Memes are the perfect microcosm for the cycle of pop culture, beginning as some underground hit, rising in popularity, and then finally reaching its chilling demise in the vast exosphere of your parent's social circle.
And in the short years they've become popular -- the broad concept of memes have also evolved. Only not in the fun "monkey learns to brain other monkey with a femur" kind of way ... more like a "computer goes bananas and murders everyone" kind of way. Allow me to take you on a harrowing journey, starting in a quaint era known as "the late 2000s."
Cue the Daughtry...
2007-2008: The Definition Of A "Meme" Drastically Changes
Oh, sweet 2007. The world was a simpler, more innocent time devoid of Cinematic Universes and the Twilight Saga. We were saying adieu to both Harry Potter and the housing market. The first iPhone had just hit it stupid huge ... and it looked like we were entering a crispy, bright dawn for the internet age. Little did we know of the cancerous seed which lurked deep in society's soil like a Chernobyl time capsule, one that would lead to horrendous acts of political maleficence and social upheaval. The darkness in which I speak was manifested in a budding blog called "I Can Has Cheezburger."
No you fucking can't, you dead-eyed scourge.
Good people, believe me when I say that this adorable ashen puss-puss is patient zero for our contemporary state of online hostility and possibly the entire Trump presidency and by extension the very end of civilization as we know it. Or failing this, at least believe that it made the internet way more annoying.
As we've mentioned before on Cracked, Richard Dawkins first defined a "meme" as an idea that spreads among society in an unplanned and effortless way. For example, the The Dancing Baby gif -- commonly seen as the first meme ever -- got its start as a sample file from a 3D program that inadvertently went viral. But as the idea of a "meme" evolved, so did its simplicity when the Cheezburger site boiled everything down to a single image accompanied by overlaying white text. Suddenly, "meme" became a template -- something anyone could make and forcefully spread -- effectively killing the fundamental definition of what a "meme" originally was.
So many memeories.
While technically these are called "image macros" -- no one actually gave a flaming shit. And so ICanHasCheezBurger.com was purchased by a larger company called Pet Holdings Inc. and spun into a series of LOLcats-style pages. Its then-owner Ben Huh began using his company to scrub the web in a search for the next big meme -- or as he put it, "pull web fads out of the geek backwaters of the internet and make them accessible to a far broader audience."
And just like that, a concept that was by definition uncontrollable somehow got redefined and monetized. The wild lion had been shot, stuffed, and sold at your local Target store for $29.99 as part of a The Chronicles of Narnia Blu-ray bundle set. And not even the good one. I'm talking Dawn Treader kind of whack shit.
2008-2012: Memes Become An Excuse To Blindly Misuse Other People's Images
Back in 2000, a young lady named Maggie Goldenberger was playing dress-up with her friends. Struck by stupid inspiration ... she got out her old retainer, grabbed a few books, put her hair in pigtails, and made this hilarious face:
She's a nurse now. This woman could save your life one day.
Yes that face. Cut to many years later and her silly character became forever immortalized as the "Ermahgerd Girl" by an internet seemingly unaware that they were essentially just retelling her joke. Since then the image has been turned into t-shirts and decals and countless products that Maggie has seen very little profit from while dealing with all the "glory" that comes from being famous on the internet.
And this is pretty much the story of every meme ... which starts as someone else's art or image or joke getting retold or totally misunderstood by stupidly ecstatic strangers. Remember this face?
That's Jerry Messing -- the actor who played Pugsley Addams intentionally taking a silly headshot for his own entertainment. But since then, this self-aware image has been stolen, laughed at, and repurposed into an "oblivious neckbearded fedora-tipper" by an actually oblivious internet. Thanks to the weird assumption that the people in these photos are genuine, we're all just laughing at someone else's old inside joke without realizing it. And when you think of it like that, it gets pretty damn sad... something that I will now convey with this meme of Captain Picard looking "annoyed"...
