10-18: It’s all about Meme

Play Week!

That’s right, folks, it’s another play week!  While, as you can plainly see, there is a blog post associated with this week’s topic, there is no actual task that you need to complete.  Instead, you can use the time as you wish.  You might want to use this as an opportunity catch up on previous Things, to explore a tool you’ve always wanted to try, or just explore the wacky world of internet memes.

What’s a meme?

Memes, as originally envisioned by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, are bits of cultural information that are spread from person to person; songs, religion, catch-phrases, fashions and building techniques are all examples of memes.  An internet meme refers to anything that spreads quickly, often person-to-person, around the web – pictures, videos, funny emails, polls, ideas, etc – sometimes mutating in the process.  Anytime you’ve sent something to SOX because it was funny, you were proliferating a meme.  Anytime you’ve called someone over to your desk to show them something you found or were sent, you were proliferating a meme. Any time you told someone that you were Not Happy Jan, or said that someone was (or wasn’t) a happy little Vegemite, you were proliferating a meme.  Anytime you said “I’m on a horse” you were proliferating a meme. You also probably weren’t on a horse, were you?

Where do memes come from?

Most memes spring up naturally, as people attempt to entertain or shock their friends and/or other members of the communities they frequent.  Memes can be site specific (technology news site Slashdot, for example, has many memes that are in-jokes), or can spread wildly across the internet.

4chan (very Not Safe For Work or NSFW and often extremely offensive, probably to the point of being Not Safe For Home Either) is often seen as the wellspring of memes.  4chan is an imageboard (a place where people post pictures rather than use text to converse) that has been described as “a wretched hive of scum and villany” and “lunatic, juvenile… brilliant, ridiculous and alarming“, but it’s certainly given the world some of its better known and more enduring internet memes, including LOLcats (and Caturday) and Rickrolling.  4chan memes are typically documented by Encylopædia Dramatica (again, very NSFW). Other common meme birthing grounds include Something Awful (All Your Base, Tourist Guy), Fark (though it is often accused of stealing memes from other sites) and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.

Many naturally occurring memes, however, arise spontaneously in multiple locations, fueled by an interesting new addition to popular culture, an act of unusual stupidity/weirdness, or the public humiliation of someone, preferably famous.  A good recent example is anything that poked fun at BP and the oil leak.

BP Spill fail

Increasingly, marketing companies are trying to capitalise on the meme phenomenon by creating adverts that are meant to spread virally (hence the phrase ‘viral marketing’) through social networks.  The recent Smell like a Man, Man campaign from Old Spice succeeded in making excellent use of social networks.  After the original commercial was watched over and over on Youtube, the Old Spice Guy created 185 short youtube clips in response to facebook posts and tweets.  This masterful stroke meant that his fame – and the Old Spice brand – spread further and further, and phrases like, well, ‘smell like a man’ and ‘I’m on a horse’ entered into common parlance.  Most companies don’t have anywhere near this level of success, and it’s not uncommon for viral marketing attempts to backfire horribly.  Chevy, for example, ran a ‘make your own commercial’ competition, which had predictable results.

A viral marketing technique that is becoming more common is for unscrupulous ad companies to try and hide the fact that they are marketing to you.  This is a practice called stealth advertising, and can take several forms.   One common method is to create carefully crafted videos that lack identifying marks, with the idea of getting you to think that other people think that a product is cool or important or useful enough to create videos about – or to at least get you talking about something.  There a several very (in)famous examples of this including the Blair Witch Project (an internet viral marketing pioneer) and the Airforce 1 Graffiti hoax.

Another, perhaps more insidious method, is called astroturfing (a play on the idea of ‘grassroots’ movements).  Astroturfing occurs when employees of a company pose as regular community members and spread positive (or counter negative) information about said company, without identifying that they are paid shills (Walmart is notorious for doing this several times).  These practices, though, are not limited to for-profit organisations; astroturfing in particular can be used by a dedicated group of individuals to spread a particular ideology (watch the comment fields of political and news sites come election time), or by those associated with or employed by a public figure (politicians and their staff are known serial offenders).

Attempts to stop the proliferation of information can, too, lead to memes of a sort.  This is seen in the Streisand effect, which we’ve mentioned previously, wherein an attempt to stop the publication/quash the dissemination of information backfires spectacularly, leading the information to become much more public than it would have been in the normal course of events.  A recent example occurred during the 2010 FIFA World Cup (which produced a number of memes to do with vuvuzelas). As Budwieser was the official beer of the World Cup, FIFA tried to stop an ambush marketing campaign organised by a competitor, Bavaria Brewery. When a group of women wearing orange dresses, supplied by the Bavaria Brewery appeared at a soccer match, FIFA had them arrested. The resulting worldwide media coverage of this heavy handed tactic resulted in more publicity for the Brewery and plenty of bad press for FIFA and Budwieser.

