Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in 1976, in his book The Selfish Gene, which examines the "biology of selfishness and altruism" from a scientific standpoint. In an introduction speech in Cannes in 2013 Dawkins expanded upon the term which, following the definition he'd laid out for it, became a meme itself. Whereas a "meme" is a self-replicating unit of cultural information, "An internet meme is a highjacking of the original idea... altered deliberately by human creativity."
The internet is a playground; a simulation model for the real world, where everything is easier, faster, and desires can be indulged in on a vicarious level with limited responsibility or real life implications. In video games, people are permitted to fulfill their violent impulses in a display of artificial control. In virtual universes such as Second Life, the user can create avatars as fully customizable selves to inhabit, through which they can engage in activity with other avatars socially, economically, or sexually in a lawless territory of inhibition and relative anonymity. Social media platforms represent the same idea. Through Instagram and Twitter, you have the power to project an idealized version of yourself into the world, that is, until your own image is hijacked without your consent, and then everything, even your identity, is up for grabs.
Some people say that emojis, memes, and selfies are making us smarter–– and bringing us together. But after interviewing people who became memes or produced viral content I came to the conclusion that there are two sides to every story. People—especially people who can hide behind the anonymity of their computer monitor—can act really weird and scary, manipulating your image or using your content as a beacon for their own projected anger or bigotry, divorced from any sense they might have of you as a person.
Meet a few people who've had to deal with just that.
Tim aka 'Shiva'
I first got interested in memes when I randomly found a picture of my friend Tim on Twitter, posted by a stranger with the caption, "I GET MONEY."
When I asked Tim why strangers were using his image online, he linked me to a page on gyropedia.com, essentially the Wikipedia for the My Little Pony fan (i.e., brony) imageboard Ponychan, which features a lengthy page devoted to information about his meme. At a glance, Ponychan looks like one of those drug forums where you go to learn how to build homemade vaporizers out of light bulbs, and everyone uses thematic pseudonyms like SwarovskiTears or TheWitchKingsCall rather than BongRipPlayBoi. (For the record, forums like this are like the black hole of the internet; purgatories where people have literally no filter and are actively trying to get in arguments.)
Gyropedia refers to Tim as "Shiva" (AKA "Thumbs Up Kid" and "The Cunt Destroyer"), describing his photo as, "a short-lived forced-meme that spread like cancer on January 15, 2012." The picture comes from a school photo of Tim taken in eighth grade that he uploaded onto MySpace, from where it was presumably taken and repurposed as a joke on 4chan.
Gyropedia noted, "Like many forced memes, many were opposed to [Shiva], but they were outnumbered, so their opinions don't matter."
After Shiva's popularity peaked, Gyropedia explains, "things got messy. A user... started a thread with a simple rule: Anyone who posted Shiva was consenting to be banned. As one might expect, zero fucks were givin that day and the thread got spammed with an onslaught of Shivas and Shiva derivatives... Little did Shiva's supporters know that they were all about to be handed 15 minute bans for posting him."
I asked Tim how this experience affected the way he thinks about culture and internet users, and what he learned from this experience. He said that mostly it just scares him.
"Sometimes it heightens my cynicism and reinforces my fear and other times it feels oddly liberating. I think mostly it taught me to choose more wisely what I distribute on the internet, which in itself I think has caused me to experience a lot of self-image issues based on ephemera projected on the web or about me. I mostly feel OK with it being a thing but I'm definitely not happy about it. I guess I am mostly embarrassed... It was meant to be funny; I don't know that I think it's funny now."
Tim's advice for people who want to go viral online?
"Nothing, I just hope your meme isn't you being an ignorant or offensive asshole, if so then you should find somewhere to hide and never go on the internet again."
Natacha, 'Interior Semiotics'
Natacha is somewhat of a legend when it comes to viral performance.
Her video, "Interior Semiotics," was leaked onto 4chan.com in 2010 and it now has over 2.25 million views on YouTube. In this performance, Natacha had Spaghetti-O's coming out of her vagina, an element that, she explained, was originally intended as a critique of capitalist consumption and a rehashing of historical feminist performances. Although Natacha's performance was well within the artistic tradition of using one's body for art, (if you need any proof of this, check out the Wikipedia page for Body Fluids in Art), performance art is usually reserved for a niche rather than a viral audience. When the video hit the mainstream, it attracted slews of overwhelmingly harsh criticism; pages and pages of comments and 4chan feeds, YouTube response videos, rude voice messages, texts, emails, and Facebook stalkers. When I asked Natacha what she learned about the internet through going viral, she told me, "anonymity is powerful."