... taken from a TNG episode where he's actually the opposite of that emotion. Because when they're not overly explaining someone else's joke, memes have a hilarious tendency to convey the exact opposite of the image's original intent. Like how a benign cartoon frog was turned into a Nazi mascot, or that trolls around the world are identifying with this image:
Yes. Just, so many.
Have you met Trollface? This universal symbol for a proud internet troll was initially created in a webcomic specifically making fun of how trolls see themselves.
Know Your Meme
It's like reading Shakespeare.
Since it was hijacked and reinterpreted by trolls to represent them ... that means any troll using Trollface as a punchline to how big of a troll they are is actually trolling themselves. It's Trollception, or some cooler phrase that doesn't reference a film from seven years ago.
"But why does the original intent even MATTER?" you ask, petulantly spittling your snide mayoNAYse on my good words. Well I'll tell you, fucko. For starters -- it demonstrates how far the "meme" concept has gone from the core definition. It shows how incredibly inorganic, unoriginal, and attention-desperate memes are, all at the cost of someone else's image. It's taking another's work, then awkwardly jamming our own joke into it the way a heckler thinks they are supposed to answer a stand-up comedian's rhetoricals. It's hack work, guys -- and ultimately feels like the joke is being played on the people spreading the meme like an old Garfield comic. Meanwhile, the Jim Davises of the world are stacking green faster than a methed-out shrubbery-hoarder on Earth Day ...
2012: Memes Are Forced To Become Monetized
The greatest trick the internet played on itself was thinking it was subversive and unruly. But your average 4Chan post has all the forged renegade edge of bathroom graffiti in Tom Morello's studio mansion. Take the most popular symbol of online rebellion: the Guy Fawkes mask.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Who, reminder, was kind of a fascist.
Quick tip to any revolutionaries out there: If a side effect of your anti-establishment movement is that Warner Brothers makes a cool $600,000 in merchandise sales ... you might want to rethink your approach. Because that's absolutely what happened in 2011 when over 100,000 of these masks were being sold annually.
And this is just the tip of the jagged and ironic iceberg. Remember that Trollface meme? The one that was originally created to make fun of trolls? Well the guy behind that actually copyrighted it -- and has since made an equally cool $100,000 in licensing fees and settlements. For as they are inorganic, unoriginal, and attention-desperate, memes are also extremely corporate. And to further expose that irony-berg, the swell of legal interest has to do with how lawlessly they were first conceived. You see... it turns out that you can't just use an image you don't own without there being some kind of judicial consequence. Especially when it's of a person. Star Wars Kid, Scumbag Stacy, Good Girl Gina -- these have all resulted in takedown requests, lawsuits, and ruined lives. Not to mention all the memes that originated from TV and movies.
As The Washington Post explains -- memes like the "Socially Awkward Penguin" or "Picard Facepalm" come from already copyrighted work. In the case of the former, it was a photograph by National Geographic -- which resulted in numerous infringement cases when the image inevitably started showing up on t-shirts and coffee mugs.
And so it was only a matter of time before the corporations and laws got ahead of the memes. That's when we started seeing meme talent agents like Ben Lashes, who not only represents Grumpy Cat and his sweet movie deal, but Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat as well. Thanks to Ben, that frown-faced corporate shill has made its owner over $100 million dollars. That's exactly $99,999,988 more than the royalties Rick Astley made off of Rickrolling.
"Dear internet, thanks for all the 'ironic' ad money. Sincerely, YouTube"
To recap: Memes were created by a "free" internet using stolen pictures, those images became the subject of copyright and harassment lawsuits, and as a result the meme world became more corporately owned and mainstream. This led to the final nail in the coffin -- for where there is money and sweet youth blood, there are inevitably politicians...
The White House
No one has a sadder life than that guy in the background who knows he has to laugh.