More Memes Than You Can Shake a Stick At:
  • Timeline creator dipity hosts a nifty timeline of memes going right the way back to 1989.  Be warned: several of the memes on this timeline are NSFW.
  • Know Your Meme: a site documenting memes and the evolution and origins thereof.
  • MemeCity: viral videos, image macros, catchphrases, web celebs and more.
Some of the Practically Perfect Programmer’s Favourite Memes:
  • Bert is Evil
    One of the earliest internet memes I can remember spreading, it’s a collection of ‘evidence’ detailing the secret double-life of half of the beloved Bert & Ernie duo.
  • Dark Side of the Rainbow
    Synchronicity in action: if you play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz, you’ll find that the former synchonises uncannily with the latter.  Having actually done this, I can report that they do sync on the first playthrough, but it’s purely coincidental.  Instructions are here.
  • The Lolrus Bukkit Saga
    A macro meme depicting the tragic story of a walrus and his beloved bucket.
  • Old Spice Guy: I’m on a Horse
    What do you mean you haven’t seen it?
  • Ask ABC
    A single-day Twitter meme, started when the bright sparks behind the ABC Investigative unit’s new twitter account, abc_investigate, asked Australians to tweet to them things they wanted investigated.  Hilarity ensued. Tip – use the ‘newer’ and ‘older’ buttons at the top of the search to see more tweets.
  • LOLGraphs
    LOLgraphs are statistical representations and visual aids typically designed to explain a wide range of non-academic and mostly trivial topics for humorous effect.  A spin-off of this is Pop songs are best represented by graphs


Some of arotulon’s Favourite Memes:
  • Make your own album cover
    This is a meme that I discovered late in the game, but hey, better late than never and I really had a lot of fun with this one. Instructions are above if you want to give it a go. Some of my efforts are here.
  • David Thorne
    David Thorne is the culprit behind a number of internet memes. You might remember the email about the spider drawing. How about the lost cat? Anyone remember Katie’s Party?
  • Premakes
    Old movies recut to resemble newer movies. What would Ghostbusters have looked like if made in the 1950’s?

Or Empire Strikes Back?

  • Downfall
    Downfall has been an internet phenomenon. Using the bunker scene from the film,various people have added new subtitles so that Hitler is ranting about any number of topics. I have come across Downfall parodies about the Australian election, Oasis breaking up and Vegemite’s iSnack2.0.
  • Tiger Woods Cigar Guy
    A recent photo of Tiger Woods hitting a golf ball at the cameraman generated a surprising meme when people noticed the cigar guy to the side of the picture.
  • Wikiality One of my all time favourite memes has to do with elephants and Stephen Colbert, host of the Colbert Report. Satirizing the nature of truth or wikiality, where if enough people believe it, it must be true, Colbert requested viewers to edit the Wikipedia article on elephants to say that their numbers had tripled.
  • Chuck Norris. Fact.
    I was going to write about Chuck Norris facts but you don’t write about Chuck Norris facts; they just are.
Some terms you may encounter on your travels:


A troll is someone who deliberately makes an inflamatory post or comment, with the goal of causing conflict rather than actually contributing to the conversation. This, in turn, is called trolling.  Trolling can lead to flamewars (see below), and ‘Don’t Feed the Troll’ is a common refrain in many communities; ignoring trolls, thus denying them lulz, is the best way to get rid of them.


A flamewar is a discussion that gets out of hand, where participants’ comments devolve from rational arguments to personal insults.  A tounge-in-cheek guide to the personality types who get involved in flamewars can be found at Flame Warriors.

Godwin’s Law:

Godwin’s Law is closely related to reductio ad Hitlerum, a logical fallacy (ie. Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore vegetarianism is wrong). Coined in 1990 by Mike Godwin, it states: As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.  A modern corallary to the Law is that anyone who uses the comparison automatically loses whatever argument was taking place, and is said to have Godwinned the discussion.  The internet has a number of other supposed laws, but Godwin’s is the best known and most applied.


Causing a site to fail by referring too many people to it. High profile and high traffic sites like Slashdot, Fark, or Penny Arcade often cause this when linking to smaller sites.  Hihg-profile twitteratti like Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher have been known to bring down entire websites with a single tweet.

Fail, Win and Owned/Pwnd


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