A Co-Creator of Know Your Meme Explains What the Hell a Meme Actually Is

Kenyatta Cheese, one of the founders of the world's foremost meme website, tells us how to explain dat boi to our grandmas.

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May 26 2016, 4:00am

The word "meme" was invented by evolutionary biologist and future atheist heartthrob Richard Dawkins in 1976. It originally meant something like a cultural version of a strand of DNA—an idea that can move from person to person and generation to generation—but now, thanks to the internet, a "meme" is a joke that shifts and evolves at a frightening rate as it speeds from Something Awful or 4Chan to the wider world of social media.

For a long time, no one was cataloging where these jokes came from, or how they spread, or the permutations they went through before ending up on your mom's Facebook page. It wasn't until 2008 that three employees of the online video studio Rocketboom––Kenyatta Cheese, Jamie Wilkinson, and Elspeth Rountree––started producing videos on the history of things like LOLcats and the catchphrase "I like turtles." Know Your Meme was born.

Today the site is an invaluable resource for people who care about web ephemera and is a step above most wiki-type portals, employing researchers to track down the origin of the strangest non sequiturs floating in the ether. This can get tricky, since meme culture has expanded to include basically the entire internet, with Hamburger Helper's marketing employees putting out viral mixtapes, presidential candidates getting social teams to promote multi-panel image macros, and people like FuckJerry carving careers out of photoshopping stuff like this.

In an effort to learn about the future of memes—and figure out how to explain dat boi to my grandma—I called up KYM co-founder Cheese (who now works at Everybody at Once, an internet consulting firm) and chatted about the state of internet culture and whether we should take memes seriously as art.

VICE: How did you get the idea to start cataloging memes?
Kenyatta Cheese: We started seeing [places] like Adult Swim starting to use advice animals in their promos on TV, or on the internet, and not give credit where credit was due—like, not give credit to the community where it originated. And so we thought, let's just start tracking this. Let's just start a database. And so we did.

So the early episodes were like crappy, crappy, crappy. There were a bunch of things we got right, which was explaining not just the origins, not just where something came from, but where it spread to. The other part was actually doing the hard work of tracking down a bunch of that stuff.

We called ourselves the Rocketboom Entity for Internet Studies. And then, because no one else was doing this, all of a sudden people started paying attention.

When you started this website, memes weren't as ubiquitous as they are now. Did you have any idea it would take off the way it did?
We saw it as a way to create a research project disguised as a startup. And so, as it grew, Rocketboom put more resources toward it, and all of a sudden there were two coders, and there were three interns, and there were people who were dedicated to doing nothing but pulling stuff from the community and figuring out how to turn that into information that would fit the site. About that time, it was the golden age of 4Chan and Cheezburger and all that shit, and all of a sudden that meant there was a bunch of attention around it, and the motivation for us was how to create something that was going to be useful.

But for lots of reasons, Rocketboom fell apart, and Know Your Meme was caught in the middle of that. And so in late 2010 OR early 2011, Cheezburger had to buy Know Your Meme.

What do you think was the first meme?
I have no idea what the first meme was. I think it depends on context. There are a lot of people who would say the first meme was, if you're talking about web, cat macros. People have said the smiley [emoticon] was the first meme. If you want to go back and expand it past the internet even further, you know, the jokes that get passed around, not necessarily through large media outlets, but word of mouth.

So how would you describe what a meme is in words? What's the difference between a "meme" and a piece of "viral content"?
For me, and this is the definition we use—"meme" and "viral" were two separate things. "Viral" would be one video being shared over and over again. Maybe someone downloads it and re-uploads it, but no one's making any substantial change to the content of it. Memes are things that are not only replicated, but you can actually make [different iterations] of them.

The other definition has to do with how these things spread. You see them start off in subcultures, where the purpose of an image is to contribute to a conversation that's already going on. And then it gets pulled out into other spaces because: Holy shit, I saw something hilarious, or it's something that pissed me off, or it triggered me in some way, and I want to make sure that other people see this.

