The week of June 5, 2016

It’s a meme world after all

By Jesse Hicks

When Richard Dawkins first coined the term “meme” way back in 1976, he couldn’t have imagined that 40 years later, the word would be appearing in Tinder profiles—as in, “Swipe right if you’re really into memes.” Dawkins was offering a novel and still-controversial description of how culture propagates: why we find ourselves humming certain tunes or holding certain ideas. Today, talking about memes means understanding how bits of digital ephemera spread on social media, who’s creating them, and why. That’s what we’re doing in this issue of the Kernel.

Counterintuitively, we’re starting our investigation not with memes, but with anti-memes. Jay Hathaway looks at Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes, a Facebook group with more than 135,000 members. As the name implies, it positions itself as a place where memes go to die. They don’t do the thing most natural to memes—spread—but instead remain ostensibly “unpopular.” But as Hathaway discovers, there’s a logic to making an “unpopular” meme, and the rules governing the group can also shed light on how successful memes are born. Abstractions aside, the UUU is a vibrant creative community, producing consistently fascinating work even as it studiously shuns popularity.

Of course, memes weren’t always so ubiquitous. As Rae Votta points out, it’s only been with the rise of social media that memes have truly gone mainstream. It wasn’t that long ago that internet culture was a weird, unfamiliar place; it required native guides to translate it for a wider audience. One of the first sites to provide that guidance was Urlesque, whose writers plumbed the depths of the web to figure out what was cool and bring it to a wider, less-cool audience. If that sounds familiar today, in 2008 it was groundbreaking—perhaps too much so. As Votta details, Urlesque was ahead of its time, and not long for this world. But it was a great ride while it lasted.

“Getting” memes is a badge of coolness among a certain crowd; that’s something that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. And wherever there’s cool, there’s going to be someone looking to explain it. This time it’s our own meme assassin, Miles Klee, who provides a glossary of terms for infiltrating the memespace. Master it and soon you’ll sound like one of them. And then you too will truly understand memes.

Enjoy the issue.

Illustration by Max Fleishman