Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mind Map on the Art of the Meme

“Internet meme” definition:

An internet meme is any idea that is spread over the internet. It can include images, phrases, jokes, websites, actions, etc. The root word comes from the Greek word mimeme, meaning something imitated. An internet meme is not necessarily something viral.

Viral definition:

A work such as a video, comic, work of art, song, etc. which spreads rapidly through culture. A video of a cat may garnish millions of views, but it does not become an internet meme until an idea from that video is absorbed into the language of internet culture.

Standing Cat is an example of a viral video which was accepted as a meme by Know your Meme:


Ask a Ninja is an example of a popular web series which has not been accepted as a meme by Know Your Meme for one or more reasons: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/ask-a-ninja

In contrast, Yugioh the Abridged Series by littlekuriboh is mentioned heavily in one article because it was influential in the creation of a new genre of memes, but the show itself is not a meme: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/abridged-series

The broad topic of memes is related to the study of anthropology and culture. Internet memes are narrowly focused on ideas generated and spread through sub-cultures via the internet. For example, the sexual innuendo, “That’s what she said,” from The Office, has become a cultural meme, but it did not have its origin in the internet (though it has, of course, been subsumed into the internet culture). Through memes, different sub-cultures which may not share a common interest do begin to share a similar language to express their ideas. Memes are generally meant to be humorous, are

often simplistic, but are not at all just random silliness.

Exploitable image definition:

An exploitable image is any image that becomes popular for creating memes. Often, the original creator did not intend for his work to be used as an exploitable. On other occasions, a creator may deliberately release his work for use.

A sub-genre of exploitables is advice animals. These place a picture of something, often an animal, over a colorful background, and ascribe a specific trait to the figure depicted. The jokes all relate to that trait.

Art student owl: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/art-student-owl

Foul Bachelor Frog: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/foul-bachelor-frog

Why Not Zoidberg?: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/futurama-zoidberg-why-not-zoidberg

For an example of exploitables which have been made freely available by their creators, see Rage Comics. Using a series of crude drawings of faces, anyone can make their own rage comic. The faces all have a meaning, and sometimes the differences between to faces is nuanced: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/rage-comics

For examples of images which were exploited without the consent or knowledge of the artist, see these:

Chris Torres’ animation of a pop tart cart was taken to create Nyan Cat:


Give Pikachu a Face: htttp://knowyourmeme.com/memes/give-pikachu-a-face

The use of Larry Van Pelt’s kitch drawings for the meme Jesus is a Jerk: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/jesus-is-a-jerk

A panel from a comic by KC Green became Staredad:


Some artists react negatively when they discover their work has been turned into an exploitable. Others, like Chris Torres, are pleasantly surprised and don’t attempt any legal action.

Institutional theory:

There are institutions that are heavily influential in meme culture.

Certain websites are at the forefront of creating new memes and documenting existing ones.

4Chan (also referred to as /b/): a mature forum, blocked by Concordia, which allows any type of discussion. Many memes are traced back to their origin in 4Chan.

I Can Has Cheezburger? and its sister sites (Know your Meme, Memebase, etc.): a site which features several genres of memes voted on by a community. Know your Meme attempts to function as a Wikipedia for internet memes.

An example of a meme originated on 4Chan is “i herd you liek mudkips,” based on a Pokemon which has become a mascot for the site. The authors of Know Your Meme admit they do not know the original origin of this meme, but it is wide-spread enough that it must be acknowledged as one: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/i-herd-u-liek-mudkips

Reddit/Tumblr: Popular blog sites which make the spread of memes simple. Individuals will often create a page devoted to one meme. If a tumblr has the words "F*** Yeah" in its title, that is an indication that it is devoted to a single meme.

[Art Student Owl on Tumblr: http://fyeahartstudentowl.tumblr.com/

There are at least two separate sites on which you can create your own Why not Zoidberg?meme: http://www.quickmeme.com/Why-not-zoidberg/?upcoming


YouTube: Popular video site where most memes in video form can be found. YouTube has it’s own sub-culture of modern-day dada film makers. Non-sensical videos derived from internet memes are referred to as “YouTube Poop.”

