Shit Girls Say. Cats with captions. KONY 2012. Images and videos are shared, remixed, and plastered across walls and inboxes. Instantly recognizable by the most casual Internet user, they compose a new language—a shared shorthand for creative expression, comedy, and social awareness.
This type of content is known as a meme, taking its name from Richard Dawkins’s 1976 Selfish Gene. “Memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions,” he writes. “As genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body… memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”
Imitation is how memes evolve and survive. Much to the dismay of marketers, you can’t force “viral”. Like trying to give yourself a nickname, it doesn’t happen because you want it to; memes catch on because they resonate. Yet successful memes do share traits that encourage propagation.
On the Internet, entertainment becomes participatory—a group at a bar trying to one-up each other’s jokes. Shit Girls Say (a video of a man in drag firing a quick-cut series of one-liners) became a template for lampooning everyone from New Yorkers to yogis to Asian fathers. Riffing on a previous joke is contagious and ignites the creative spark in normally passive consumers.
Attracting attention online differs from courting viewers in mainstream media. While news reports highlight blood, politics, and disaster, Internet memes tend toward the quirky and inspirational. A nebulous quality of surprise and astonishment compels co-workers to drag each other over to watch the latest TED talk. And empathy drives spectators toward selfshot clips of teen guitar virtuosos. Finding raw and authentic media carries the thrill of discovery—an antidote to manufactured pop hits. underground Internet culture is a democratic response to an overproduced media industry.
Yet online content can play on outrage just as well as CNN.
When KONY 2012 showed the plight of youth soldiers in uganda, the “someone must do something” response kicked in. Yet unlike television, the Internet provided an outlet: like, share, donate. After nearly a hundred million views and the White House’s support, everyone who passed the video along felt like part of the solution. Whatever your opinion of the campaign, it demonstrated the tool’s potential.
KONY 2012 was fueled by a clever mix of democracy and celebrity. It told an emotional but bite-sized story, then asked viewers to bombard celebrities to get the word out. These influencers in turn engaged their legions of fans, and the campaign gained momentum. Like other activist social media crusades, it drew fire from critics: spreading the word became the goal in itself, distracting from the details—a phenomenon labeled “slacktivism”.
The days of powerful tastemakers dictating culture are numbered. Sites like Reddit and Stumbleupon turn ordinary consumers into micro-curators. The result is a schizophrenic mix of slickly produced content and amateurs thrust into the spotlight, of inspirational creativity and lowest-common-denominator humor.
This is the new pop culture.
Tell your friends.