Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to make all your books go viral on the internet? To have a secret formula, so to speak.
Well, tonight I have a little research that just might give us all more insight into arriving at this secret formula … and have a little fun along the way.
What does it all meme?
He lives in Japan. He’s a straight-haired Scottish Fold, four years old, slightly rotund (his name means “round” in Japanese). Otherwise? Well, there’s this thing he does where he jumps into an empty cardboard box. He jumps into all sorts of cardboard boxes. And out. Sometimes he climbs in a bin. Just for fun!
And Maru is famous. At the time of writing, YouTube videos of Maru have been viewed 100m times. He’s the subject of a recent hardback book, I Am Maru. It consists of 95 glossy pages of photographs of Maru being a cat. In August, three weeks before its publication date, it was the number one cat book on Amazon UK.
Maru is just a cat. But he’s also more than just a cat. Maru is a bellwether of the state of the culture. Maru is a meme.
If you have an email inbox you will, even if the term is unfamiliar, have come across what it denotes: the viral ephemera that washes across the internet, proliferates on Facebook walls and trends on Twitter. The internet is the most potent medium of mass communication in human history but we use it to exchange videos of cats jumping through cardboard boxes, old Rick Astley songs and pictures of a rabbit with a pancake balanced on its head.
The success of these memes prompts certain questions. Not least, what’s wrong with us? But also, what do they tell us about our relationships with each other? And what is it that makes certain memes catch fire?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Don Caldwell, a reporter for the website Know Your Meme. “There’s not an easy answer. I see them as filling ecological niches. There’s the funny niche, the weird niche and the cuteness niche: Maru the cat has filled that section of the internet pretty well for himself.
“The success of a meme is like the reproductive success of an organism,” he adds. “They have to be really well suited to their environment, and the environment of a meme is the cultural zeitgeist.”
The word “meme” was originally minted in the analogue age by the scientist Richard Dawkins. In The Selfish Gene (1976), he proposed that natural selection could work on ideas (which would flourish or fail with us as their ecosystem) as well as genetic material, and chose the term as a counterpart to “gene”: a meme as a unit of cultural transmission. Essentially, this means a contagious idea. The term is broad. Limericks can be a meme. The late 18th-century epidemic of copycat suicides by men in yellow trousers after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a meme. Rioting is a meme. So memes, in this extended sense, existed before the internet and continue to exist outside it.
Latin tags and rhetorical commonplaces were memes; “Kilroy was here” was a meme; chain letters, before the arrival of the internet, were memes that behaved in a recognisably viral way. There were fax memes and email memes, such as the smutty private email sent by one Claire Swire that ended up being viewed by millions in 2000.
But internet culture, and the exceptional speed and ease of transmission online, represents a step-change. Early geneticists were attracted to fruit flies as research subjects because their extreme fecundity and short lifecycles meant many generations could be studied in a space of months. When it comes to memes, the internet is an immense colony of fruit flies living in fast-forward – with all the experimental data widely and instantly available.
Looking at this data, the one distinguishing feature would seem to be downright frivolity. Memes support the idea that the online world has blurred the distinction between work and play – that media has given way to social media. A giant culture of messing about has found its perfect technology. It’s no coincidence that the biennial convention on internet meme culture, held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 2008, is called ROFLCon, after the common online acronym for “Rolling On the Floor Laughing”.
In line with the evolutionary analogy, the memes that live longest tend to be those that are most adaptable. If the defining art form of the first part of the 20th century was collage, from the constellations of fragments in modernist poetry to the collided images of the plastic arts, that of the digital age is surely the remix or the mash-up. Video clips are spliced together; sound is sampled and repurposed; public domain images are overdubbed with catchphrases. Downfall, a German film made in 2004 showing the last days of Hitler, is appropriated to have the Führer ranting about Oasis splitting up; a sample of Gregg Wallace from Masterchef provides the hook for a techno track (“I like the base, base, biscuit base”). The term “exploitable” is, in this context, often used as a noun by those who make memes and describe their behaviour.