How Did Vintage Memes Go Viral?

How did the memes and GIFs of yesteryear spread through the web in the absence of YouTube and Tumblr? Also, what's the actual textbook definition of a meme? Do they have any value beyond the lol factor? The Connectivist investigates.

Before she had even finished twerking at the VMA awards, the Internet was awash in Miley memes.

Springing up in response to news events, political gaffes, daily annoyances and everything in between, Internet memes have become a universal language on the Web. But do they have any utility, and will they survive into the future? They’ve also been around long before the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr became Internet powerhouses–how did these vintage memes make it viral back then?

9b5-1 The definition of a meme

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to refer to a cultural idea that mutates, imitates, and spreads itself around, which is similar to how a gene functions in the body. Today, “Internet meme” means much the same thing: ideas, which evolve, spawn imitations, and, most importantly, go viral on the Web.

Christian Bauckhage and Kristian Kersting, computer scientists from the University of Bonn in Germany, have been observing the spread of memes for over a decade. What began as a hobby has now merged with their professional lives: the two researchers’ work has shown how the spread of popular Internet memes mirrors the epidemiological spread of disease.

“The dynamics of attention to individual memes seems to be explicable using methods from mathematical epidemiology,” Kersting explains. In essence, they have shown empirically that viral content is, in fact, viral.

An insight into culture and society

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Internet memes, once viewed as a trite topic for academic researchers, are now being considered as a way to better understand culture and society.

“They are a proxy for people’s interests,” says Kersting. “We are trying to make use of the Internet to understand global interests.”

The two scientists situate their work within the trend of “mining our reality”, a phrase coined by computer scientist Tom Mitchell in a 2009 paper. Mitchell predicts the emergence of “a global sensor network monitoring much of humanity,” made possible by the gathering of data on the Web and our gadgets. Mitchell, while warning of the privacy concerns of this development, foresees the trend benefitting our lives in a number of ways, including a growing reach of scientific, behavioral, and social science research.

While Kersting says that sociologists are beginning to pick up the memes in their research, he doesn’t shy away from the fact that advertisers are equally as interested in data mining from memes. “In marketing and advertising, people are interested in understanding how, why, and for how long people are interested in content,” he says.

The evolution and future of memes

The Internet’s sharing infrastructure, which blossomed in the early 2000s with the inception of platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and 4Chan, makes it easier than ever to spread viral Internet content. But viral content long pre-dates this infrastructure, and was widely disseminating through niche message boards, IRC channels, early video sharing sites like ebaumsworld, and the meme community YTMND.

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While memes were once one off funny videos such as Dancing Baby and Badger, Badger, Badger, or Internet or gaming culture inside jokes, like Zombo.com and All Your Base Are Belong to Us, memes are now more general, relating to everyday events, news, and popular culture.

While it is difficult to get data on the earliest memes, Kersting says that, in his experience, early memes like dancing baby have similar characteristics to modern memes. “What is new is that modern memes have become a hype themselves,” he says.  What this means is that now, anybody can take an active role in the process by using sites like memebase and quickmeme to try to create their own viral content.

The two researchers plan to continue their research in order to better understand what exactly makes something go viral, and why some things are more viral than others. As for the future of memes, they don’t foresee the phenomenon fading into obscurity. “Memes will be around for all eternity now,” Kersting says. “They are just too loveable, and are like mind viruses.”

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