Collective Meme-ory

By Daniel Stratford

It’s happened to all of us: we might be casually perusing a website, watching a video or, truth be told, participating in any harmless, jejune activity, when that dreaded sound and its accompanying images are hard and seen. It is the 1987 hit by British recording artist Richard “Rick” Astley, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” You pause; you are taken aback by the lead singer’s striking good looks – as well as his candescent auburn hair – his impeccable choreography, and his motley backup cast. Despite all of these seemingly pleasing musical niceties, you come to a startling realization whose dire nature cannot be proscribed by any immediately available remedy: You have just been “Rick-Rolled.”

While savoring the delicious gloom of Astley’s musical subjugation of your brain, you realize that you are confronted yet again with another threat to your mental and emotional stability: It is text that is flashed across the screen, not so much interrupting the film as attempting to invade and occupy it with monolithic white text. Normal people would readily question and rightly object to this intrusion on their musical indulgence, if not for the cryptic message imparted unto you by the belligerent text: “YOU HAVE JUST LOST THE GAME.”

Above all odds, it has happened twice in one day – in one sitting! You have born witness to one of the Internet’s – indeed, one of humanity’s – most psychologically intriguing and unequivocally hilarious innovations: The Meme.

People who are devoid of curiosity or a sense of intellectual intrepidity will oftentimes brush aside the existence and effects of these “memes” – derived from the word “memetics” – as childish, sophomoric attempts at humor, when in fact they are one of the most enduring comedic devices in the history of human civilization.

According to Merriam-Webster – this humble columnist’s preferred guidebook to the lush rainforest of intricacy that is the English language — memes are defined as “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” In short, they are the equivalent of inside jokes that may or may not have even been funny in their initial incarnations that have been given a new lease on life by virtue of their rapid promulgation, by “going viral.”

Memes can spread naturally by virtue of their wit or intrinsic humor, but can also be forcibly spread – a “forced meme.” There is oftentimes an evolutionary characteristic to their development, for they are frequently the results of amalgamations of multiple smaller components, or even play fast and loose with the structure of a previously-popular meme. Rick-Rolling is an outstanding example of the latter variety.

The meme itself was not miraculously born out of Rick Astley’s music video, as visually appealing and cinematically laudable as it may be. Rather, it was birthed from the womb of its immediate predecessor, the even more curious “Duck-Roll.”

According to KnowYourMeme.com, the equivalent of Merriam-Webster of Internet memes, Rick-Rolling originated as “…a spin-off of an earlier practical joke known as [Duck-Roll], in which an external link with a sensational title would be redirected to an edited image of a duck with wooden wheels.” If anything, the Duck-Roll is proof positive that on the Internet, novelty and eccentricity are entirely in the eye of the beholder, the comedic approval of the masses serving as their only arbiter.

However, one would be quite foolish and unlearned if they believe that the history of memes lay entirely within the provincial confines of that most verdant, new realm of the Internet. Indeed, human history is replete with examples of memes, from the famous to the ignominious. The phrase and iconography surrounding the “Kilroy Was Here” phenomenon, for example, was of British origin but very much became ubiquitous by virtue of its etching on numerous buildings by Allied soldiers advancing across Europe during the Second World War. After the war, a multitude of servicemen brought the beloved meme home, and Kilroy became just as much a part of the post-war culture as Swanson television dinners or the Second Red Scare. The advent of the Internet has brought Meme-dom into the daily lexicon of many individuals.

When this humble columnist peruses Facebook every other minute or so, it is not uncommon for him to find timeless words of wisdom dispensed by “Philoso-Raptor,” or to chuckle over a nice glass of the finest Italian wine to the musings of “Scoundrel Stefano.” Though many find memes to be annoying and infantile in nature – which they can quickly become if not directed by the just, witty and comically inclined – they are without a doubt one of the most effective methods of spreading a newly-conceived joke, witticism or even words of wisdom.

So go ahead, engage in Rick-Rollery, Duck-Rollery or any of the venerable memes produced by the capacious comic womb of the Internet, and do it with pride, for you are keeping alight the eternal flame of one of civilization’s finest social traditions. However, be careful not to lose The Game.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]