How Memes are Actually Classical Tradition and How Publishers Are Killing Them Regardless
N.B. In the context of this essay, ‘meme’ refers specifically to internet memes and oral tradition refers specifically to that of the Ancient Greeks.
How could an unhappy looking cat be comparable to the greatest Greek hero? Achilles and Grumpy Cat are much more similar than they first appear. They come from traditions, Ancient Greek oral tradition and internet memes respectively, that are mirror images of each other. Oral tradition is anything that is verbally transmitted over more than one generation (Vansina). The Iliad and the Odyssey were created in this fashion and later transferred to the written versions we know today. The essential qualities of oral tradition are, in an oversimplified sense, structured content meant to entertain or inform a particular community with the intent of lasting a generation. Memes are concerned with these same qualities. Memes follow a structure, have a purpose, are directly linked to the community they come from, and can last forever on the internet. But memes are being made into quickly produced, trendy books by publishers who are actually defeating the purpose of what these memes represent. In the same way the written version of the Iliad is a completely different species than its spoken version, these meme books are in no way a reflection of actual memes.
Oral tradition was strictly governed by structures concerning metric, mnemonics and flow. Primarily, these structures governed the storyteller to remind him of his lines and the direction of the story. It also allowed listeners to associate a specific form of content with that medium. Memes are also governed in this way; it could be the type of language used with that meme (Ermahgerd), the specific type of image (Planking), or the formula that strictly governs that particular meme (“I don’t always [insert action] But when I do, I [insert action]”). Not all stories spoken aloud are part of an oral tradition and not all images with captions (or whatever the meme takes its form as) are successful memes. A meme that does not follow the proper conventions will be ignored by the general meme community.
Both of these mediums foster community and inform that community through entertainment. The main goal of Greek oral tradition was to record history in order to pass it along to new generations. They served their community by connecting people with one history. People from all over Greece would know some version of the same story and be able to relate to their fellow-Greeks through those stories. Memes are very similar in this manner. They express the opinions of a community through entertainment (often humour or mockery): some memes have the specific aim to teach (Life Hacks); some memes have the purpose of entertaining and conveying a popular opinion (Potato Jesus, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy); some memes are political or can become political through assimilation (An Xiao Mina). The global community of people who view (and generally understand) memes are connected through popular memes. And because of the internet this information transfer is almost instantaneous.
Memes and oral tradition have no authors, they are mostly anonymous to their consumers. Oral tradition’s purpose is to transfer information across generations. After even one generation it can be difficult to remember who the author of a story was. But the authorship of each specific tale did not matter. While somewhere deep in the internet there is proof that a specific person created the very first version of a meme, their authorship does not matter. The point of the meme is that it can be created, shared, mutated, and most importantly distributed by anyone for anyone.
Both mediums also allow and expect a large amount of mutation. Oral traditions were passed on by storytellers, people who were able to memorize these long stories and songs. But each storyteller told their tales differently, whether it be by just a few lines or whole segments of their story. Each version was new and, at the same time, the exact same version. These mutations were freely accepted and acknowledge but did not discredit the story’s merit. In just the same way, memes are created and distorted. They grow out of each other, change meaning, evolve, and can sometimes recreate new memes (Advice Dog, Actual Advice Mallard, Malicious Advice Mallard). The internet allows these community objects to live in a way print media cannot.
All of the different mutations of a single meme can still be considered one meme because the final form is always partially undecided. The internet and meme community allow it to continually expand simply because it can. Because of the popularity and accessibility of memes, many people have created products (easily done so because of the anonymity of meme authors) to reap financial benefits. And publishers are not excluded; in the last two years specifically meme-based books have been widely popular. Just a small selection from the last year include popular sellers like Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book (2013), Damn You Autocorrect! (2013), and Dog Shaming (2013). The time it takes to create a meme-based book will always be longer than that specific version of a meme’s lifespan and thus these books will always be immediately irrelevant. While some memes might not have a very long lifespan (coined as the “fruit flies of the internet” by Brittany Vesterback), it is never truly known if they are dead or not because the internet does not really allow for death in a finite way. Things have a way of coming back into the viewer’s eye (Doge). But by claiming ownership and physically printing these memes, publishers change the essential components of what makes a meme, thus creating something entirely new. By creating a physical object from these memes, publishers essentially stop the meme from growing in the physical world and online. The living, evolving meme that was previously edited, interpreted, and viewed by online communities is suddenly one publishing house’s static interpretation. These books are more of a snapshot of a period of time rather than contributors of culture. They catalogue a moment (a moment long before the book’s release) when these memes were a phenomena that an online community gathered around to enjoy. These books take away the essential qualities that created the meme in the first place: the interactivity, the mutations, the means of transmission, and most importantly, the specific community that created, curated and enjoyed them. And just like the popularization of writing choked out oral tradition, publishers are choking out memes by creating meme-content without the most important aspects of memes — community connection via the internet.
Gordon Sutherland. Damn You Autocorrect! Best of Ever! : The best Autocorrect fails of all time. Ebookboost Publishing Ltd., May 23, 2013. Amazon.
Grumpy Cat. Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book. Chronicle Books, 2013. Amazon.
Know Your Meme. Cheezburger. In order of citation: Ermahgerd, Planking, The Most Interesting Man in the World, Life Hacks, Potato Jesus, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, Advice Dog, Actual Advice Mallard, Malicious Advice Mallard and Doge.
Lemire, Pascale. Dog Shaming. Three Rivers Press, September 24, 2013. Amazon.
Mina, An Xiao. How Visual Media Affect Culture and Identity Globally. The Conference, 2013. The Conference Website.
Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradtion as History. Univ of Wisconsin Press, Sep 6, 1985. Google Scholar.
“Are LOLCats and Internet Memes Art?” PBS Idea Channel. Youtube.
Konnikova, Maria. “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze and Maybe Infuriate You” The New Yorker. January 21, 2014. The New Yorker Online.