base Are Belong To Us.”

The animation, which featured dozens of altered images using the catchphrase — taken from a poorly-translated Nintendo game — in real-world situations (on movie theater marquees, on church signs, on the sides of jetliners, etc.), hit the Internet in 2000. It spread rapidly across the Web and into the minds of Internet users, and now the phrase will trigger instant recognition in many people, though being in tune with “Internet culture” is obviously going to influence that recognition.

That is the really interesting thing about these Internet memes — they can be a clear indicator of how aware a person is of the subculture that the Internet has created. Some things have hopped over the boundary from Internet culture to the larger zeitgeist of popular culture: Snakes on a Plane, for instance, first gained notoriety because some people on the Internet thought that the movie had an absolutely ridiculous title for an equally ridiculous premise.

Think back — who first told you about Samuel L. Jackson’s travails on an aircraft with legless reptiles? It was probably a friend sending you a link accompanied by commentary along the lines of “dude check this out, this looks wicked hilarious!” This is a prime example of how memes can spread.

Odds are you’ve run across a great deal of memes in your time here. The recent explosion of Chuck Norris worship? That’s a meme. It all started, probably, with Conan O’Brien’s “*Walker, Texas Ranger Lever*,” in which O’Brien would pull a giant lever, triggering the display of a short clip from Norris’s mid-’90s TV show. Later, a website called Chuck Norris Facts gained popularity; the site allowed users to submit “little-known facts” about Norris, which were actually fantastical accounts of Norris’s godlike power. There was no real reason for this sudden spike of interest — Walker, Texas Ranger was never a hit with our age group when it aired, and has only recently gained cult status. Nevertheless, the repeated exposure led to Norris’ development as an Internet meme, which seems to have propagated from pop culture to Internet culture and is now coming back into mainstream pop culture.

As for the cats? Each picture is accompanied by a humorously misspelled message loosely tied to the content of the image — “im in your sammich hiding ur meats,” for example — and like many Internet memes, the images seem to have originated from an Internet message board (in this case,, a message board devoted to creating images of all kinds), and are starting to filter down through mass culture — the Facebook group “I’m in yo fridge!” is devoted to these cat images, along with other Internet-centric pictures.

So the next time you read about a viral video or get a link to a seemingly nonsensical image, stop and think — you might be helping to start something really big.