But it's become a lot more complicated, because everybody's covering internet culture now. There's such a race to be on top of this stuff that things that felt organic and naturally occurring can be accelerated and maybe even burn out faster because they're exposed to a very large audience at an early stage.

So what do you think about memes that are made by political campaigns or brands? Can those actually be memes, by your definition? They're not naturally occurring phenomena like classical memes.
Yes and no. I think the shell looks the same. The shell still looks like it's an image macro, but it may not have a reach beyond its own audience, or it may not have enough to spread beyond the people who were already attuned to it. It's a totally arbitrary and artificial boundary. When does something have enough cultural currency, have enough meaning attached to it, that all of a sudden there's a value that causes somebody to want to share it to another space? I mean, you can have macros that are completely insincere. But if they're still effective in spreading a particular idea, then I don't know. I guess they're memes.

How would you even describe a meme in words? Like if I had to describe what dat boi is to my grandmother, what would I say?
Have you ever tried it?

No. It's just occurring to me right now. Would you be able to describe some meme to somebody who was completely unfamiliar with internet culture?
It's a piece of culture that's recognizable to other people, that has a certain cultural meaning that you and the other people around you get. I wouldn't, say, use the word "meme" to describe an image macro. "Meme" to me is more the process, the thing that happens with that media within a network. My grandmother would still probably look at me and say, "That's nice. I have no fucking idea what you're talking about."

It's like the golden age of rap music. You listen to rap music from the 90s, and half the lyrics were references to TV shows or commercials, or whatever, different cultural signifiers that meant something to them and to other people who may have had the same experiences as them. But if you exposed somebody to them now, they're gonna have no idea, they may not get those references. I think a lot of internet culture is like that. You need the context of the culture. It's like the virality of "the dress," you know, people giving different answers to whatever color they thought it was––yes, that's interesting, but the thing that made it fascinating was the network.

What do you think makes a good meme?
I think that there are two things that make a good meme to me. The first one is something that's meaningful to the culture in which it was made. If a meme stays local to a particular LiveJournal, and people have a particular reaction to it, that is a successful meme. In terms of memes that have an effect on cultures beyond their point of origin, it's where some person, somewhere, is able to identify something in that image, or in that video, or in that joke, and know that there's another audience for it, and is able to pass it on. You can't make a meme. The meme part is the phenomenon, and is a function of the network into which it is placed.

How did you decide which meme-like things are worth inclusion on KYM?
Early on we were looking for things that seem like they're important to a subculture and are starting to pop up in other places. That was the criteria. So I think because we were all young, we all gravitated to stuff that was in communities that we were already in. Which is why the early stuff is, like, nerd culture. But near the end of our run of the original group, we started incorporating memes in other languages, from other cultures, and started to go: How do we actually expand the site to deal with stuff and verify a bunch of stuff? And so, there might have been something that had been floating around since 2000, or '98 or whatever, that somebody might be coming to for the first time in like, 2008, and come to the site going, "Oh, I just found this new thing. It's amazing!" And there would be some people who'd be like, "Oh, that's great. Good for you. That's been around for a long time," and other people who would be like, "Who the fuck are you?"

All of a sudden your meme knowledge became like a badge of honor. And so that meant we had to figure out how do we actually document, and accept, and verify memes from other cultures.

What do you think is the best meme right now?
I pay a hell of a lot less attention to traditional internet memes [than I used to]. I don't feel like I can even say that there's one that I absolutely love right now, but I think if I were to go for one for all time, it would have to be cat macros.

That's really your favorite?
Well, I think it's the most fascinating, because nobody's fucked it up. I mean, people fuck it up now and then, but nobody can do something so fucked up, that is so large, that it erases everything that's come before it. And so the cat macro lives on. I think that makes it brilliant in a way that's really hard for other things to be.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

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