The vast majority of the comments on the video's YouTube page use the power of anonymity to its ugliest extreme. Users call Natacha an "over-privileged cunt," males detail the ways the video makes them want to oppress women, and numerous people left pseudo-intellectual critiques combined with sexual or violent threats and innuendos. Multiple comments mention Hitler and the Nazis.
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Despite the extremely abusive reception from the public, Natacha kept the video online and open to comment, saying, "I didn't try to hide something that people bashed." She saw her performance as visual poetry, and stands behind her viral experience as something both positive and negative, explaining, "I can't control people's reactions."
I asked Natacha what advice she would give to people who want to go viral or become a meme. She told me she's not sure you can go viral on purpose:
"I think part of what makes it a meme is that there's an innocence or genuine feeling to something that people are attracted to or enraged by. There's a difference between YouTubers/ individuals who have built large followings, and someone or something that's blowing up [out of nowhere]. I guess the advice I would give is to 'not give a fuck' because being viral comes with being a jester to society."
Rick, 'Milk and Honey'
Rick didn't go viral by mistake; he did it on purpose when he manufactured a viral story for a class at NYU where students learned how to make their content marketable to large audiences. The assignment was to make a viral video, and Rick used Natacha's Interior Semiotics as the direct inspiration for his viral strategy, since it "had the perfect combination of art, shock value, and perceived privilege to create a successful viral video that the internet would hate passionately." Rick believed that his video would get more attention if people hated it rather than liked it, saying, "People love to rally behind something they hate, whether it's a politician, a news story, or an art project."
Rick's video, "Milk and Honey," was a curated performance that was "basically identical in structure" to "Interior Semiotics," in which a girl puts on a messy, passionate performance in front of an audience of hipsters, only instead of using Spaghetti-O's, the girl is bathing in a kiddie pool filled with milk. In order to go viral, Rick contacted media outlets that he "knew would be infuriated."
Rick's plan worked. His video went viral due to sites like Gothamist and BroBible, who got a kick out of making fun of hipster trash. A writer on Barstool Sports wrote a vicious, borderline hateful article directed at Katherine, Rick's friend who was the actress in the performance, culminating in the line, "Napalm the whole borough (of Brooklyn) and let's be done with them all."
Despite the violent backlash, Rick got an A in his class. I asked him what he learned about culture through this project. He explained that it taught him firsthand how "aggressively hateful strangers can be on the internet." He explained that the ugliest part of the project was:
"The level of aggression and the amount of people expressing violent wishes... the running theme is that either drowning or fucking (or fucking while drowning) Katherine will either solve her problems, or make this video better, or make the commenter feel better. I knew they existed, but this was my first time personally dealing with an army of shitty, sexist men."
Jimmy Kimmel, 'Worst Twerk Fail Ever—Girl Catches On Fire'
In 2013, late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel decided that he wanted to see if his writers could make a video go viral without help from his show, so he released a video called " Worst Twerk Fail EVER—Girl Catches On Fire!," under the personal youtube account of a fictional character named "Caitlin Heller," played by a hollywood stuntwoman. The video features Caitlin twerking against the door to her apartment until someone opens the door, disrupting her twerking session, and causing her to fall onto a candle and catch on fire.
After its release, "Twerk Fail" became popular almost instantaneously. Many mainstream media channels picked it up as real news and it got more than 9 million views in less than a week.
In a phone interview, Kimmel explained that very few people in the media bothered to check the video out to see if it was real. He explained, "There is a race to put things on the air and it seems like nowadays they will check to see if things are real after [the story is] aired rather than before."
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Kimmel feels that media doesn't really care if the story is true or not. "The truth is, they get two stories out of it: the story about the video when it was released, and the story that came after the video was revealed to be fake."
I asked Kimmel if people's reactions toward the video changed after he revealed it to be a prank. He said that most people thought it was funny, but there was still a lot of negativity since, "getting mad for no reason seems to be one of people's favorite hobbies on the internet."
He explained that people aren't really themselves when they are commenting on an image or a video, saying that the "anonymity of comments online affords people a freedom that they do not afford themselves in real life. You put a picture of yourself online and instantly everybody's commenting on what you're wearing and that doesn't really happen at the mall."
I asked Jimmy if he had any advice to offer prospective YouTube celebrities. He said:
"I would never tell anyone to go viral. I mean, there are a lot of bad things about it. People get excited about it but you're also inviting a lot of strangers into your life. Instant fame can be dangerous, and it's not something I would recommend for everyone. You just expose yourself to a lot of people, the least of it is being exposed to negative and hurtful comments, but those can have an impact, and the worst of it is if you get people who come to your house. A result of being famous is that people sometimes show up at your house, or you get other unwanted attention."
Lil B THE BASED GOD
When VICE reached out to Lil B via email, asking for a comment about memes and viral content, he responded simply: "LIL B CREATED THAT CULTURE."
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