Contemplating the meaning of memes

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I spent most of my waking time online, so you might think I’m always up-to-date with the memes (recurring themes and in-jokes) currently circulating the Internet. I’m not; far from it. In fact, the more time I spend online, the more memes I learn about that I’ve not known about although they’ve been around for years.

Take the list in this paragraph from a story in this week’s NYT Magazine, “When Funny Goes Viral,” by Rob Walker:

If one function of ROFL in the online ecosystem is to bring people together around something funny, it also draws lines. The memes of the moment change constantly; new variations are added to its language and older material is recombined to shift or add to its meaning. A MemeFactory presentation I caught at New York University was adizzying blur: Boxxy, David After Dentist, Star Wars Kid, “Downfall,” Advice Dog, “Imma chargin mah lazer!” Crasher Squirrel, “This is Sparta!” multiple Japanese cartoon clips, a new Chat Roulette prank, Weegee and so on. Your reaction to that list — incomprehensible? kind of played out? — says something about your relationship to “Internet culture.”

Of those memes, I knew with confidence only three (and that only means I could define them and point to one example — I don’t know every variation on them or memes that have evolved from them), recognized one more (“Downfall”) after reading more about it in the article, and could take a stab guessing two or three others.

(Walker’s article provides a nice introduction to Internet culture, at least for a mainstream audience. And for anyone who, like me, thinks they know what’s what on the web, it’s either a reassuring confirmation, a wake-up call, or a useful filler-in for any gaps in knowledge. Also useful is danah boyd’s blog post about 4chan, “‘for the lolz’: 4chan is hacking the attention economy,” which can catch you up on where many Internet memes come from and how chaos can be a seed of culture.)

Does it matter that I don’t recognize or get the majority of memes? I feel like it does. I used to feel uncomfortable not knowing the source of most pop culture television references, but that no longer bothers me. I watch relatively little television, and over time I’ve gotten to feel OK knowing that most references go over my head because I’m not putting time and attention into being current. Similarly, it should be clear to me that to stay current with every new meme that comes up, I’d need to spend most of my day watching YouTube videos, reading Boing Boing, and surfing forums, which I wouldn’t actually enjoy. So why do I feel a little like a failure each time I discover that a meme has been around for a year without my encountering it?

Are you in tune with Internet culture? Do you care?