Professor David Baily of Georgia Southern University created a video addressing YouTube Poopers because he believed it had potential to become an avant-garde art movement:


With that introduction out of the way, one must ask, “Why study internet memes?”

First, I would say they reveal something true about culture, for good or ill. Second, within the realm of politics, this sub-culture is gaining a voice. The SOPA/PIPA debate was fiercely opposed by this community, because much of what they do is an amalgam of pop culture references, and meme creators are not afraid to use copyrighted material. As Baily pointed out, these people are at the forefront of copyright law.

The 300 This is Sparta Remix relies heavily on copyrighted footage, but combines it with an original song:


Is this fair use? The answer to that question could criminalize or legalize a lot of internet activity.

Second, I would say that the phenomenon of internet memes can reveal information about human nature which is timeless, rather than just an immediate fashion. I find many similarities between the spread of some internet memes, and classical religions such as the Greek Parthenon.

After I pointed out that both Greek Myth and internet memes share crude humor and slapstick, Tony Fuget responded by comparing the trickster God Loki with the Troll face:


If a Norse story teller, sharing a myth about Thor and Loki, were to describe Loki as anything but a trickster, his audience would catch his mistake. The same is true for the meme community, which will notice when one misuses their language. As storytellers ascribed specific traits to their gods, an advice animal ascribes a trait to an image, such as Foul Bachelor Frog.

I’ll conclude with some samples of internet memes that I have found particularly revealing, especially with regards to issues within Christianity:

Derpy Hooves


The passionate adoration that an internet subculture has shown for this character cannot be understated. It began with someone noticing an apparent mistake in the show “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” The show itself has gained prominence on the internet due to it’s surprising popularity amongst adults including adult men. If one paused the first episode at the right moment, 17:18, they would see a character in the background with crossed eyes. This was either a mistake on the part of the animators, or a subtle inside joke. The image of this character spread and fans of the show gave her a name. Artwork was made of her, stories were written about her, aspects of her personality and life were determined and agreed upon by her fans over the internet. The creators of the show, noticing this popularity, gave the character more “easter egg” appearances, and eventually gave her a spoken line and accepted the name “Derpy Hooves” as the character’s name. An internet sub-culture influenced Hasbro and the creators of the show to reinterpret their own work. This demonstrates the power of this group and also relates to questions of whether authors determine meaning in their stories or their audience.

Derpy Hooves is not a good metaphor for God, but her followers’ passion draws parallels with the early Christian church. I have told some of my friends that an adult man has no buisness watching My Little Pony. These “Bronies” defend the show’s merits with logical arguments and evangelize it to others with a religious fervor.

I discovered the character of Derpy as one might have first heard about Jesus 2000 years ago. The followers are outspoken about their love for this figure. Sending someone to check 17:18 is like sending someone to check a Bible reference. I was reminded of the Ethiopian in Acts 8, an intelligent man who read the scriptures but couldn’t comprehend them because they seemed so foreign to him. http://bible.org/seriespage/ethiopian-eunuch-acts-826-40

Like Derpy, “i herd you liek mudkips” is a meme which parallels faith. It probably began as some in-joke. The joke, though, has been taken up by the broader culture, and many who presumably have no idea what the in-joke is spread the meme as if they did. One must have faith that, despite it’s mysterious origin, this meme is funny.

Finally, Google “Why Not Zoidberg?” or even just “Zoidberg” and two kinds of images should come up. One is a picture of Zoidberg as Jesus, another is the Zoidberg “advice animal” macro: http://memebase.com/2011/10/17/internet-memes-why-not-repent/

The trait ascribed to Ziodberg is that he offers himself to you for whatever purpose you may have. The punchline of every joke is “Why Not Zoidberg?” because he is the solution. Most of the people who make and spread these memes may never make the blatant connection between Zoidberg and Christ.

Quit Procrastinating, Work on Your Art directly addresses a specific target audience.

