Memes are beautiful
10/12/2012, 19:56
Filed under: Culture, Ephemera, Myself, Thought

A few days ago spread the word about a beached dead whale raising a stench not far from Barbara Streisand’s Malibu property and the practical challenges of disposing of it.

The historical significance of this coincident wasn’t lost on those commenting on boingboing’s, nor the LATimes’ coverage. Two of the internet’s greatest memes had happened upon one another.

A 2004 StraightDope article is probably the most cited in response to the question, “What is a meme?” It explains,

The term “meme” (rhymes with “dream”) was coined by zoologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book about evolution, The Selfish Gene. […]

Dawkins proposes that the meme is to culture what the gene is to biology. A meme is a reproducible idea and as such is the basic unit of cultural transmission. In his words:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

A meme isn’t just any fleeting impression or random thought. One defining characteristic of a meme is that it reproduces itself with a fair degree of fidelity. A joke is a meme; so is the alphabet. One can argue that language is the ultimate meme (or “memeplex,” as some call it). The sum of all memes is culture, transmitted from generation to generation, just as the genome is.

One of the great joys of the internet for me as a social scientist is observing the creation and proliferation of memes on the web.

The internet does to memes and culture what pressing fast forward used to do to music on a cassette tape (speaking of which). While memes have always existed, the proliferation of the internet and online culture have made the challenge of keeping tabs on them more difficult than ever before.

It used to be that, if you were born in a town in a valley between some mountains, and nobody came and went from your town, then you would have been introduced to only a handful memes over the course of your early life. New memes would have only appeared at the rate of their local creation.

Rare and ingrained as they were back then, memes were hard to miss.

Today, memes come and go on an hourly basis.

My favourite meme from yesterday—and by “yesterday” I don’t mean “yesterday” as in “the past,” but “yesterday,” as in “Monday, December 9th, 2012”—was the unhappy, but stylish, IKEA monkey. But while this meme received national news coverage from every major Canadian press, not all memes come and go to such fanfare.

Which is why, if you’re unfamiliar with any given meme, a handful of blogs and websites have begun to spring up to document them and fill you in. Arguably, these, along with wikipedia, are fast becoming the Museums of the Internet.

If you’re not familiar with Barbara Streisand’s Malibu property, then you clearly you don’t know your internet history as well as you should:

In 2002, photographer Kenneth Adelman took more than 12,000 photographs of the California coastline in an effort to document coastal erosion as part of the government-sanctioned California Coastal Records Project. One of the photographs taken showed an aerial view of Barbara Streisand’s Californian mansion.

According to the Californian Coast Line official website, the organization received its first cease-and-desist letter from Streisand’s attorney in February 2003, shortly after the launch of the site and the online gallery. A $50 million lawsuit was filed against the photographer and other suits were filed against the image hosting services Pictopia and Layer42 on May 20th, 2003. The filing of lawsuits was soon reported in the news media, which inadvertently led more than 420,000 people to the website, according to the California Coast Line website.

While you may have never heard of Streisand’s mansion before reading this, from now on, if you pay attention, you’ll likely notice reference to something called “the Streisand Effect” on a near weekly basis.

The internet meme based expression has infiltrated common parlance.

Which brings me to what was really my whole motivation for writing this post. To repeat—I mean highlight!—what is unquestionably my favourite meme of all time: “Oregon’s Exploding Whale.”

Or, how everyone that knows their internet history learned what not to do if you should ever find yourself faced with the particular problem of disposing of a dead beached whale.

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