South Park and the Evolution of the Internet Meme

Last week’s episode of South Park took a satirical spin on the history and evolution of memes, and in the process came up with some hilarious and elaborate explanations for why memes exist and evolve over time.  According to South Park, the first recorded meme appeared on the hieroglyphics of the pyramids, and from there they’ve been changing and rapidly spreading over time, only to be left with the modern day examples that are rampant all over the Internet.  Of course South Park’s take on memes is more satirical in nature, but in all satire there’s some morsel of truth revealed, and they made some interesting and astute comments on the world of memes, and especially how and why they exist on the Internet.

via i raff i ruse

Simply stated a meme is a concept, idea, image, or behavior that spreads quickly through culture, and although they’ve existed for hundreds of years, the term was first coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as a concept within evolution to explain the spreading of cultural phenomenons.  Since then memes have become a known and studied concept within the realm of modern culture, but the real evolution of memes took off with the expansion of the Internet.  There have even been empirical scientific studies done that aimed to show why certain memes are successful online and others become digital debris.

South Park mocked this scenario by replacing old memes with new ones in increasingly absurd scenarios.  First it was “Faith Hilling”, then it became “Taylor Swifting”, then it was “Breading” and “Reporting”, which expanded into a new take on “Oh Long Johnsoning”, and then when those became trite and passé, they started combining the most recent trends together into an all new mega-meme, but what is it about memes that gives them such a short shelf life?

via LOLVirgin

The Internet and Social Media have created such an instantaneous culture that has only added to our collective short attention spans.  Everyone is always trying to get more and more done in a shorter amount of time, including frivolous things like entertainment and keeping up with trends.  Memes are almost a shorthand for cultural concepts that can encompass a wide range of ideas in a very small and precise way, and when that’s coupled with the infinite diversions and short shelf life of Internet content, it only makes sense that our interest, no matter how large at first, will eventually be waning.  The more memes compete with each other for our attention, the less time we have to focus on them, and the easier it is to become bored with their concept.

via icanhascheezburger

So why are certain memes more successful while others fall by the wayside?  Why does the classic meme prank of Rickrolling have more viral sustenance then say something like breading, which seemed like it arrived almost as quickly as it disappeared?  Partially it’s due to the older memes that arrived when Social Media was in its infancy had less competition, so if someone made one that was successful, it definitely stuck around for longer and became more ingrained into Internet culture.  It seems like there’s so much competition now that memes have to really cut across all demographics and tastes to really maintain any sort of Internet presence.

There’s also the intangible entertainment value of memes which is sometimes just a random factor.  The right timing, the right combination of graphics and slogan make a certain meme a success the same way a television show in the right time slot gets renewed but a higher quality one with more competition and lower ratings will get cancelled.  Overall memes have become such a fascinating and integral part of the Internet and they’re definitely one of the best ways to get an accurate grasp of our culture at any given time, from caveman paintings to the virtual web of the future.

Here’s a list of some of the most notable Internet memes of the last 15 years (in no particular order)

1. Keyboard Cat

2. Numa Numa Dance

3. LOLcats

4. Chuck Norris Facts

5. Randall the Honey Badger

6. Oh Long Johnson

7. Chocolate Rain

8. Double Rainbow

9. Based God

10. People of Walmart

11. Dramatic Chipmunk

12. Rickrolling

13. Diet Coke and Mentos

14. Planking / Owling / Breading

15. Star Wars Kid

16. Epic Fail!

17. Scumbag Steve

18. Nyan Cat

19. Tebowing / Bradying

20. Dancing Baby

References:

Net For Beginners

http://netforbeginners.about.com/od/weirdwebculture/tp/The-Best-Internet-Memes.htm

Know Your Meme

http://knowyourmeme.com/

http://knowyourmeme.com/blog/meme-review/best-memes-of-2011

South Park

http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s16e03-faith-hilling

Nature

http://www.nature.com/srep/2012/120329/srep00335/full/srep00335.html

Mashable

http://mashable.com/2009/05/25/youtube-video-memes/

Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith_Hilling

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Selfish_Gene

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme

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