The artist is Ralph Schwartz, and he appears to have added the text himself: http://ralfschwartz.typepad.com/lm/2010/12/quit-procrastinating-work-on-your-art.html

The image has been featured on Memebase in the past, but it is arguably not a significant meme, because it has not gained much presence online or been used as an exploitable. Why is this? Could it be that the image is so closely associated with this original message, that the audience couldn’t separate the image from its clear message and use it for other purposes? Many other memes have a clear, direct statement, like Why Not Zoidberg?, but Zoidberg is used by many different sub-groups, whereas I have only seen this particular image of Batman within groups that are fans of superheroes and on artists’ walls.

Apart from its non-starter status as a meme, Quit Procrastinating, Work on Your Art is also interesting because it is used by multiple art students as a form of self-imposed propaganda. Like the image of Staredad when hung on the wall, it has commanding authority, disapproval, and a direct gaze. Unlike Schwartz's Batman, Staredad has become more universal. When I hung a drawing of Staredad on my wall, it elicited a stronger response from my roommates without having a message attached to it. They were viscerally creeped out by his gaze and felt he was disapproving of their behavior, more so than the Batman I had taped to the wall long before. To some extent, both Batman and Stare Dad are symbols for a judgmental, paternalistic figure, akin to God as described in Exodus, who command obedience.

These memes function as “metaphors” for Christian themes in one capacity or another. If they are religious at all, they are “accidentally religious.”

There are three broad patterns I have noticed in memes which are not accidentally religious, but deal directly with religious issues. One could debate about whether a meme belongs in one category or another, of if a particular meme blurs the line, but these patterns generally hold true:

An observational meme: A meme which observes something which is objectively present within the image or religious narrative.

A shrewd observer spots something within a photo that alludes to one of Christ’s miracles: http://memebase.com/2011/12/30/internet-memes-why-do-you-think-hes-so-sad/

Examples of an individual pointing out something ironic within the Biblical narrative, the image is less important:


An irreverent meme: One which simply tries to make humor at Christ’s expense. Kitch art is especially susceptible.

An example of a meme which combines the graphic of imagery of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ with the Benny Hill theme. Another infamous version of this meme juxtaposed this music with 9/11 footage.

Raptor Jesus, definition and example: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/raptor-jesus http://memebase.com/2011/09/20/memes-philosoraptor-jesus/

Fart sound image (this one is both irreverent and observational): http://memebase.com/2011/11/09/internet-memes-oh-that-jesus/

An antagonistic meme: one that is somehow political, or anti-religious. This could be directly antagonistic towards Christ, or it could use Christ to make a negative message about Christians whom the maker of the meme disagrees with.

A visual pun putting forth an atheist’s point of view: http://memebase.com/2011/03/31/memes-faith/

An image used to show disapproval, usually of Christians: http://media.photobucket.com/image/fu%20jesus/quicktusa/fuJesusFU.jpg

An image claiming solidarity with Jesus over issues such as war and healthcare: http://jewmanist.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/jesus.jpg

The general patterns I observed from searching for internet memes showing Jesus are as follows:

Sincere, devotional art depicting Christ is heavily liable to receive ridicule itself, or be made into a backdrop for a new meme.

Most of the confrontational images of Christ I found leaned left. Either they used an image of Christ to claim that Jesus would support my political position, not yours, or they accused the religious right of abusing the image of Jesus for political purposes.

Most of the tame or tepid images leaned right. Jon McNaughton painted an allegorical painting which clearly expresses a Conservative idea about the Founding Fathers. The use of Jesus is always straight-forward and respectful, meaning it would have limited appeal in fine art circles. http://www.mcnaughtonart.com/artwork/view_zoom/?artpiece_id=353#

Here is a video of McNaughton discussing his painting. There is little work left for the viewer to do to interpret this painting's meaning.

McNaughton's painting became a meme only when it was spoofed. Some internet user copied the site closely, but changed a few key descriptions: http://420.thrashbarg.net/one-nation-under-god-usa-mcnaughton-fine-art-shortpacked-parody.html