2013-2015: Memes Become Political And Corporate
It's universally accepted that the lifeline of a meme ends abruptly at the desperate maw of some moneybags executive or politician. And if you haven't noticed, the trough sure seems to fill quicker and quicker as of late. For example, here's the exact moment that dabbing died, seemingly nanoseconds from its origin:
The Speaker of the House contributing to the culture of hard-hitting political journalism.
The Mannequin Challenge got hijacked by sports teams and Hillary Clinton's campaign before it had time to fully lift its baby head. For this reason there are now Twitter accounts and subreddits devoted to tracking bad corporate uses of "hip" words and memes -- making the act of mocking companies monetizing memes a monetizable thing. It's Memeception! Just like that movie seven years ago I mentioned earlier. The one where the music goes "bwaaaaaam" and it was hip to make fun of that. You know the film.
But for all the laughing and pointing at how "clueless" companies are -- the sad truth is that banking off of memes is a really effective strategy for corporate America. After all -- memes are essentially just annoying counterculture mascots. They're easily identifiable, redundant as hell, and convey a message in a single, easy-to-consume image. So instead of being a crass and bizarre movement that parents "just don't get" like listening to GG Allin or doing whatever the fuck EDM fans do, memes are insanely manageable. Just look at this horrendous anti-smoking ad from a few years back.
Cringe-worthy? You bet! And now watch as the entire internet shares the video for that reason. We sure showed them!
And so this is why memes need to die. Painfully, if possible. Because it used to be that the kidz (spelled with a 'z' to show that I'm one of you dipshits) could always be one step ahead of the corporate and political world due to adults' unwillingness to wade through their slang, music, and terrible poetry. But now all any marketing executive has to do is creep through Reddit and Twitter to identify whatever the "top trending" combination images and words are for that week.
Don't get me wrong -- there probably is some totally hip underground youth culture where the kids dress like medieval serfs and vape crack or whatever, but memes will never be a part of that thing. In fact, as we reach 2016 in our timeline, it turns out that memes resemble a whole different historical tool...
2016: The Presidential Election Turns Memes Into Propaganda
In retrospect it's stupid obvious... but you know what other form of communication involves taking blocky text and putting it over an image? Fucking propaganda is what. Here's a festively colored one comparing the Jews to "poison mushrooms" back in WWII.
See, the argument was that if just one of these Semitic mushrooms were poisoned, we wouldn't want to risk eating the whole bunch. Obviously it's an insanely racist idea that would never be shared in today's- WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
And this is the one whose face looks less punchable.
For anyone who was paying attention in 2016, this somehow wasn't the only time a tweet from the America-greatening campaign resembled Hitler-esque nonsense.
Blacks killed by polar bears ~~ probably at least a couple.
But it's not just our openly racist tax-dodging pussy-grabbing Streep-dissing Putin-praising fraud-case-settling lowest-approval-rating-before-entering-office POTUS who is guilty of this, as your average Hillary supporter no doubt passed this hot cookie around six months ago:
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
If you don't already know (you dummy), the Trump quote and crime statistics are completely false information. Only somewhere between "I Can Has Cheezburger?" and "all blacks are violent" we somehow forgot that putting text over a picture DOES NOT MAKE SOMETHING TRUE.
I feel like I need to repeat that. If you're on Facebook or Twitter and see a photo with text over it: Do not share that photo. I don't care how true the text "feels" to you or how many Michelob Ultras you've had. I don't care if there's a little link at the bottom claiming to be a source or if George Takei shared it first. It's goddamn PROPAGANDA. It's historically always been propaganda -- down to ripping off popular imagery and personal photographs.
War Production Co-ordinating Committee
Did you think we were the first generation to invent this shit, Hypothetical Person I'm Yelling At? No. Memes are not only inorganic, unoriginal, attention-desperate, and extremely corporate... but downright oppressive to thought. But unlike the countless tyrants and demagogues of the past, we're the ones spreading them now. Now knock that shit off.
Unless it's from Cracked, obviously. PLZ RT/LIKE/SHARE :)
David is an editor for Cracked.com, the website you are currently reading. Be kind to him on Twitter.
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