The term meme was first coined back in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene”. He defined a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of immitation”. As a scientific theory it’s had a bit of a rocky road with many prominent scientists opposing it as “pseudoscience”, but in recent years the meme has made it into popular culture to describe certain types of internet trend.
So what is a meme? People have been arguing over the definition ever since Richard Dawkins first proposed the idea. To understand more fully we need to take a look at content types.
Shared content – Many pieces of content are created every day that are intended to be shared. News articles, forum posts, You-tube videos, tweets, manuals, training guides, the list is almost endless. Typically the majority of shared content gets anything from a few reads to thousands of reads depending on the subject area and the distribution.
Viral Content – Every now and then a piece of shared content captures people’s imagination and goes viral. This means that it’s not just read as a primary source but it’s recommended by people to their peers. It spreads like a virus. The “Hey, you’ve *got* to see this!” factor. Some great examples of viral content include the German Coast Guard video (~2,000,000 views) on YouTube or Maria Aragon’s cover of “I was Born This Way” (37,000,000 views). Viral content is characterised by a sudden explosive growth of interest that fairly rapidly dies out. The ideas have the *wow* factor and capture our collective imagination but don’t have an explosive lifespan beyond a few days although they can be referred to for years afterwards.
Memes – Memes are the content equivalent of a pandemic. Massively viral they enter our collective consciousness and resist attempts to be forgotten or dismissed. They typically have tens if not hundreds of millions of views. They last for a significant length of time, months to weeks and perhaps most importantly, they spawn a huge amount of content all of which refers back to the original. A great examples of a meme is Star Wars Kid which although it was posted back in 2006 still has over 22 million views. Admittedly this is less than Maria Aragon’s video but bear in mind that this was five years ago, almost ancient social media history and more importantly it spawned an explosion of modified Star Wars Kid videos over several months. Star Wars Kid Drunken Jedi had 11,000,000 views; half as many as the original video. More recently Rebecca Black’s “Friday Friday” generated over 160,000,000 views before it was eventually removed from you tube. It spawned a landslide of content over several months with celebrities such as Katy Perry getting in on the act.
The Holy Grail of pretty much every Internet marketer is to actually create a meme, but is that a realistic goal? I think that the very nature of memes means that they’re not something that is easily crafted artificially. However it is possible as we’ll see a little later. So what makes something a meme?
The “You’ve Got to See This *Lulz*” Factor – Just like with a piece of viral content there has to be something that captures our imagination. With Star Wars Kid it’s the rather unkind humour of watching an ungainly teenager making a fool of himself in front of his friends. With Rebecca Black it’s how shockingly dreadful the song is but that it still has enough musicality in it for the words to stick in your head somehow. Ultimately, they’re entertaining and almost always funny.
Spin Off Content – The original piece of content is crying out for modification. It screams “take me and do something funny with me!” The plethora of content spawning from both the meme’s mentioned previously pays testament to this. It’s the spin off content that gives the meme its longevity.
Ordinary People – I think we like to see ordinary people with very ordinary skills, or even laughably inept skills, become popular. It’s a form of catharsis, we can believe that anybody has in them the ability to be a star but we’re glad it isn’t us, even if we secretly envy them some measure of their success.
Placement – Just like with ordinary content meme popularity is down in part to initial placement. There are many bizarre things on the Internet but only certain pieces of content become memes. Rebbeca Black’s video only had 1,000 views in the first month, then suddenly it went massively viral mostly thanks to tweeters and bloggers. A number of influencers almost certainly gave their probably very negative views on the song and before anyone knew it #rebbecaBlack was one of the most tweeted tags in Twitter history.
Media Coverage – The mainstream media tend to catch memes rather late in their viral growth stage just due to the nature of mainstream media. This being said, their late involvement is certainly another factor in the longevity of a meme.
Global Interest – Although not essential I think it always helps if a meme can cross cultural boundaries. Take a look at Star Wars Kid. Not a word is spoken in the original video but Star Wars is culturally pervasive enough so that anyone watching the video from almost any culture having access to media would immediately recognise why it’s funny.
Dumb Luck? – I think this certainly plays a part. For something to go meme it has to be in the right place at the right time.
So is it possible to craft a meme? Possible, yes. Easy, no. Marketing agencies have been crafting television memes for years. One of the latest in the UK has been The “Compare the Meerkat” campaign from the Internet cost comparison site ComparetheMarket.com. Although all the YouTube videos have probably only had a couple of million views on YouTube the meerkats have entered the collective conscience in the UK.
It’s unlikely that if you ended an explanatory sentence with the word “Simples” that people wouldn’t get the reference. Interestingly it was the advertising company responsible for Sergei the Meerkat that made most of the spin off content. They’ve effectively built the meme’s longevity.
Building a meme is always going to be a hit-and-miss affair but hopefully this article has at least provided some food for thought.
Published in Social Media Today, July 7, 2011